'Our Lady' combatants have lost sight of what art's all about

By T.D. Mobley-Martinez
Tribune reporter

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 "Cyber Arte."

"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 community.

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 archbishop.

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 it."

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 little.

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 art.

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 topless angel.

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. (It is.)

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 bottomline.

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.