A week after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, “Sad Girls” by Jasmine Zelaya, at Art League Houston struck a timely chord with me.

Zelaya presents bold new works that respond to the fears and anxieties of the COVID-19 pandemic and other socio-political crises of the past two years. For me, these pieces have another significant layer of urgency.

Zelaya’s distinctive visual vocabulary may seem familiar as some of his early professional works were billboard-sized public art commissions. The monumental 2018 Art Blocks “Twins” project on Main Street introduced many Houstonians to its graphic five-petalled floral designs. Then came the “Tribute to Mrs. Naomi H. Polk” mural at 1825 Washington and “Detroit Red” on the facade of a temporary classroom on the Rice University campus.

Zelaya had not planned to be a muralist. She earned her bachelor’s degree in painting from the Kansas City Art Institute and worked six or seven years as an art programmer before returning home to Houston in 2013 and setting goals for her own practice. Creating small, detailed paintings on a desk in her bedroom, she applied for every opportunity she could find. She had a breakout year in 2017, when her work entered “The Big Show” at the Lawndale Art Center for the first time and appeared on the cover of the prestigious New American Paintings magazine, which sponsors regional competitions to honor the excellent work done. around the nation. The commission for the Art Blocks Houston project happened around the same time and completely changed his artistic life, Zelaya told me. “I realized that I could do something with work. People responded to it. I saw that it sparked dialogue.

Although she tinkered with more realistic drawing and painting styles, the flat perspective and stylized graphics of her public works became her calling card. The six large canvases of “Sad Girls” have this drama watching me. Like other iconic works by Zelaya, they are close-up portraits of dark-skinned women whose faces are concealed by floral “masks” – a motif that expresses the tension between emotions and outward appearances.

An installation view of Jasmine Zalaya’s “Sad Girls” show at Art League Houston, with the small ceramic “KissMaskVessel” in the foreground.

Molly Glentzer / Contributor

The characters of the superb triptych of the title seem to have cried. The nearby sharper “shadow figure” contains a more abstract void of a face that is almost a phallic form. But she, too, is isolated against the background of flowers with white petals. This juxtaposition lends power and mystery to the paintings: how could anyone be upset while standing in the middle of such a joyful garden?

The title of the show refers to the “sad girls” of the Chola culture who sometimes have tears tattooed on their cheeks. The Chola style combines black and wavy hair; winged eyeliner; and dark lipstick, suggesting the wearer is both intimidating and vulnerable. “I have very specific ideas about beauty and how we manipulate our appearances,” Zelaya told me. “I’m intrigued by this idea that women don’t have to be sweet; they can be autonomous, with control over their identity.

As a first-generation Honduran American, she has always identified with both the culture of her immigrant parents and the Anglo-driven world in which she grew up. Brown-skinned Barbies didn’t exist when she was a kid, but she found a role model for what a strong Latina could look like in her mom’s red lipstick and her older sister’s darker chola style. .

The pop-art style of her images recalls the 1970s, when her parents immigrated to the United States. His floral designs symbolize the women in his family, all of whom are named after various flowers.

Jasmine Zalaya works on one of her ceramic pieces.  His works are exhibited at Art League Houston in his solo exhibition

Jasmine Zalaya works on one of her ceramic pieces. Her works are exhibited at Art League Houston in her solo exhibition “Sad Girls”.

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“It’s nice and meaningful that I’ve finally developed my work into something that’s specific and recognizable to me,” she said. “Every time I lay down these graphic floral patterns, it’s rhythmic and methodical, very soothing,” she said. “Almost like my sister applied mascara: intentionally. It’s almost mystical to me, like protection.

Small ceramics that translate the ideas of his paintings into three dimensions “sprout” from long tables covered with Astroturf in the center of the large gallery of Art League Houston. While the paintings are decidedly in your face, the intimate scale of the ceramics makes them seem more inward looking. They are fun and endearing. Even – dare I say it? – adorable. Emerging above the fake grass, they could be read as blooming flowers or dandelions, a weed that Zelaya admires for its usefulness, unique leaves, and resilience. A few are flowerpots that hold living houseplants, reminding viewers that Zelaya’s art depicts living beings. Some ceramics lie flat like puddles, making me think, less fortunately, of bodies on the ground.

All of the show’s artwork responds directly “to everything we’ve been through, which is surreal,” Zelaya said. His female figures may be cholas, but the anxieties they convey are not race or gender specific. When I shared my initial reaction to the spirit of her work and how I couldn’t leave behind the gendered connotations of politics, she pointed out that floral designs can also be read as biological metaphors, signifying the female anatomy. The loss of reproductive rights “affects us all,” not just women, she said.

Molly Glentzer is a Houston-area writer.




When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Saturday, until July 23

Where: Art League Houston, 1953 Montrose

Details:Free; 713-523-9530, artleaguehouston.org