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A parade of dolls and masks

Lillian Mendez, whose "Lily's Funky Parade" kicks off "The Latin Connection" at the Castellani Art Museum this evening, says that this multivenue event is much more than a festival, much more than a party. "It is a major exhibition," she says, "and because it puts the emphasis on the art, it is an honor to be part of it."

It might have been otherwise: "If this were being done as part of Hispanic Heritage Month [Sept. 15-Oct. 15], I wouldn't have taken part. I'm Latino 12 months of the year, not just four weeks. I want the work to be the important thing; that I happen to be Latino and a woman is secondary." Mendez points out that Castellani Director Laurene Buckley's sweeping vision of the event puts the emphasis squarely on the art by including established international figures and younger artists, including a number from this region. "I come in midway, as one of the few female Latino artists working in the area," she says.

Mendez's art draws on personal experience and the splendid tradition of Puerto Rican Lenten carnivals that go back to the mid-1700s. She was born in Brooklyn and raised in Puerto Rico, and both places had a profound effect on her art and life.

As a little girl, she remembers hiding behind garbage cans in Brooklyn as rioters raged up and down the streets in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Confining or protective devices -- cages and bell jars, for instance -- are a feature in many of these found-object works.

To this day, bicycles petrify her because of a traumatic bicycle accident in Central Park that put her in the hospital with a concussion. This terrible event was followed by another bad fall in Puerto Rico. "Girl on a Tricycle," one of the assemblages in the show, is a disquieting summation of those experiences.

Another childhood thing that plays an important role in her art is the doll. "It started in the late '90s," she explains. "I rescued this old, old doll that had been long forgotten in an attic. I liked the doll, I liked the energy that it gave off when I repaired and embellished it. The doll opened up a whole new world for me."

At the center of her exhibition is an old door (from a psychiatric center in Rochester) with a photographic image of Mendez that gives the illusion that she is throwing dolls out into the gallery space, which then seem to perform an unruly march across the floor.

"The dolls are, in effect, letting out the menacing content of one's life," she says. "They struggle: Some want change, some don't."

The dolls' dresses are replicas of what her grandmother sewed for her daughters and granddaughters in Puerto Rico. This important matriarch and a person close to Mendez and her entire family died in 2005 at age 105.

Mendez, who grew up in Arroyo, learned first-hand about the carnival mask-making traditions by visiting Ponce, Puerto Rico, a town with "a tremendous history that goes back over 400 years" and the stylistic source of most of the Vejigante masks. Later, she studied with two masters of the art, Miguel Caraballo and Juan Alindato, famous for his many-horned masks with their raccoon-like eyes.

Mendez will offer a step-by-step demonstration of the art from 2 to 4 p.m. on Feb. 26, plus a tour of the masks and costumes on display.

-- Richard Huntington

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