One Fine Show: Works by Sandra Vásquez de la Horra at Denver Art Museum

The show’s title, "The Awake Volcanoes," comes from a drawing of that name where the volcanoes are not necessarily erupting, merely awakened to the possibility.

A drawing of a child wearing a skull mask on the back of their head riding on the back of an adult who is on all fours
Sandra Vásquez de la Horra, El Ideal de un Calavera (The Ideal of a Skull), 2012; Graphite, watercolor, and wax on paper; 39 x 27 in. Photo: Cordia Schlegelmilch Photo: Eric Tschernow © and courtesy of the artist

The media had many embarrassing immediate responses to the first Donald Trump presidency, and high on that list was the idea that living under the right-wing dictatorship they predicted for his reign might, in a roundabout way, be “good for art.” Anyone who knows anything about right-wing dictatorships knows that they excel at crushing artists. It’s like the people writing these articles thought that some people went to the Degenerate Art exhibition and came out saying, “You know what? I kind of liked it.”

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Chilean Sandra Vásquez de la Horra (b. 1967) is an artist who probably benefited from these kinds of narratives, having exploded at the 2022 Venice Biennale with a biography that focused on her upbringing under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet and perhaps threatened to overshadow her work. Now the Denver Art Museum has just opened her first institutional show in the United States, “The Awake Volcanoes,” offering Americans a chance to get to know the Berlin-based artist on her own terms, with 193 artworks from a career that spans four decades and includes surrealistic drawings, paper sculptures and photographs.

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Her work concerns the blending of bodies and landscapes, and she infuses her subjects with secret and sacred power. “There’s a UFO behind that cloud,” she is fond of telling people who look at her work. The show’s title comes from a drawing of that name from 1992 where the volcanoes are not necessarily erupting, merely awakened to the possibility that they may, which is cause for celebration. Her drawings seem to wander. A much later and larger riff on the same theme is Erupciones (2019), where the eruption is itself personified, having emerged from a person who is also the landscape.

A painting of a mysterious figure covered in white circles of varying sizes
Sandra Vásquez de la Horra, Erupciones (Eruptions), 2019; Graphite pencil, watercolor, gouache (opaque watercolor), and wax on paper; 27¾ × 19⅝ in. Photo: Eric Tschernow © and courtesy of the artist

Her works often smell of beeswax. She has studied pregnancy extensively, for the way it transforms the body and brings a person closer to nature. Her topographical cut-outs of naked pregnant women were featured in Venice and turn her subjects into not just mountains but entire ranges. Her women do great magic, like those found in the work of other surrealists including Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington, but they’re not witches or sorceresses. These are everyday women who just happen to reach up and touch the sun, as in Saludos a Olorum (2021).

The people have an opportunity to encounter an artist who seems to keep collecting ever more attention and accolades. She won the prestigious Käthe Kollwitz Prize in 2023, named for an artist headlining a great new show at the Museum of Modern Art who would have had much to say about the concept that right-wing dictatorships are good for art.

Sandra Vásquez de la HorraThe Awake Volcanoes” is on view at the Denver Art Museum through July 21.

One Fine Show: Works by Sandra Vásquez de la Horra at Denver Art Museum