Art of the City: For Andrés Hernández, everything comes in images

Artist Andrés Hernández at Hill Street Country Club gallery on Friday, March 18.
Artist Andrés Hernández at Hill Street Country Club gallery on Friday, March 18.
(Bill Wechter/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The work of Andrés Hernández deals, perhaps above all else, in the act of longing.

The desire for a lover’s touch that has long been absent. The conceptual feeling of wanting to be understood and accepted. The seemingly inescapable boundaries of borders, both physical and metaphorical.

Think of the music of those notes that singers like Sade or Juan Gabriel can hit. Remember the words of Sylvia Plath and Pablo Neruda. Recall the strokes within paintings such as Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World” and John Singer Sargent’s “Secret Muse.”

That kind of longing.

“I like to think if each project as its own encapsulation of whatever I’m going through at the time,” says Hernández from Hill Street Country Club, where the nonbinary/genderqueer artist recently wrapped up a solo exhibition of analogue photography and collage entitled, appropriately enough, “Crying on the Blue Trolley Line.”

Artist Andres Hernandez with some of her work at Hill Street Country Club gallery in Oceanside on Friday, March 18.
(Bill Wechter/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The title of the exhibition is meant to convey these feelings, as it refers to the trolley line that connects San Diego to the border of Tijuana. Walk into Hill Street Country Club (HSCC) at a certain time of day, and in a certain mood, and the viewer will find themselves feeling enveloped by the pictures. The pictures themselves are a mix of photography of structures, walls and overpasses along the San Diego/Tijuana border that Hernández snapped and then re-rendered into moody, atmospheric and sometimes stark statements on love and existence.

To hear Hernández tell it, she didn’t plan on using the photos for this type of exhibition at all. She had originally planned on using them simply as test shots for her fist solo painting exhibition at HSCC. With disposable cameras in hand, Hernández says she began taking hundreds of test shots around places such as Tijuana River Estuary and the bridges and tunnels around the border; places she found to be representative of the binational experience and one where a cross-border relationship can be difficult to navigate.

“When I was first asked to do a show, I wanted to do something completely different,” Hernández recalls. “I thought I would do a series of landscape paintings. Blurry paintings of landscapes depicting the border region and the journey you take looking at these concrete structures along the border.”

“I didn’t really know that I wanted to do photography until one morning, talking to my partner, Neville, and I said that I didn’t think I wanted to do painting anymore,” Hernández continues. “I think I want to do photographs and combine the photos of the bridges that I have with the border wall in a way that is not noticeable. I just woke up with that idea and it felt so natural and organic.”

Artist Andres Hernandez with some of her work at Hill Street Country Club gallery in Oceanside.
Artist Andres Hernandez with some of her work at Hill Street Country Club gallery in Oceanside on Friday, March 18. The framed photograph at right is called “Untitled.”
(Bill Wechter/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

This type of “organic” feeling can also be found in “we used to move through the city like doves in the wind,” a gorgeously vulnerable graphic novel that recounts Hernández’s experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. Separated from Neville, who lives in San Diego, when the border was shut down, Hernández gently recounts the feelings of isolation and displacement she felt during this time. With its gorgeous acrylic-and-pencil illustrations and text — some of which is taken directly from text messages, voice notes and Hernández’s own journal — “we used to move…” is a voyeuristically poetic account of the pandemic experience and one made all the more uniquely profound by the fact that Hernández was separated from her partner by an uncrossable border.

“It sometimes takes me off guard, the fact that I have to share stuff with people and sometimes explain my work” Hernández says. “But talking about it, that’s when it really hits me. When I’m making it, it’s just for myself.”

A text-inspired analogue illustration by artist Andrés Hernández titled "I wish I could've held your hand through this."
(Andrés Hernández)

“We used to move …” also recounts these experiences from both the perspective of Hernández as well as her partner’s experiences being a person of color in San Diego.

“I always want to include as many perspectives as possible, but I don’t want to make a narrative about things that don’t necessarily affect me,” Hernández says.

“At first I didn’t intend on writing it that way,” Hernández continues. “But after finishing the first draft, I knew it wasn’t going to be complete until I had his experiences as well. I began to like the concept of having two parts to the story and having the border be representative of the halfway split point between those two stories.”

Born and raised in Tijuana, Hernández struggled growing up. She often likes to tell an anecdote about finding her artistic spirit after a doctor told her that she wasn’t allowed to drink milk anymore and drawing a cup of hot chocolate with a sad face.

“I think I tell that story because it’s funny to me that I still remember that,” Hernández says. “But I basically just drew everything. I drew when my dog died, like as angels and stuff. The milk thing was just one of those first instances that I remember.”

Hernández often found herself feeling like an outsider a lot growing up in Playas de Tijuana. Living as a nonbinary person can be tough wherever someone is raised, but Mexican culture, which can be steeped in conservative Catholicism and rigid gender roles, can be particularly tough. Hernández says she found comfort in literature and fairy tales, which helped her tap into a world that wasn’t as structurally binary.

“I would do things like change endings just for fun,” Hernández says. “It’s part of escapism, just escaping my limited surroundings and trying to find a world where I could just feel like myself; a place where the things that were going on in my head weren’t that impossible anymore.”

A photo montage titled "La Frontera" by artist Andrés Hernández.
(Andrés Hernández)

Still, Hernández adds that she stopped doing art throughout much of high school and didn’t take it seriously because her family was pressuring her to pick a career path that was more “realistic.” She says she understands where her family was coming from and ended up studying communications when it was time to go to college. Even there, however, Hernández says her mind was still filled with ideas of things she wanted to make.

“I felt really afraid to even ask my parents to buy me art supplies, because my parents were like, ‘do not go into that,’” Hernández recalls, adding that it wasn’t until she got a job teaching English at a language school and making her own money that she felt comfortable doing art again. “To me, there was this great fear of creating anything.”

One of the moments that broke this fear was when, in 2016, Hernández, who was 19 at the time, was accepted to a volunteer program to work and live in Hamburg, Germany. She says the job was draining and she often felt lonely, but it was there where she really felt free to explore local museums — and her sexuality. She came back to North America with a newfound sense of purpose and began to take her art more seriously. A lot of her early work, which included everything from acrylic paintings to poetry readings, dealt in themes such as polyamory, toxicity and her work at maquiladora factories in Mexico.

“I’ve always written, but for me, everything comes with images, but it wasn’t until I began feeling these emotions that I couldn’t contain and just looked like comics in my head,” Hernández says. “I didn’t grow up a fan of comics and even now, I don’t know if I like to call them comics. I call them vignettes or illustrations, documenting my relationships and how those relationships are affected by the border.”

A poem by Andrés Hernández titled "By the Side of the Road a Plastic Bag Swirls."
(Andrés Hernández)

Hernández plans on exporting this further with her next project, a series of self-portraits exploring her own gender journey and identity. She plans on using the same photo-and-collage processes she used for the images at HSCC.

“I want to explore the women in my family, and how women have been perceived throughout Mexican history and in the culture,” said Hernández, who plans on working on this concept at an artist residency at the Bread & Salt art space in Logan Heights in August. “How that has become a caricature of sorts in the U.S.”

Whatever medium Hernández settles on, she agrees that her work will continue to explore that longing that every artist feels. She agrees that a common current throughout her work is a striving for contentment. And while she is still a young artist, the themes that she explores in her work are universal. Whether it’s a longing for a lover or a longing for inner peace, Hernández taps into an unspoken dialogue within, forcing viewers to confront issues both unrequited and unresolved. The difference here is that she has found the courage to explore it.

“I feel like I do all of these things because I feel like I’m not good at one thing, so I’m compensating by doing a lot of things,” Hernández says. “I feel like every project I work on depends on the imaging, the way it materializes in my head. It’s not up to me anymore. My brain is telling me to do it.”

Andrés Hernández

Age: 25

Born: Tijuana, Mexico

Fun Fact: In addition to her artistic work, Hernández has also volunteered at San Diego Pride, the San Diego LGBT Community Center and the AjA Project.

Combs is a freelance writer.