Visual Arts

Seeing Red

In 1994, during a routine excavation at the site of Temple XIII in Palenque, Mexico, workers unearthed a pre-Columbian burial chamber containing the remains of a woman, cloaked in a heavy layer of powdered red pigment. They called her "The Red Queen."

Mexican-born artist Ricardo Mazal took more than 300 photographs of the tomb and the surrounding jungles. Using digital imaging software, he transformed the pictures into abstract representations that were used as blueprints for creating oil paintings. The result is "Ricardo Mazal: La Tumba de la Reina Roja, From Reality to Abstraction," an installation exhibition of digital prints, monotypes and large-scale paintings at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art.

The centerpiece of the exhibition is Mazal's Roja Malachita series, a trio of eight-foot-tall canvases splashed with vibrant, marbled red hues. A custom squeegee was used to move the paint around the canvas in vertical and horizontal motions, creating a basket-weave effect. The bold red squares and subtle contrasting blue undertones are eye-catching, but hold none of the mystery and promise of Mazal's original photos of The Red Queen.

Ah K'u Na, a larger painting dominated by black color blocks crossing strokes of gray and rust, is strikingly similar to Abril and Agosto, two works the artist completed back in 2003. Rather than exploring new styles to exemplify the energy of his jungle adventure, Mazal chose to manipulate the color and line of the tomb until it mimicked his existing work.

Like those who pilfered the wealth of ancient Egyptian burial sites, Mazal seems to have stripped the beauty of The Red Queen's temple down to its basest elements -- squares and lines. In my eyes, that doesn't make him a visionary. It makes him a tomb raider.