Few shifts in an artist’s aesthetic are more risky and decisive than that taken by Gloria Ortiz-Hernández about six years ago. Up to that point, she was primarily making vibrant paintings on canvas or paper replete with prominent figures, intense coloration, emotional force, and a social focus, and she had been painting that way for years. Ortiz-Hernández’s approach was steeped in a Colombian tradition of figurative expressionism inspired in part by 20th-century painters such as Alejandro Obregón and Fernando Botero, among others. Then came the shift. Ortiz-Hernández put everything in reverse. She moved from painting to drawing, and from expressionism to her highly idiosyncratic geometric abstraction. In doing so, she jettisoned figures, brushes, colorful paint, canvas, and explicit socio-political references, and instead began to draw in the most basic way possible, with pencil on paper, using rudimentary geometric forms like circles and squares. Consisting of many layers, these drawings are formally intricate and visually stunning, and they invite the viewer to constantly shuttle between tiny details, the whole drawing, and a series of identical shapes that nevertheless contain subtle, yet pronounced, differences. It is also apparent that Ortiz-Hernández’s minimalist drawings have maximal psychological and associative resonance, indeed more than her prior paintings, although they willfully eschew just about every element of emotionally charged expression.
As the other four drawings in the series turn lighter by degrees, they seem to be slightly fading into the paper, but as they do their intricate surfaces become exceptionally pronounced and subtly bedazzling-what one perceives is a mix of hyper-precise order and freewheeling events that verge on the chaotic. Without any obvious effort at poetic communication on Ortiz-Hernández’s part, these drawings are intensely poetic, and by poetic I mean an ability to layer multiple associations into a single image or series of images. Sequitur suggests astronomical events occurring way out in deep space, but also magnified skin and hair right here on the body. These five circles also poignantly evoke impassioned moment in a life inevitably trailing into the slipperiness and haze of memory.
Sequence (2001-2002) is a series of five squares. Once again, the series progresses from darker to lighter forms, and once again the surfaces, built from a welter of marks, are almost hypnotically alluring. In each case, however, the top part of the squares shades into a luminous white, and it takes a while to realize that this is merely the whiteness of the paper, and not some material applied by the artist. Rigid geometric forms (which nevertheless contain all sorts of eye-catching activity) merge into vibrating white bands that seem loose, remarkably open, and psychologically expansive. How Ortiz-Hernández achieves this look is through exquisite and fastidious control, but the effect on the viewer is liberating and open-ended. Some kind of border between the known and the unknown is being traversed. One thinks of half-formed longings and supple desires, of passion and loss, of ingrained sadness and a spiritually wise acceptance. After all the marks and layers, the routine white of the actual paper also has an incandescent and revelatory power.
Ortiz-Hernández gets considerable mileage from her pared down aesthetic. Premise, Triptych (2002-2003) features three sheets of paired squares. Each square in the series is dark and inky, but those on the right merge at one side into intricate and nuanced white rectangular bands. Here, the transition from drawing to visible paper is abrupt. Suddenly, the paper isn’t where the drawings are, but instead is literally part of the drawings, and the effect is startling, suggestive of clouds or fog rolling in, or a burst of pure, ecstatic light.
Among Ortiz-Hernández’s many innovations are shifts in scale. Sequitur II(2004) is another series of five circles. Precisely because these works are considerably larger, all the marks, texture, and gradations of color are emphasized, almost as if one were looking at Ortiz-Hernández’s previous Sequitur circles through a laboratory microscope, or as digital enlargements. Once again, the effect is pronounced. One looks at these drawings-at their complex, interlacing surfaces which are strictly abstract but which contain hints of landscape, urban zones, architecture, and language-but also into them, into their many layers, and into their history. Ultimately, while Ortiz-Hernández’s near-fanatical drawings are all about surfaces, they also have a great deal of depth, both literally and psychologically.