Artist brings a sense of black humor to surreality shows

By Lonnie Burstein Hewitt

Now that it’s fall, here’s something to fall for: two fascinating shows featuring the work of Marianela de la Hoz, a Mexican artist who has been living in North County for the past decade. South of the border, her style might be called “magic realism.” Here, we’d call it “surreal.”

De la Hoz, who uses egg tempera (a labor-intensive medium popular in the Middle Ages) to create striking miniatures, illustrates subjects that might seem familiar to medieval monks. But she puts a 21st-century spin on the ancient themes.

She is currently one of seven artists featured in Mesa College Art Gallery’s eye-popping “Seven Deadly Sins” exhibition, where she has eight, postcard-size pieces on view — one for each sin, and one for the devil, the Seducer who introduced humans to sin. The pieces are wickedly amusing, and wickedly well painted in tiny hairline brushstrokes that invite close attention to the details. They’re a thoughtful response to the message they convey.

In the show’s catalog, De la Hoz confessed to expressing violence through fantasy, black humor, even sarcasm. “My work is based on reality and the paintings confront today’s troubled times,” she wrote. “I am inspired by ... the eternal combination of good and bad in everyone, the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde within ourselves.”

What her work is really based on is the strict Catholic- schooling of her girlhood.

“The nuns taught me everything was horrible, that all men were sinful, and the only good thing a woman had was her virtue, which men were always trying to take from her,” she said. “Ten years of therapy brought me back to life, and I started painting. Now I’m glad I went to that school, because it gave me my themes.”

When an artist friend told her about egg tempera, it was love at first sight. She learned the basic technique from a how-to book by Renaissance artist Cennino Cennini. She kept reading and practicing and never looked back.

Mesa Gallery Director Alessandra Moctezuma — a direct descendant of the Aztec emperor — has been following De la Hoz’s work for years. “She taught herself how to work like the Old Masters, mixing pure powder pigments with egg yolk. This isn’t something that’s taught in schools. It’s very time-consuming and expensive. But Marianela’s pieces are so refined.”

The recent heatwave presented new problems, with the temperature soaring so high that the egg yolks cooked. De la Hoz had to add a more modern ingredient — ice cubes — as she put the finishing touches on “Heaven and Earth,” the altarpiece for her solo show at San Diego Museum of Art that will go on display Oct. 13, in conjunction with a 15th- century “Madonna and Child” by Carlo Crivelli. “Heaven and Earth,”

which took the artist a year of 10-hour days and 7-day weeks to complete, is made up of 11 paintings — 10 smallish ones surrounding a four-foot-tall centerpiece she calls “the biggest miniature I’ve ever painted.”

It portrays a very modern Eve, surrounded by life choices — the seven sins again, and their equally sinful opposites: Pride and Self- Hatred; Wrath and Masochism; Greed and Superficial Charity; Envy and Idolatry; Gluttony and Anorexia; Lust and Repression; Sloth and Hyperactivity.

It is full of delightfully irreverent Marianelisms: God resting from creation in a hammock while Eve and Lilith (her dark side) feed Adam an apple; then the apple transmuted into apple pie, food for judgmental friars. And the baby on Mother Eve’s belly is the artist’s grandson, reaching out to the baby Jesus in Crivelli’s “Madonna and Child.”

There’s an apple in the Crivelli painting, too. But, De la Hoz pointed out, “when an apple appears with the Virgin, it represents hope. In fact, Mary is called ‘The New Eve.’ ”

She included a hopeful image of her own in “Heaven and Earth” — a heart and a brain, on a golden scale. “I’m always looking for balance, the Golden Mean, in my life and my paintings,” she said.

If you go

■ What: Seven Deadly Sins

■ When: Through Oct. 1

■ Where: Mesa College Art Gallery, 7250 Mesa College Drive, Room D-101, San Diego

■ Contact: (619) 388-2829

■ Website:

■ What: Marianela de la Hoz: ‘Heaven and Earth, the Determined Freedom of an Undetermined Life’

■ When: Oct. 13-Feb. 24

■ Where: San Diego Museum of Art, 1450 El Prado, San Diego at Balboa Park

■ Contact: (619) 231-7931

■ Website: