at the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum

San Francisco artist Carmen Lomas Garza has painted scenes of childhood and family life–not often treated in contemporary painting–for most of the past two decades. She came to her subject when she was a young artist and student participating in the Chicano movement of the late 60s and early 70s, seeking a way to combat racism and discrimination. Since then she’s depicted not the struggle for justice but rather positive aspects of her community’s domestic life, using as source material memories of her Texas childhood. It hasn’t been easy–in an essay she has written that while she was in school her work was “criticized by the faculty and white students as being too political, not universal, not hard-edge, not pop art, not abstract, not avant-garde, too figurative, too colorful, too folksy, too primitive, blah, blah, blah!”

Her work is figurative, colorful, and folksy–those are some of its strengths. And while it conveys specifics about both special occasions and everyday events in Mexican American life, its insights into childhood are universal. “Pedacito de mi corazon” (A Little Piece of My Heart), a traveling retrospective organized by the Laguna Gloria Art Museum in Austin, Texas, is Garza’s first solo exhibit in Chicago. It brings together her early etchings, paper cutouts, mixed-media installations, and paintings in oil on canvas and gouache on paper. Most appealing are the more than 30 paintings: characterized by lively patterns, luminous colors, and complex arrangements of figures, they affectionately convey the importance of family life in Mexican American culture.

For Garza the circle best connotes the protective bonds of family and community. In Cumpleanos de Lala y Tudi (“Lala’s and Tudi’s Birthday Party”), the girl who swings at a pinata at a backyard party stands at the center of a large circle of attentive family and friends; this motif recurs in the form of two circular birthday cakes waiting to be cut and in a circle scratched in the sandy yard by boys playing marbles. The circle appears again in the central event of Cakewalk, which depicts a neighborhood fund-raising festival, and in Empanadas (“Turnovers”), in which families gathered around a kitchen table make pastries in the shape of half circles and arrange them in wheels on round plates.

The spaces Garza constructs also create a sense of wholeness and enclosure. Interior scenes usually consist of a single stagelike room with a rear wall defining its limits, and outdoor scenes–like that of the birthday party–are bordered by fences or rows of trees and bushes. Garza renders these spaces from the elevated point of view typical of folk art, which allows us to see all parts of a room and all of its occupants, instead of the fragments and partial views that would result from a lower point of view and “correct” linear perspective.

Though they are enclosed and their limits well defined, Garza’s spaces don’t feel claustrophobic or confining. She takes care to punctuate interior walls with windows through which sunny skies, flowers, and lush vegetation can be seen. But mostly it’s her palette that creates the relaxed and even joyful atmosphere of so many of her paintings: she often contrasts large areas of light, unmodulated tones with smaller areas of darker, more intense color. The overall tonality of the kitchen in Tamalada (“Making Tamales”), for example, is quite light, with tints of green, blue, pink, and yellow employed for floors, walls, and a large tablecloth. By contrast, the family’s clothes are mostly rendered in deep, saturated reds and blues and enlivened by repetitive patterns of dots, flowers, bows, and plaids, a strategy that gives the figures weight and draws attention to their activity. Through such carefully considered contrasts Garza achieves a balance of stability and spontaneity that’s evocative of the best moments in a child’s experience of family life.

And although her vision is overwhelmingly positive, Garza doesn’t shy away from inevitable moments of instability. She deals with illness in some pieces, conflict in others. Cactus plants with sharp, threatening spines appear in many of her paintings and paper cutouts; when, in some paintings, its leaves are cut off and cleaned, the cactus is transformed from an inviolate and potentially dangerous entity into a means of sustenance. The unavoidable intertwining of destruction and nurturance is conveyed by other symbols as well: the slicing of a watermelon, its red juice like blood, is the subject of two 1986 paintings including Sandia (“Watermelon”), which depicts an extended family gathered on a porch at evening. And in Para la cena (“For Dinner”), also from 1986, three children watch with alarm as an aproned grandmother standing at the center of a backyard holds high above her head a struggling rooster. His fate is indicated by an ax embedded in a tree stump and by red drops of melted ice spilling from a paper cone held by one of the children.

Women are the central characters in most of Garza’s paintings–in her world of childhood they instruct, nurture, heal, and protect. As the two girls seated on the roof of their house in Camas para suenos (“Beds for Dreams”) gaze at a glowing full moon, their mother (seen indoors through a window) shakes out a bedspread; her role as protector is echoed by a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe placed behind her on a shelf. The scene is a quiet testament to a mother’s love. In this and other family scenes Garza successfully communicates sentiment without ever being trite or obvious.

It is true, however, that few of the women in her paintings are shown in nontraditional roles: where, for instance, is the woman who paints, who wears slacks and sweatshirts instead of aprons and flowered housedresses? But this is a minor criticism, perhaps not fair in light of her chosen emphasis on memories of childhood. After all, with few exceptions–a painting of break dancers, for example–Garza’s scenes appear to be set in the past.

Nevertheless, she steers clear of the kind of overdone idealism or nostalgia that could easily attach to her subjects. Her fresh, inventive color arrangements certainly play a part in warding off cliche, but most often it’s her sharp eye for telling gestures that convinces the viewer of the truth of her scenes. My thoughts keep returning to the grandmother seated on the porch swing in Sandia–she’s kicked off her shoes and, crossing her legs, rubs one ankle against the other. In my mind’s eye I see my own mother doing the same thing at the end of a long day. It’s a gesture that has no monumental significance, and yet–it means everything. Such moments in Garza’s paintings go a long way toward bridging cultural distances, and that’s no small achievement.