The Artsy Vanguard 2021: María Fragoso
In red-hued paintings and drawings, the Mexico City-based artist María Fragoso creates lush environments rich in mystery, passion, and pleasure. She weaves together seemingly disparate elements through a set of recurring symbols: saliva represents affection and devotion; figs, shells, flowers, and pomegranates signify fertility; and gloves and onions allude to an obscured yet alluring interiority. Imbued with themes of queerness and gender fluidity, Fragoso’s works depict bodies as radiant and malleable; many of her compositions contain at least one human figure engaged in acts of seduction or consumption.
Together, her paintings form a series of narratives that are continually progressing. “New works, I think, pretty much respond to the works I’ve done before,” Fragoso said. “Themes and the elements presented in the paintings keep evolving with themselves.”
In the 2017 triptych La peor es nada, (“The Worst is Nothing”), a group of people cluster behind a dining table with a floral yellow tablecloth, which displays an assortment of green glassware and the head of a wide-eyed pig. In the left-most panel is a striking pair (perhaps lovers, maybe twins) dressed in matching striped shirts. Their arms entwine as they each raise green cups; one of their tongues sticks out, hovering above the rim. Two years later, Fragoso echoed these motifs in Teach me sweet things I (2019), an intimate portrait of four people seated around a small, round table in the same tablecloth, with two figures in striped shirts. One person extends their tongue above a sculpted green vessel—perhaps from the same set of glassware—recalling the sensual gesture of the 2017 triptych.
Fragoso has only been painting for a few years, since she moved to Baltimore from Mexico City in 2015 to pursue her BFA at the Maryland Institute College of Art. But already, she has seen rapidly growing interest in her work. Last December, Fragoso was selected to be part of Forbes’s “30 Under 30” list in the “Art and Style” category. Her first solo exhibition with 1969 Gallery, “El jardín entre tus dientes (The Garden Between Your Teeth),” debuted this past spring to critical acclaim. Shortly after, Fragoso’s work was presented alongside other Latinx artists in The Armory Show’s online exhibition “Senses of Brown,” curated by César García-Alvarez. Fragoso—whose work is quick to sell out—works at a relatively slow pace, taking at least a month or two to complete a single painting.
Fragoso is drawn to the way color expresses itself through oil paint, and the way it is shaped by light and affected by movement. “Most recently I have been thinking about direction through the texture, how the paint itself moves along the painting and brings your eye into certain objects or certain parts of the face,” she said. Her experiments with texture and direction shine through in her recent work Decadencia, un solo sabor a fruta madura (2021), a small landscape of rotting fruit, shells, and slugs set against a backdrop of hair-like grass, in which curving lines guide the viewer through a map of decay. From the slugs’ stippled skin, to the brittle edges of cracked eggshells and fuzzy patches of mold, Fragoso expands the potential of oil paint beyond its slick and shiny qualities.
Yet drawing, her first love, is still at the crux of the artist’s practice, with her sketchbook as the starting point for each new canvas. Collage, too, is crucial to her process, as a way to organize the elements of her paintings. Fragoso sketches each element onto a large piece of paper, assesses these images in relation to one another, and begins arranging them into various compositions. “I have this collage made with drawings that I move around and take off and take down,” she said.
She selects color thoughtfully, with red often dominating the canvas. The warm hues imbue each work with a fiery energy, the effect of which is at once delectable and unsettling. She is drawn to the color’s connection to the cycle of life: its relationship to birth and death, sex and love, and even cannibalistic devotion, a theme which appears periodically in her paintings.
“There is that connection between consuming food and the way that we relate to each other in the ways that we experience sex or love,” she said.“I’m really interested in this idea of giving and sacrificing, and the different rituals that play a role in an offering.”
Fragoso provokes intense emotion through her choice of color and symbols, and the ways she combines and organizes them serves to enhance the surreal quality of her work. In Seeding (2020), two figures seated next to one another hold their gloved hands up in mock surrender, a panoply of elements strewn across a pink floral tablecloth in front of them. The sensual red tones are enhanced by the symbols: a conch shell, seeded fruit, vibrant flowers, slippery snail trails, and streams of saliva spouting from the figures’ mouths.
Fragoso’s attraction to the surreal was shaped by her upbringing in Mexico City. Visiting museums as a child meant bearing witness to the work of big names from the region, most notably Surrealists like Frida Kahlo, Leonora Carrington, and María Izquierdo, as well as the Expressionist portraitist Otto Dix, photographer Graciela Iturbide, and Neo-Expressionist Julio Galán. Fragoso noted that she admires the way Galán “played with queerness and Surrealism, collage and identity.” From a young age Fragoso was attracted to the work of these artists, linking them together through shared characteristics. “They have something absurd, or exaggerated, or not completely according to reality that I was really interested in,” Fragoso said.
She has adopted this idea of building a false reality into her own work through mythical and theistic symbolism. Despite not coming from a religious background, Fragoso’s upbringing in Mexico—where a large portion of the population is Catholic—was shaped by religious culture. “I think it informs the way I see and think about almost everything else,” she said. “Because Catholicism is so important here, it informs the way that we think about gender and sexuality, the way that we think about our connections, our family.” Depictions of flesh and food, mingling with open mouths and blood-red hands, recall rituals of devotion, like that of consuming the body and blood of Christ through the Eucharist.
Hispanic spirituality, Aztec culture, and mythological figures are other areas Fragoso draws inspiration from. “One of the gods that I’m really interested in is Xipe Totec, [the Aztec god of spring and regeneration], who would wear the skin of another person on top of his own skin,” she said. Fragoso embraces the symbolic nature of a second skin when creating her figures, dressing them in body suits or feathers—as seen in works like Augurio (2021) and Antes de tragarme (2021)—to reflect the dichotomy between one’s exterior and interior self. “The idea of having a second skin, or multiple layers of yourself, goes back to the idea of performance,” Fragoso explained. Her figures are actors portraying a surreal version of themselves. Wearing gloves and feathers and skin suits, they engage the viewer in a kind of performance, forging connection through piercing, blazing gazes.
“Having the figure looking at the viewer kind of creates that game of ‘I know you're looking at me,’” Fragoso explained. “It has something very theatrical that I’m interested in, something very psychological. I like this idea of [viewers] being another character in what’s happening.” She added: “[The characters] want you to know something about them that is for you to unveil.”
The Artsy Vanguard 2021
The Artsy Vanguard is our annual feature recognizing the most promising artists working today. This fourth edition of The Artsy Vanguard is a triumphant new chapter, as we present an in-person exhibition in Miami featuring the 20 artists’ works, including many available to collect on Artsy. Curated by Erin Jenoa Gilbert, sponsored by MNTN, and generously supported by Mana Public Arts, the show is located at 555 NW 24th Street, Miami, and is open to the public from December 2nd through 5th, 12–6 p.m.
Header and thumbnail image: Portrait of María Fragoso by Jordan Weitzman. Courtesy of the artist and 1969 Gallery.