Imagine you've been handed a dried plant unearthed years ago — desiccated, shriveled and beginning to decay. Your task is to draw the flower as it might have appeared while it was alive and in full bloom. Such was the undertaking of Beatriz Mendoza two years ago when she worked as a scientific illustrator for the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.
Using tweezers to take apart entire plants, she would examine them closely under a microscope and carefully render them — from pistil to petal, seeds to roots. The drawings would then be labelled at great length for botanists to classify and categorize. "This is how Western science deals with the natural world," says Mendoza. "Everything has to be recorded and catalogued in order to be understood."
Mendoza's experience as scientific illustrator is evidenced in her latest exhibition of drawings entitled These fragments I have shored against my ruins currently on display in the new showroom at Bobo's on Lexington Avenue. Rather than recording and labeling, Mendoza artfully succeeds in capturing the fortitude and mystique of her forms with the use of graphite, etchings and charcoal. She refers to her drawings as "portraits," stating that each is of a very specific fragment and meant to be upheld as such. For Mendoza, the act of drawing is a more intimate way of exploring the world. "When I draw I see things in a different way than by just looking at it. Drawing is my way to search into smaller worlds."
"Burn Brought Birth" depicts dried cornh usks rendered in charcoal, spiraling around each other. The forms appear almost birdlike. In "Sicily," a small root is meticulously drawn on paper stained with olive oil. The artist has captured every knob and dent of the structure. Her sinewy quality of line is achieved by the grace of her hand (and with the help of a pencil sharpener she keeps close by while working).
Most of the forms Mendoza draws are identifiable to some degree, with the exception of "In the Silent attic" where the artist has used her lexicon of textures to create an imaginary specimen. Preferring to draw from life rather than pictures, Mendoza collects her subjects out of leaf piles or from the side of the road, opting for trampled on and rotting forms such as leaves, bark, flowers, bones, grass and twine. "In this culture we are drawn to the young, the fresh, the perfect — but I'm interested in the things that have been tossed aside. "
All of the work is produced on paper — a substrate Mendoza obviously understands deeply. "I like the texture, the way it stains, and its simplicity," she says. She has chosen to frame the drawings in white frames and shadow, boxes which serve to enhance the organic quality of the work. In some, delicate pins hold down tiny drawings in the same way a specimen might be pinned down and splayed open for dissection.
Years ago Mendoza worked primarily in oils, producing large colorful abstract paintings, but she found the medium to be too limitless. "It felt indulgent — just an exercise in aesthetics, color and form that felt empty to me." She decided to go back to the basics of drawing and completely abandoned oil as a medium. Gradually color is being reintroduced to her drawings in the form of teeny color charts on the corners of some of her images. It's an example of the explosive power of color when used minimally.
Mendoza moved to Asheville last March to produce work for The Beehive Collective, an artist collective that creates copyright-free graphics for educational purposes. Based out of Maine, the collective is currently working on a large-scale narrative graphic about mountaintop-removal coal mining in Appalachia.
For more info, visit www.beatrizmendoza.com, www.beehivecollective.org or www.bobogallery.com.