Alburquerque Journal

Sunday, April 15, 2001

La Virgen Controversy Is An Old Fight
By Leanne Potts
Of The Journal

The people demanding Alma Lopez's Virgin of Guadalupe be yanked off the walls of the Museum of International Folk Art would have you believe the Los Angeles artist has blazed a new trail in blasphemy by depicting Mary clad in a two-piece swimsuit.

This is an old fight, though — the zillionth round in the is-it-art-or-is-it sacrilegious debate. But the squabble over La Virgen also raises questions about the role of women, tax dollars paying for art that may be controversial and pop culture's ubiquity.

It's also about placing a piece of art many Catholics find offensive in a publicly funded place in the heart of a heavily Catholic Hispanic community. No wonder Monday's meeting in Santa Fe on the matter is expected to be attended by a huge crowd.

In case you have missed the melodrama thus far, Lopez's photo collage of Guadalupe in a swimsuit made of roses is part of an exhibition at the state-run folk art museum in Santa Fe. The piece has caused such a fuss that museum officials say they have been threatened with physical harm and state lawmakers want to take away some of the museum's funding.

Lopez says she was only trying to show the Guadalupe as the epitome of strong Latinas everywhere, but Santa Fe Archbishop Michael Sheehan has said La Virgen belongs to the Catholic Church and that Lopez's image is "an insulting image of a sacred icon... "

Jose Villegas, who has led two prayer vigils outside the museum to protest Lopez's Virgin, says the work violates community standards, and that the artist is hiding behind the First Amendment (that's the one guaranteeing freedom of speech) just like child-molesting Internet pornographers. But the swimsuit on Lopez's Virgin is Land's End, not Victoria's Secret. And Guadalupe became a pop culture icon nearly two decades ago.

Lopez's work isn't groundbreaking at all, just the latest in a genre you could call Pop Guad. Albuquerque artist Goldie Garcia once did a portrait of herself as Our Lady, with her face grinning impishly from beneath the traditional cowl. And two years ago Steve White, another Albuquerque artist, made a Guadalupe that showed Our Lady throwing off her robes to reveal a Wonder Woman outfit.

Take a look inside In Crowd, a Nob Hill shop that has been selling Mexican folk art and pop culture kitsch for seven years. Here's a sampling of the items there:
* A postcard showing Jesus and the disciples having a pizza delivered to the Last Supper.
* A greeting card showing La Virgen with a UFO whizzing over her bowed head.
* Postcards spoofing an Assembly of God boy preacher and Oral Roberts.
* T-shirts and lightswitch panels featuring a variety of Hindu gods.
* Lunchboxes, purses, mousepads, curtains, lightbulbs and an amazing assortment of gleefully tacky gewgaws featuring images of the Virgin. Mary shares equal billing with Madonna, James Dean and Judy Garland because in the world of pop culture kitsch, all icons are equal.

"It's a pun on churches," says store owner Kenny Chavez. "I've been selling this stuff for years and no one has ever complained."

In Crowd is hardly an anomaly. There are stores just like it in the funky district of nearly every large city in the country. In Santa Fe, just down the road from the museum that's ground zero of this war, there's a shop called Spiritwerks that sells a clock with the Seven Deadly Sins playing "Feelings" every hour and a 2-foot-high image of Mexican artist Fridha Kahlo as La Virgen. It sits on a table across from a wall of miniature Elvis shrines. "Nobody has stopped by and griped, ever," says Spiritwerks owner Melissa Poole.

Carolyn Dean, an associate professor of art history at the University of California at Santa Cruz who studies depictions of Guadalupe, says La Virgen isn't just a Catholic thing anymore. Like Elvis and Marilyn Monroe, Dean says, La Virgen has become "a figure of popular devotion," an image so powerful that we've personalized and reinvented it in ways that have nothing to do with its origins.

For many Hispanics, Guadalupe has come to represent the ideal of womanhood. What you think about Lopez's flower-clad Virgin depends on what you think about women in general and scantily clad women in particular, Dean says. "(Lopez's) ... image argues that contemporary women don't have to be ashamed of their bodies and that showing a little skin doesn't necessarily make a woman morally suspect."

But Archbishop Sheehan says Lopez's collage makes La Virgen look like "a tart."

It's the same fight teen-age girls have been having with their parents since time began.

Parent: "You're not wearing that halter/mini skirt/bikini out of this house."
Teen girl: "Oh yes I am."

Poole of Spiritwerks thinks this squabble is really about government funding the arts. "It's the state money, that's what they're mad about," she says. But the anti-Virgin-in-swimwear side has mostly been talking about upholding morality, not tax dollars paying for art that offends a certain segment of the city. And if folk art — the most unthreatening art on Earth — scares the state museum board into pulling funds, we're in for some bland exhibitions at public facilities.

Like it or not, pop culture has a peculiar power of reinvention. Scholars have tracked the process and it goes roughly like this: object or person has powerful meanings for some narrow group; object or person becomes passé and even ridiculed; object or person is resuscitated and used in a new way that is consciously defiant, ironic or contrary to its former context. Flamingos were thus transformed from funny looking birds to symbol of American bad taste. Barbie went from toy to poster girl for our society's unrealistic expectations of women. And Guadalupe went from being Jesus' mother to a politically charged symbol of Mexico and of people of Mexican ancestry.

The transformation is part commercialization, part democracy and totally unstoppable. We take symbols and reinvent them for personal meaning and profit — because we can.

Even if the museum's board of directors removes Lopez's piece from the exhibition, they won't remove Our Lady of Guadalupe from the pop pantheon.