Cristina Cordova: Magic realism

Sculptor's Paseantes stretches the parameters of craft

Where Cristina Cordova's creations are going, you may not want to follow.

Their journeys look doomed by their feeble little boats and the strange animals they clutch to their bosoms like damaged but hard-to-abandon children. They sport huge, club feet and oven-mitt hands to suggest the difficult task of being human. Their expressions are often pained, or stoically heroic, like martyred saints, mothers or angels enduring yet another tribulation.

Certain constants mark Cordova's ceramic figures. Nudity gives them a feeling of emerging from the artist's psyche. The Spanish titles evoke fairies, huntresses and poets and also suggest the deeply rooted myths and archetypes that occupy the human psyche. When clothed or ornamented, Cordova's sculptures tend to adopt historical garb reminiscent of the highly embellished dress of the Elizabethan period. She allows her surfaces to crackle like old porcelain teapots, and coats the figures in shades of rust and colors that look to have worn away over time.

Those timeworn surfaces give her figures the appearance of antiquities unearthed from some matriarchal civilization devoted to female effigies. "Cazadora" seems typical; a nude female figure sits placidly in a small boat shaped like a seedpod, her poise mismatched to the chaos in the tiny boat populated by a bevy of small animals. In the even darker "Pescador de Otro Mar," a woman in another precarious vessel clutches an animal skull like some talisman of death.

Though Cordova now lives in the South, her origins are in Puerto Rico, and it is tempting to see in the weathered patina of her forms and the mythic content a marriage of two cultures, a shared gothic quality infused with religion, history and storytelling.

"Poeta" features a crouched woman, her hair divided into Björk-like buns, who shoulders the burden of two fat, stuffed protrusions, a kind of backpack signifying either burden or flotation. As in Matthew Barney's work, such figures often seem psychologically overburdened by their corporeal form. Typically attentive details include that crackled surface to perhaps indicate a similarly imperfect inner state and the inclusion of tiny, individual eyelashes to add to the exquisite doll-like effect.

In execution and tone, Cordova's elaborately detailed ceramic sculptures of these souls engaged in existential crisis may be most appealing to a segment of the population that digs the hyperbolic, self-conscious surreality of Terry Gilliam and Cirque du Soleil. At its most successful, Cordova's work exhibits a compelling strain of magical realism and feels laden with ideas of creation, crucifixion and the difficult nature of existence, often acted out by female figures. At less-compelling moments, the work can feel overly precious, like beautifully crafted art dolls with a melancholy edge.

Cordova's best work tends to shrug off delicacy and embrace extremity, like "Hada," in which a charcoal-black figure with glowing amber eyes emerges from a fat pillow of fabric like a fully formed babe from the womb. Such works show off not only Cordova's obvious technical skill, but exhibit a creepier, metaphorical element rooted in religion and folklore, birth and death.

Cordova's exhibit at the Signature Shop and Gallery is a surreal, at times bewitching, at other times overly portentous break from the litany of vessels and jewelry on view. Like other temporary displays of cheekier and challenging craft at Signature, Cordova's work stretches the parameters of craft – a genre too often monopolized by work where technique is privileged over content.

Though it is easy to marvel at the skill involved in crafting these doll-like forms, and small gestures like the black veil that covers a figure's face or the sentient expression of another, it seems appropriate to ask how much further Cordova can go, how much more she might say, and how much more she might push her psychological content into being. The artist is often at her best when she is most extreme and most metaphorical, and I longed to see more of that imagination.

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