She is a magpielike accumulator of the materials she reshapes into her art. Nine times in the past five years, Buenos Aires native Ana Maria Hernando traveled to a remote Peruvian village called Mollomarca, where she once noticed glimpses of hemline color under the skirts of dancing women. Hernando was seeing handmade, crocheted petticoats.
She began buying the beautifully crafted garments from the Peruvian women. They appear here in "La Montaña Trae Barcas de Azucenas (The Mountain Brings Us Boats Full of Lilies)," refigured as bright, upturned blossoms. They're surrounded by polymer-resin discs embedded with embroidered flowers, the work flowing across the floor of the gallery, referencing water and aquatic flora.
"It's cold, so the women wear these petticoats, they carry babies on their backs and they move like flowers up and down the mountain," Hernando says. "I see them as the pillars of their world." At Kemper at the Crossroads, as she prepares for the opening of her exhibition, Ana Maria Hernando: When the Women Sing, she wears one of the handmade petticoats as a skirt. "I focus on transparent acts. For centuries, women have raised children, done laundry, cared for the sick, all without accounting. You do the work, and it just disappears. It is never finished."
It's a collaboration that isn't. "Niña Soñando," which translates as "Young Girl Dreaming," is a site-specific installation consisting of a symmetrical arrangement of embroidered linen pieces pinned to a square portion of the gallery's south wall. In total, the piece evokes the spreading petals of a flower. The gorgeous embroidery was executed by a group of Argentinian cloister nuns, with whom Hernando has worked for years. "Again, it is about the women's work and how invisible it is," she says.
Like Jane Austen, whose novels are among scarce historical documents about the lives of women in a particular era, Hernando seeks to honor the hidden lives of women today. "Their work is to pray," she says of the nuns. "They don't come out of the monastery, and their lives go unseen. To pray, to dedicate your life in that way, you have to have faith in the value of the work."
The nuns embroidered the flowers encased in the resin discs of "La Montaña Trae Barcas de Azucenas" and one other piece. "I make the patterns, and the nuns make the pieces for me," she says. "From the first moment I begin talking to them, I'm planning the piece. Instead of giving them the patterns, I used to give only suggestions. But that put them in a very tense place, not knowing what I wanted from them. So I give them the patterns and transform the things that these women do. But it is not a collaborative back-and-forth. It's an homage to all these ways of being in the world."
Water and flowers are the most obvious recurring elements in Hernando's work. Humans derive a very real (and kind of weird) perceptual satisfaction in finding symmetries in nature — the radial anatomy of flowers, the dihedral symmetry of sand dollars or jellyfish, the hexagons of honeycombs. So the imitation of natural symmetries in art is like scratching a cognitive itch, deliberately appealing to the programming we were born with. The exhibit includes a large number of cut-paper collages evoking flora. They aren't so much framed as enclosed in glass cases on the gallery walls to preserve and display their fragile dimensionality.
The crisp collage works are assertive but softly so. They incorporate paper and die-cut prints; Hernando has arranged the die-cut pieces she removed from the prints and recycled them in separate collages. Floral patterns echo between the sister works. These combinations of vellum, ink and color reflect Hernando's love of texture and celebrate materiality. "I still paint," she says, "but I love materials and the different things they bring out in me. The paper works reference flowers, but also the embroidery work that I grew up with in Argentina. And I work on many things at once."
The show is colorful, sunny. Hernando's work is unplanned; it appears to have revealed itself to her as she made it. That spontaneity results in an utter lack of contrivance. The works often seem less executed than simply popped into existence. But the lightness of the abstractions is deceptive. The singing of the women she evokes in the show's title comes from a deeper place. Below the water's surface, water lilies are strongly rooted in the soil.