at the Mexican Fine Arts Center

Heroic art hangs here. This show is balm for cynical souls, not just another sop to a minority. Serenity permeates it even as the work confronts evil.

You don’t look at Animas colgantes, but down into it as if peering at a dungeon. It’s an enormous graphite drawing by Bibiana Suarez in the form of an allegory. Hooked by their sawed-off skulls to a square bar, four women tread an endless circle, simultaneously fighting off robots and a big snake.

Oppression is a cultural constant we prefer to ignore. Men oppress women. Men deny it, women endure it. In the (North) American art world, as curator Juana Guzman points out, Latina artists suffer a double whammy, being both ethnic and women. Yet her survey of 22 artists is presented without a particular theme or polemic.

The art world’s neglect is noted twice, but without rancor. In a hilarious color drawing, Critics Under My Bed, Paula Pia Martinez cages 20 of us in an inferno while her silhouette sprawls above. La mano mas poderosa is an intricate little 3-D painting by Marina Gutierrez devoted to Frida Kahlo. Kahlo’s contribution to American art was long overshadowed by the fame of her husband, Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. Gutierrez uses a clever optical device to beatify her subject and its lessons for Latina artists.

Ignored by the art establishment, these artists are also freed of its restraints. Style is not an end in itself here but a means of expressing individual substance. If any mode predominates it is a synthetic one — not in the sense of man-made fibers but of diverse elements, in harmony. Composition tends to fracture pictorial conventions, juxtaposing multiple images and integrating an array of techniques, traditions, and icons.

Ten years ago — and the show’s chronology stretches back through the 70s — this was called pluralist art because it denied there was any one correct form or style for contemporary creation. Undeniably, the principal subject of “Latina Art” is women and women making art (a few pieces portray men, but they are a tiny percentage of the whole). Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to regard this as “women’s art” as if that were a coherent genre.

At first the collages of Santa Contreras Barraza look like cliches of a type of work popularized by feminist notions in past years. Her revisions of the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe are stitched and decorated in the manner of devotional domestic craft. Una vida continua is a set of richly worked books formed by stitching pages together in series. But Barraza invokes a more complex art history, for the pleated picture book was the principal documentary format of ancient (Central) American civilization.

Historical, religious, and formal traditions preoccupy many of these artists. Three of Marta Sanchez’s four paintings are done on soft, molded lead, translating the religious retable into a secular study like Portrait of El Primo With Telefonos. Ester Hernandez’s Virgin of Guadalupe is discarding her usual elaborate robe for a martial arts costume and kicking out, exchanging Catholic passivity for active defense.

Hernandez’s work is the only overtly political art in the show. Tejido de los desaparecidos is a serigraph of a traditional textile done in deceptively dull black and white. You must look closely to see the skulls, helicopters, and skeletons woven into the pattern. A few drops of blood splatter it. Hernandez extends the understanding of oppression from gender to our larger society, boldly speaking of things most people like to gloss over. Sun Mad deconstructs a raisin box label, advertising its unpalatable fact: “Unnaturally grown with insecticides, miticides, herbicides, fungicides.”

Usually these artists adopt less radical renderings of the image, role, and lot of women. Some simply deal with identity, as in the self-portraits by Martha Chavez painted in a fine folk style. Others follow timeworn metaphors, such as the gouache and oil studies of Mary Moncada that align nudes with landscape. A better version of the earth mother routine is Huyendo, Beatriz Ledesma’s ink caricature, in which the figure transmutes into either a volcanic mountain or a pre-Columbian storage jar.

The theme of women’s work and women’s lot in life also recurs, as in Gutierrez’s Babies III or the excellent acrylic-on-paper pieces by Candida Alvarez. Alvarez embeds the picture of Washing a Dish in an abstract ground of vigorous strokes and lines. The haloed red nude in her Looking at You is circled by eyes just as a woman walking in the street is.

While a firm awareness of the daily dangers besetting women unifies these artists, it is not accompanied by hatred or despair. One piece particularly struggles with how to resolve social constraints: Ella va, a large color drawing by Nereyda Garcia-Ferraz, roughly translated as “She Goes.” Its action is enigmatic and there is no human figure in it. Four schematized houses with fluttering ladders hover above a grounded airplane. Which way does “she” go?–and what’s the real vehicle for flight here?

Despite their diversity, a communal sensibility emerges from the work of these 22 individuals. Pardon my mysticism, but it’s a spirit epitomized in the ancient deity Coatlicue (whose image is used once in a work by Barraza) — not just the earth goddess but arbiter of life and death.

Some of the most triumphant work in this show plays upon the ultimate unpleasant reality, death. Mortality arises again and again as a primary theme. Juana Alicia’s La ponkalvera guera (roughly: “The Punk Skeleton Blond”) careens at you on skateboard, tresses flying and sequins shining. Dolores Guerrero Cruz creates a bride who is just dress and bones. Liliana Duran composes a massive crucifixion of uncertain iconography.

All three of Barbara Carrasco’s superb pen drawings involve the dance of death. They are executed on clay-coated paper, as if their frames weren’t evocative enough of coffins. The skull in Dia de los Muertes clamps a flawless rose in its teeth, and sports a four-foot braid live as hair ever is. A skeleton in lingerie lounges in Rest in Purgatory. Harry and I is the most chilling–a sleeping couple fondly entwined under covers, freshly turned to bone.

These are not pessimistic images. They inject a refreshing perspective on the vanities of cultural existence and on the durability of oppression, while looking forward to eternity. One watercolor most vividly expresses this transcendent fatalism: Despedida a las ilusiones, by Yreina D. Cervantes. The head of a pretty — perhaps matronly — woman almost fills the frame. Tigers, quetzals, and skeletons whirl in the background. Stenciled on her wrist is a long poem by the Texcoco king Nezahualcoyotl on the transitory nature of all things. One half of her face and a little finger decay. She smiles contentedly.