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Artist Phyllis Plattner was in her mid-20s when she first arrived in Chiapas, the mountainous southernmost state in Mexico. It was 1966, decades before the Zapatista insurrection placed the impoverished, politically troubled state front and center on the world stage.

Few Americans traveled to Chiapas at the time. Those who did tended to be archaeologists seeking to study ancient Mayan writings or anthropologists studying the customs and languages of the modern Maya. Plattner’s husband, an anthropologist, had gone to do fieldwork for his doctoral dissertation, and the couple lived in San Cristobal de las Casas—a crumbling but vibrant colonial town founded in 1528 and surrounded by Mayan villages—for a year and a half.

Since then, Plattner, now a Bethesda resident and faculty member at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, has returned to Chiapas dozens of times. But her work largely remained separate from her attachment to modern Mexico: She painted pre-Columbian masks in one series, Mute Witness, and rendered the implied violence in the commonplace act of chopping vegetables in another, Murder in the Kitchen. It wasn’t until 1993 that she started to incorporate the living Maya whom she’d seen in the markets of San Cristobal into her art.

That year, Plattner began working from pictures, sketches, and memory, drawing large charcoal and pastel panels showing faces of Mayan women from the village of San Juan Chamula emerging from hazy black backgrounds. Her trips to Chiapas became her own kind of fieldwork: “I found myself memorizing three Chamula nose types, three Chamula eye types, three Chamula cheek types, six light conditions,” she says.

By chance, Plattner happened to arrive for one of her visits to San Cristobal on Jan. 1, 1994, the day the Zapatistas launched their insurrection and assumed temporary control of the town. The sense of implicit threat underlying the everyday world to which she had always been sensitive seemed finally to have been made explicit; it took six months after her return to the States, she says, to absorb all that the revolution meant and to recover from her initial sense of being “freaked out.” “Every time we come or go, I have to reconnoiter or readjust,” she says. When she visited San Cristobal again that summer, she noticed that the Chamula women who sold small, handcrafted dolls depicting Mayan women from various villages had begun to churn out a new kind of heroic toy: small figures wearing the black ski masks of the jungle fighters, complete with wooden guns.

Back in Bethesda, Plattner continued her composite portraits of impassive Chamula women and infants, focusing special attention on the complex knots of the rebozos—large woven shawls used to carry babies and fend off the mountain chill. She named this series of pastel drawings Bare Bones, for some earlier works in which she coupled women’s faces with large, O’Keeffelike floating bones. Several later panels from that group, along with two newer series—The Dolls in the Window and Legends—are on display at the Troyer Gallery to May 31, in Plattner’s first D.C. show in a decade.

Between 1999 and 2000, Plattner’s work shifted again, this time more substantially: She won a fellowship to teach at an art school in Florence, the Studio Arts Center International—and brought a collection of the Zapatista dolls with her to Italy.

“One day, I just plopped my dolls into the studio window,” Plattner says. She started to paint them against the landscape through the window: the smoke-dotted Tuscan countryside, where vintners were burning the refuse of their fields. “The meaning floods in,” she says, “of these unfamiliar creatures that are warriors standing in front of this totally peaceful bucolic landscape, and then you realize that that landscape is totally defensive and formed by war after war.”

Plattner began to incorporate aspects of Renaissance Italian painting into her work, placing the idiosyncratic little dolls—with their bandy legs and Subcomandante Marcos-green eyes—against gold-leaf backgrounds, or staging them in classic religious scenes, such as the Pieta or Madonna della Misericordia. Some dolls represent Marcos, the charismatic, non-Indian Zapatista leader, and there are several other stock Zapatista characters in the paintings, too, including Marcos’ Mayan compatriot Ramona and his henchmen David and Tacho.

But don’t ask Plattner what it means to place toys made for tourists—and dressed like guerrilla soldiers—into scenes normally occupied by saints, as if they were objects to be worshipped. “It’s not like I made these for a meaning; it’s not a political statement,” says Plattner, who adds that she approaches her work primarily from a visual angle. “The work knows things before you do, and you have to catch up to it.” —Garance Franke-Ruta