Because women have been weaving cloth for 15,000 years, pictures made of yarn and thread -- as Monica Castillo, an artist with a loom, is hip enough to know -- are bound to carry with them a whiff of long-dead ancestors. Hers do.
She's also hip enough to know that the international art world, of which the Mexican-born artist is a member in good standing, prefers the high-tech and the shiny, the edgy and the new. "Monica Castillo: The Painter and the Body," her current exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, provides plenty of that, too.
This artist with a loom also has a camera (for glossy color photographs), and television monitors (on which to show her videos) and an up-to-date computer. But her most important tool has to be her mirror. Mostly, when she makes her art, Castillo starts by sitting down and staring at herself.
When you enter her exhibit you feel observed, surrounded. Almost everywhere you look, she is staring back. "Monica Castillo: The Painter and the Body" might better have been called "The Painter and Her Face."
The woman at the looking glass is a very ancient image and for good reason. Think of all the women who almost every day partake of that old ritual. Some may pluck an eyebrow, some may be on guard for a blemish to conceal, others may choose the most fashionable colors for their eyelids or their lips. Most are trying to look better. Not Castillo.
She takes no steps to improve her face. She prefers to deconstruct it, to subtly distort it, or pull it out like taffy, or break it into pieces, or accentuate its flaws.
Sixteen Castillo likenesses appear in her painting "Self-Portrait With Distinguishing Features" (1993). One shows her nose exuding snot. Another shows her drooling. Black hairs in a third are sprouting from her chin. She is also pictured sweating, and suffering from nosebleed, and breaking out in pimples.
Her "Self-Portrait in Shifts" (1994), which she painted piece-by-piece, is similarly ruthless. On Jan. 6 that year she depicted her right eye. Her right cheek with its open pores she completed on the 9th. The pimple on her lip was done on the 11th, her chin on the 14th. This isn't portraiture warts-and-all. It's portraiture warts especially.
For her "Spoken Self-Portraits" (1997) she asked five people (her maid, her assistant, her father, her sister and her ex-husband) to tell her what she looked like, and then -- with her computer altering her photograph -- distorted her face to match.
It's actually a nice face -- strong eyebrows, limpid eyes. When the artist in the flesh walks modestly among her pictures, you find yourself supposing that self-promotion would disgust her. If all women followed her idea of beauty, the whole cosmetics industry would collapse.
So would the industry of feminine fashion. The fashion enterprise, of course, urges women to be sexy as well as up to date. Castillo's work responds with an adamant refusal.
She makes anti-fashion art.
And yet, and yet. In many ways Castillo is as fashionable as can be.
Anyone familiar with contemporary art will recognize at once that the media she prefers -- those giant blown-up color prints, those monitors on pedestals, those manipulated images -- are entirely in vogue.
So, too, is the artist's hard-minded feminism, and her relentless deconstruction of the act of representing what her looking glass reflects.
And similarly familiar is the undertone of nationalism.
Castillo was born in Mexico in 1961. Though she lived for years in Germany, she's still a Mexican artist. Throughout this exhibition -- a collaboration with the Mexican Embassy that was organized in conjunction with the Cultural Institute of Mexico to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month -- she is recognized as such.
She says: "One of the cliches of Mexican art is the self-portrait." And "I was brought up in a very strict Catholic tradition." And "In Mexican art there is this huge monster -- Frida Kahlo."
Kahlo's harsh self-scrutiny, and her endless me-me-me-ness, echoes through this show. So, too, does the sense that making heartfelt art should be an act of penance. Also there, less blatantly, is an undeniable suggestion of Aztec flagellation. In 1994, when Castillo painted her own head without its skin, she surely was recalling the great god Zipe Totec, in whose holy name so many of her countrymen were similarly flayed.
The Women's Museum is launching a new round of exhibitions done in collaboration with Washington's embassies. This one is the first.
Monica Castillo: The Painter and the Body will remain on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW, through Jan. 22. The museum is open Monday through Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sunday noon-5 p.m. For information call 202-783-5000. General admission is $8. Admission for students and people 60 and older is $6. Persons 18 and younger will be admitted free.