'Our Lady' combatants have lost sight of
what art's all about
By T.D. Mobley-Martinez
SANTA FE -- Inside the sprawling Museum of International
Folk Art in Santa Fe is a time bomb -- or so some people say.
But on a recent quiet Tuesday afternoon, no one is holding
signs, no one is shouting and pointing accusingly. Only a few people mill
around the little room. Most are examining the less-controversial pieces of
"Our Lady," Los Angeles artist Alma Lopez's computer-generated
re-invention of the Virgin of Guadalupe, waits in the back corner of the room,
next to the door but past a sign warning visitors that the work might be disturbing
to some viewers.
Once you find her, she meets your gaze, radiating the confidence
of a woman who has run the gantlet of catcalls and hoots. Her traditional
cloak, here a blue tapestry of Mayan symbols, is drawn back to reveal her
undergarments of flowers.
Below her, a topless angel holds the crescent moon on which
the Virgin stands. But there is something very corporeal about this angel
with Monarch butterfly wings, something fleshy in the pendulous breasts, the
pierced nipple and the all-too-bored look on her face.
They are new icons for a new world.
My first thought: It's all so innocuous.
My second thought: It's hard to believe that this little
artistic petit four has generated so much anger and intolerance in the Catholic
As an art critic, I've watched the growing furor, first with
interest, then dismay and finally, disgust.
It's the devil, said one protester.
It's the trashing of precious religious symbols, said the
It's pornography, said others.
It's the death of faith.
But that's all passionate hooey and we all know why.
1. This is art, an expression of one person's vision of the
world, and as such, is not subject to censorship, which includes removal.
2. If you are offended by the content, don't go to see it.
3. And if you haven't seen it, don't criticize it.
"I know people are saying that's it's pornographic and
all that," says Jay Garcia, an artist and visual arts teacher here with
students from the Santa Fe Indian School, "but I don't see it. I like
Certainly, there's a long tradition of painting, say, Adam
and Eve, or Saint Sebastian or Jesus in the virtual buff. Of course, they
were all idealized, not nearly so real as these figures in the image; these
next-door-neighbors with some emotional baggage and a niggling weight problem.
With no clean white robes and halos, no looks of religious
ecstasy or obedience, it's hard to know how -- or where -- to look.
Which may prompt questions about the role of women in religion,
especially in Catholicism. Which may prompt questions about the role of women
in culture, especially Hispanic culture. Which may simply make you think a
And that internal ricochet of thoughts and feelings triggered
by interesting art, that's what most modern art is about.
There is a more basic issue here as well. Like much of the
work in the room, Lopez is exploring shared symbols, ubiquitous and important
symbols, in fact, pivotal symbols for Catholic women and Chicanas alike.
But "Our Lady" doesn't go far enough in any direction.
And perhaps that's the problem. It exists in a netherworld between strictly
traditional imagery and a wholesale reinterpretation.
Take an inventory: There's a nearly traditional image of
the Virgin and a topless angel with butterfly wings. Sure, the Virgin has
a flowered bikini on, but that's about it.
Lopez plumbs an iconic image to make a point and that's fine.
But she doesn't take the investigation very far, creating a kind of one-liner
that should be a shaggy dog story. It's almost too easy, artistically speaking,
to pick on images loaded with centuries of baggage.
It needs more to resonate with more than just moral outrage.
It doesn't have to be more offensive. Just less pat.
But as I look at the other work by Lopez, I suspect that she's still working through these ideas. And that's another part of what art is about. Reworking the past that shaped us.
Changing the context to change the meaning.
Making the old new again.
Look back into art history and you'll notice, for instance,
that for a hundred years or so, Madonnas were painted with impossibly long
necks. It was stylish, at the time, to emphasize that attribute in women.
Perhaps that kind of recontextualization created a cultural
landslide of moral indignation. Perhaps not. What is certain, though, is that
after a generation of long-necked Madonnas, later Madonnas looked different.
Culture had changed.
"She doesn't look like the Virgin Mary," Sarah
Torr, a 21-year-old college student who drove 2 1/2 hours from Alamosa, Colo.
to see the museum and the Virgin.
She's right. That's the point. That's creativity. That's
Then, a couple of teens summed it up for me.
Daniel Archuleta, an "almost 18-" year-old member
of Garcia's visual arts class, isn't looking at "Our Lady" or the
He's looking at Lopez's "Apparitions," in which
a ghostly but more traditional Virgin is pictured in four quadrants of a square.
He points and giggles. A girl wearing all black giggles.
"It's the numbers," says Ashley Townsend, 15, pointing
to the date, "4/20," handprinted in the bottom left corner of the
image. The number, they say, has special meaning to their generation.
"It's supposed to be Hitler's birthday," she says.
She laughs. "It's also in the stoner dictionary as the
universal time to smoke pot. 4:20." (Who knows?)
Archuleta adds: "It's also a police code for marijuana
usage." (It's not. No local codes start with a four.)
"You know," he says, lowering his voice into the
Dragnet growl required of all law enforcement, "'There's a 420 in progress.'"
The group shuffles out, and I realize there's an elusive
Art works. Art doesn't work. It makes you mad, it makes you
think, it makes you laugh. You remember it forever. You forget it before you
get out of the gallery.
In the end, we all find what's meaningful to us in art, whether
it jives with the artist's intent, whether it makes sense to anyone else,
is empirically true or creates antipathy, not empathy, for the work.
That, in the end, is also what art about.