Alive with personified creatures and borrowed symbols, Astrid Terrazas’s canvases function like tarot cards, hazy assemblages of meanings that orbit an iconic core. She crowds her canvases with depictions of windows, tile work, stained glass, and even other paintings, fracturing the picture plane with overlapping visual fields. Perspective is inconstant; some monochrome backgrounds verge on the non-space of a diagram or book, while others capture the landscape in cross-section or recede through interconnected portals.
This visual fluidity carries into her paintings’ narratives. Though the works contain biographical and historical allusions, they are open to interpretation and point to diverse mythologies, drawing iconography from Aztec codices, zodiac signs, and Mexican folkloric traditions. Terrazas often uses animals to connote particular emotions, and botanical drawings to evoke growths both cancerous and benign. The bull, for example, is a recurring symbol for rage and anxiety. But Terrazas’s characterization remains sympathetic, framing the bull’s aggression as part of a cycle of antagonism and injury.
In auxin levels/tejiendo ojos (2020), Terrazas uses self-portraiture to reflect on her experience taking anxiety medication, depicting herself as both a seated girl and a fuming bull. Here, the muscular creature’s aggression is portrayed as an outward expression of inner turmoil. The artist extends this compassion to people as well, who sometimes appear with both a devil’s horns and an angel’s wings.
Slipping into these fantastical worlds, a viewer might miss the social and political concerns that pervade Terrazas’s visions. The artist obliquely references her work with the Ridgewood Tenants’ Union in la casa del Diablo, SE RENTA (2021), which appeared in the group exhibition “Recovery” at P·P·O·W Gallery in New York this past fall. In the painting, a twisted pomegranate tree seems to siphon blood from a landscape of houses and fields through a single red vein. Lower in the composition, a devil marches along a spiral path toward a seed that threatens to turn into another parasitic growth. In the distance, ropy rivulets of blood flow to or from a graying stump, either feeding it or connecting it to something beyond the frame.
Cantando himnos en el jardín atrás de Walgreens (Singing Hymns in the Garden behind Walgreens, 2020)—the centerpiece of last summer’s six-person show “La Luz Proviene de Ahí” at Campeche in Mexico City—turns to self-affirmation and care as modes of resisting hate. In the right half of the canvas, sweating, grapelike faces dangle lugubriously on twined branches that sprout from a plot of soil labeled ire. To the left, a woman stands at the center of twelve cell-like shapes, each carrying its own icon: braided strands of hair, a flagellate, an IUD, or acupuncture needles. Impervious to the jealous green faces, the woman focuses on her own body’s needs and cycles.
Born in Juárez, where she lived until the age of seven, Terrazas also uses her paintings to record her family’s history—not only memories, traditions, and shared dreams, but also familial divides caused by hostile border policies between the United States and Mexico. Retrato familiar (2020) looks out from behind an iron window grille at a church in Guanajuato, suggesting the inaccessibility of her childhood sites. A fruitful being, tú rana (2020) captures the psychological tenor of Terrazas’s separation from her mother. The latter is depicted as a colossal cow, udders drooping from her belly, who unwittingly bears a child-size human figure (Terrazas herself) on her back. On the right-hand side of the canvas is a luminescent window whose blue tinge echoes the colors of the nearby Mexican Lotería tarot card for La Rana (“the frog”), alluding to the artist’s childhood nickname. The cow turns her gaze toward that azure portal, the world she imagines Terrazas occupies, without recognizing how close her child’s spirit remains.
Terrazas’s latest project—to be featured in her upcoming solo exhibition at P·P·O·W Gallery in September—casts geographic divisions in linguistic terms. The paintings operate like monumental games of telephone where proverbs, which are often culturally specific and nearly impossible to translate, acquire new meaning. The hens have come home to roost (2022) presents a pallid female figure being attacked by blue chickens in a more literal interpretation of the titular expression. But behind the violent scene hover anatomical diagrams of the muscular and vascular systems, skeleton, and brain, joined to other parts of the composition with painted braids of hair. The image transcends the recrimination latent in the original saying and suggests a phoenixlike link between life and death, as though the birds and woman mutually power, or are powered by, the fragmented body’s vital ebbs and flows.
Terrazas associates her new series with the incantations and spiritual remedies practiced by her curandero forebears. If she does not actually ascribe medicinal properties to the magic of acrylic on canvas, she sees painting as something that can model and manifest new social realities.
This article appears in the May 2022 issue, pp. 46–47.