T he Firehouse Art Center, 444 S. Flood Ave., opens an exhibit of paintings by Mexican-American artist Clotilde Espinosa with a free reception from 7-9 p.m. tonight.

This is one of those occasions when I wish the pictures with my review could be seen in color. Words can describe only so much and no further. I think Espinosa's paintings are a must-see occasion.

Espinosa has a fascinating history. It infuses a great deal of the content of her paintings. She was born in Colima, Mexico, to the family of a successful lawyer. She had planned to follow her father into law, and actually began her legal studies in Mexico before she married and moved to the United States. After living in southern California, they moved to their current home in Denton, Texas, where they have raised two children. Though gifted in drawing as a child, it wasn't until she was a parent that she learned to paint in earnest.

What drove Espinosa to paint was the surprising unhappiness she experienced in her new country and homesickness for her life in Mexico. The complexity of her emotions with regard to her life in America and the idealized memories of Mexico provide the subjects and the sensibility behind the works in this exhibit.

The paintings in the show are divided clearly between Espinosa's memory paintings of life in Mexico and the more metaphorical, magical works that reflect her American life. You will have no trouble distinguishing between these styles. Her memory paintings of Mexico are filled with a brightness of colors ? yellows, reds, blues, purples ? that mirror a southern sun. The small landscape "Green Hill" and the rural depiction found in her "Hoeing the Soil" capture this sense of light and the beauty of the Mexican countryside.

Two other Mexican subjects are works that portray the happy and peaceful village life she recalls so vividly in memory. Both reflect village market scenes, with "Baskets" portraying a group of colorfully dressed women under an awning weaving the baskets offered for sale to passersby. The other painting, "Pitaya Vendor," similarly shows a group of men in the bright outdoor market, sitting around large containers of bright red fruit. These paintings, like the landscapes, radiate a sense of repose and contentment. Espinosa confesses her exasperated husband has complained to her she is not painting the "real Mexico," just her unrealistic and idealized memory of it. But Espinosa, while admitting there may be an element of "utopia" in her paintings, does remember her life in Mexico as being happy. It was a life with bright colors, music and people who seemed cheerful in their work and in their daily existence.

Espinosa's American paintings, in contrast, while visually as beautiful as her memory oils, feature a subject matter that far from realistic: The works exist in a world of metaphor. While some of the meanings behind these lush paintings are specific to the artist, almost all allow an individual interpretation by her audience.

This group of paintings is figurative (i.e., recognizable subjects, such as women and men) and highly symbolic. Espinosa has created her translation of a visual "magic realism." Many of the women in these paintings are shown with a bright burst of light illuminating a part of their figures. Espinosa's "In My Hands," shows a female figure holding a light burst in her hands and turning away from the man behind her. For the artist, this woman shows her belief that life and creativity come from her powerful hands, and the subject's absolute faith in the life that will come from these hands.

Another work showing a woman husbanding a mystical light, is "Embellishing Memories." In this piece, a seated woman dressed in bright red, and next to hanging red tapestries, seems to hold her light in her lap while knitting, there is even a skein of red wool that has fallen to the floor. This is a richly metaphorical painting, which imagines the woman as the center of new life. Is she pregnant? Does that explain the glow radiating from her lap? Or again, could this simply be a symbol of the woman's creativity? Or, perhaps, it simply symbolizes a soul.

A feature common to almost all of her American paintings is the somewhat sinister presence of a shadowy male figure, always present as an observer or even perhaps as a threat. The inclusion of these shadow men adds tension to the works. When asked about the significance of the foreboding figures lurking in the margins, Espinosa laughs and says they represented a "certain" overbearing quality of men in her life and world. These men can sometimes be a symbol of overprotectiveness. But it is a presence still urgent for her, and still a source of love and life-giving force to the artist.

This must-see exhibit will continue through Sept. 10. For more information about the show and the artist, call the Firehouse at 329-4523 or visit www.normanfirehouse.com.

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