Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Elizabeth Sanchez Turns to Aztec Cosmology to Confront Personal Catastrophe

Así se Acaba el Mundo/This is How the World Ends at the doTERRA Gallery in Orem Library Hall. Image credit: Candace Brown

Elizabeth Sanchez’s exhibition Así se Acaba el Mundo/This is How the World Ends invites individual reflection toward the constant endings and beginnings of life.

Born in Chihuahua, Mexico, Sanchez moved to Utah in 2003 to study painting at Brigham Young University. She received her BFA in Studio Arts from the university, focusing on portraiture and figurative works, and has since been part of over a dozen exhibitions in Utah and California. Recently, the Utah Division of Art Museum added one of her works to the state’s collection.

Sanchez’s exhibition, at the doTERRA Gallery in the Orem Library Hall, was inspired by a period of uncertainty in the artist’s life. In her artist statement, Sanchez explains that the exhibition is the product of a turbulent period, a time in which, “chaotic, catastrophic events kept moving me into what I imagined to be my own funeral procession.” Seeking balance, Sanchez turned to her Mexican heritage, finding a comforting touchpoint in the Aztec concept of ollin.

Elizabeth Sanchez, “Empty Clothes Drifting Through the Air/’In a Dark Time, The Eye Begins to See’ —Theodore Roethke,” oil on canvas, 35×35 in.

Pronounced “all in,” ollin is a rich concept in Aztec/Mexica cosmology. It represents cosmic movement in the four cardinal directions and is believed to be a guide for everyday decision-making. It represents the Aztec belief that four suns and their worlds were created and destroyed prior to the creation of our current earth, the “fifth sun,” a product of a constant cycle of endings and beginnings.

The five-part nature of ollin may have informed Sanchez’s decision to include only five works in this exhibition, each exploring a different inner “world” that is part of the journey to the artist’s current place.

The primary subject of each work is a dark-haired woman – possibly self-portraits – standing before distinct natural backgrounds of green fields and blue waves representing the worlds the woman comes to inhabit. Each woman holds in her hands a different symbolic object signifying some element of her journey in that world. Some of these symbols and their conversations are more accessible than others: In the first painting (with the double title “Empty Clothes Drifting Through the Air/’In a Dark Time, The Eye Begins to See’ —Theodore Roethke”), a bird perched on the woman’s finger naturally invites the viewer to consider a desire for freedom, to fly away and leave problems behind. In the third (also double-titled “Prologue by Night, Epilogue by Morning/Two to Look, One to See”), the woman holds a pair of eggs, each with a bright blue eye in the center, possibly referencing life (eggs are historically symbolic of fertility) and God (the disembodied blue eyes being the ever-watchful “eye of God”). However, we can only conjecture about the meanings of these symbols and the relationship between them as there are no labels to accompany the works.

Elizabeth Sanchez, “Prologue by Night, Epilogue by Morning/Two to Look, One to See,” oil on canvas, 35×35 in.

It is unclear whether the lack of labels was the result of a shortage of resources or an intentional artistic choice, but their absence has one distinct advantage: each visitor must grapple with the uncertainty of the symbols and come to their own conclusions, just as the artist grappled with her own uncertainty and came to her own conclusions.

It appears that though Sanchez may not have escaped all uncertainty in her life, she has at least found stabilizing conviction. In the exhibition’s final work (“My Year of Fires/How My Mother Taught Me to Be a Phoenix”), unlike in the previous works, the woman looks directly at the viewer. Though she stands in what appears to be the barren landscape of a newly formed, still burning world, there is no concern on her face. She may be heading to her own “funeral procession,” but it is without fear. As she enters the uncertain new world, she carries with her a small blue bowl of life-giving water, ready to bring what she finds to life.

Elizabeth Sancehz, “My Year of Fires/How My Mother Taught Me to Be a Phoenix,” oil on canvas, 35×35 in.

The doTERRA Gallery is part of a 20,000 square-foot addition to Orem’s library and civic center complex completed in Fall 2020. As part of the exhibition, Orem librarians have provided a list of book titles related to the exhibit (Mexican-American Folklore and Mexican Art and Architecture among them), and instructions to access a free video titled Aztec Origins–Arrival and Rise of the Mexica. A coloring page (crayons not included) featuring a pixelated ollin symbol for children, has also been provided. While the gallery is attached to the popular library and is meant to be integrated into its activities, it is unfortunately only open during public programs and events and many of the library’s visitors remain unaware of Sanchez’s poignant new collection on the other side of the library’s Storytelling Wing.


Así se Acaba el Mundo/This is How the World Ends, doTERRA Gallery, Orem Library Hall, Orem, through May 25.

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