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It's remarkable but not altogether surprising that over 3,000 people attended the opening of "The World of Frida," an expansive new exhibition now at the Bedford Gallery in Walnut Creek. The Mexican artist has achieved near-mythic status as a feminist icon, among other things, and has been elevated - or is it reduced? - to a brand. Her image, distinctive uni-brow and all, is immediately recognizable even to those who know little or nothing about her art. One can only wonder what this ardent Communist would have thought about having her image plastered on tchotchkes and marketed as a commodity.
The 2002 biopic, produced by and starring Salma Hayek in the title role, helped fuel rumors of her bisexuality, and the legend of Kahlo's childhood bout with polio, which left her with a withered leg, and the gruesome traffic accident at 18 that broke her pelvis and spinal column. Illness and traumatic injuries left her body and psyche wounded, and her struggles with chronic pain and perceived deformity would figure into numerous self-portraits fused with Mexican folk art traditions.
With over 200 pieces in a range of media by nearly 140 international artists inspired by Kahlo's themes and the woman herself, this is the largest show the gallery has ever mounted. It's divided into roughly three parts: a juried exhibition comprised of artworks chosen from among 500 submissions; contributions by a large roster of invited artists; and a third section featuring "Frida Kahlo: Through the Lens of Nickolas Muray," a traveling show that includes intimate photographs of Kahlo and her circle taken by the Hungarian-born photographer in the 1930s, as well as their affectionate correspondence. The two were smitten when they met in Mexico in 1931, and though both were married, they developed a decade-long friendship that blossomed into a love affair. (Kahlo's roving husband, the lionized muralist Diego Rivera, certainly had his share of extra-marital dalliances.)
An appreciation of Kahlo and at least a passing familiarity with her work and biography are assumed, but brief statements from participating artists and some context from curators would have enhanced this fine exhibition and made it even better. By design and intent, Frida's spirit and iconography dominate the show, and while it may skate perilously close to all-Frida-all-the-time, the contents of this spacious gem of a gallery will reward the curious and the persistent. They'll discover plenty of imaginative pieces, from irreverent cartoons and tiny ceramic Frida & Diego sculptures to mini-shrines and pop, streetwise paintings like Cherine Mendoza's "Vivo Arte," where "fearless" is scrawled in red on Kahlo's forehead. High on the list is Patti Goldstein's folksy, two-sided Raggedy-Ann-style "Frida Doll." Hand-crafted with spindly red- and white-striped legs, black shoes and raw stitching, it turns this way and that inside an embroidery loop suspended from above. Peter Langenbach gives us a six-foot-tall Frida on wheels, fancifully rendering the icon on a carnival wagon platform decorated with red chili peppers. A birdcage is located where her ribcage ought to be, parrots are perched on her shoulders, and Day of the Dead motifs, omnipresent in the show, take the form of a monkey skeleton in a glittery sombrero and a likewise long-departed pet Chihuahua.
Kahlo is often presented as a jungle goddess, sometimes embellished with butterflies symbolizing a transformation that would release her from the prison of a pain-riddled body. In Juan Solis' Frida's Heart," she's backed by tropical orange foliage, her innards exposed within a gnarled transparent torso. Francisco Franco's "Deer Frida's Martrydom," an oil painting referencing a recurrent Kahlo theme, depicts her as a wounded animal with a human face. Its body pierced by arrows, the hybrid creature lies on the mossy forest floor, one leg lame and shorter than the others. Kat Reilly addresses that infirmity head-on with her wood-framed, cut-paper collage "What Held Her Up," a miniature showcase for the stylish red platform boot, attached to a primitive prosthetic, that Kahlo wore to give extra height to her damaged limb.
Several intriguing contemporary takes on the artist, visualizing how she might comport as a modern 21st-century woman, includes a stunning 2002 woodcut by Rupert Garcia, in which Kahlo resembles a moody chanteuse taking a time out from the band. Her strong features and jet-black hair are offset by auras of shocking pink and Kelly green, while a dark shadow falling across the side of her tilted face accentuates her fierce yet plaintive expression. Buff, defiant, covertly masculine and stridently casual in Yhoshua Gutierrez's "Frida de Rey," she's a rebel with a cause, brandishing a cigarette in T-shirt and jeans.
Sometimes an artist can't resist inserting himself into the picture. As if snapping a selfie with a celebrity, Don Hall painted a portrait of his rotund, balding personage in overalls and drafted Ms. Kahlo, who didn't have a say in the matter, to pose next to him.
"I hope you will forgive my trespass into Frida's space and enjoy this painting," he writes. OK, I guess. But for his subject, who looks detached - or is it nonplussed? - it might be a different story.
Through Sept. 16. www.bedfordgallery.org