August 4, 2001
Rocky Mountain News,1299,DRMN_84_793198,00.html

Voelz Chandler: Religion, art clash in Santa Fe

SANTA FE, N.M. -- Not to sound Utopian, but the Museum of International Folk Art has always struck me as a place that actually operates on the often-expressed idea that art can link where language cannot.

After all, a stroll through the wing housing a mere drop of the 100,000-piece Girard Collection turns any human simultaneously into child and giant. All merely by navigating display cases filled with intricate worlds of figures, boats, tiny cities, creches, theaters and dolls.

With the construction of new facilities on the plaza linking the folk art museum with the nearby Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, plus a smart new show of woodblock prints, 2001 should be an exciting time for this benign place.

But the year has proved more exciting than officials expected. I was shocked when an acquaintance in Santa Fe called several months ago to talk about a controversy that had landed right on the museum's front door. Actually, right in its Hispanic Heritage Wing, where "Cyber Arte: Tradition Meets Technology" has stirred protests over an artist's depiction of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

The Archbishop of New Mexico called for removal of Alma Lopez's Our Lady, claiming she had turned the virgin into "a tart." There have been community meetings and rallies, and the Internet is abuzz with comment on one work in a room full of many. All the works are made by women (Lopez, as well as New Mexico residents Teresa Archuleta-Sagal, Elena Baca and Marion C. Martinez), in a show curated by a woman. All rely on the computer, digital images, even chip boards to explore culture and religion.

But Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan, of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, wrote in a letter to The magazine, " . . . I wish that those who want to paint controversial art would find their own symbols to trash and leave the Catholic ones alone."

Los Angeles-based Lopez, meanwhile, notes in a widely circulated statement that her work is in a museum. "It is not an object of devotion in a church."

Why does this sound so familiar, this tension inherent in the First Amendment? Think Chris Ofili's dung-daubed The Holy Virgin Mary and Renee Fox's nude-woman-as-Christ-figure in Yo Mama's Last Supper. Now Brooklyn comes to the desert, or something like that.

Other Lopez works in "Cyber Arte" key in on politics, but the flap centers on her take on the saint whose apparition helped convert millions of indigenous people to Catholicism.

It's Guadalupe in a rose-covered two-piece swimsuit, not a robe that would fall open to release a bounty of flowers, held aloft by a bare-breasted, not demure, angel. (As if the little nude male cherubs, or putti, aren't a staple of art.)

Two residents last month appealed to Museum of New Mexico director Thomas H. Wilson to take the image down. Wilson said no. Another appeal, to the state's Office of Cultural

Affairs, will go to the museum system's board of regents at its September meeting. Meanwhile "Cyber Arte," which closes in October, is pulling in curious crowds and has attracted attention from the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property. The TFP's America Needs Fatima campaign rallied here in June.

The closing was moved up four months, partly as a conciliatory gesture, Folk Art museum director Joyce Ice said in an interview. Consider it an effort that has reconciled no one -- from the TFP to those who believe a museum should be free to exhibit legitimate art.

How has this happened in a city that, to outsiders, seems to revolve around art?

That word "outsider" apparently explains some of the heat, says Ice, as do other elements of presenting art in a fractured society. What a stew: The clash of cultures and religions, the influx of newcomers, an artist from another city, gender issues, the relationship between museums and the community, speech vs. faith, the church's view of women, the role of outside protesters . . . . It could fill a book.

It's clear, though, that nothing related to the computer is a local issue -- not even the tiny gallery filled with "Cyber Arte." And in the edgy world of contemporary art, there is no "there' and there is no "here."

Mary Voelz Chandler writes about art and architecture for the News. Contact her at (303) 892-2677 or (text only)