Last week I attended the opening of a wonderful art show, one every Albuquerquean should find the time to visit during the next month.
It is not a show of glitzy work by big name artists or “with it” graphic designers. This one is straight from the heart of our city; love letters to La Guadalupana, Mary, the Virgin of Guadalupe, in practically every medium imaginable.
There are 90 different images of the virgin patroness of Mexico and New Mexico in this show. Some are carved from wood, glass or metal; some are painted on canvas, paper, screens, wood, tin or glass; some are wrought from clay, straw, wire, fabric or photographic plates. All are infused with the emotion of artists motivated purely by reverence, not ambition or greed.
The show is at the Offcenter Gallery, 808 Park SW, and will be open to visitors until Feb. 23. Offcenter is a remarkable organization. It began as an offshoot of Health Care for the Homeless, primarily intended to provide an environment where homeless people could spend some time working on art projects, a place where they could produce beauty in their lives.
It has evolved and developed in its 10-year existence into a wonderful community resource. Volunteer artists and crafts people and donated materials help make the studios at Offcenter an economic development enterprise for many in our city (not just the homeless) as well as an outlet for creative energy. Sales of artwork produced at its studios have helped many people get back on their feet, monetarily as well as emotionally.
The current show devoted to Our Lady of Guadalupe reflects the work of far more artists than just those who come in occasionally to spend a few hours in quiet work at Offcenter. The organizers issued an open invitation to everyone in the community to submit work and there was no jury to screen out someone’s opinion of “inferior” pieces.
All the items submitted were hung or displayed. Many came in from Senior Citizen Centers or Community Center art classes. The skill level of the artisans varies widely. But what unites all the works in this show is something deeper than talent or experience, something that really does make visiting it an uplifting experience: They are all genuine outpourings of devotion.
There are pieces reminiscent of panuelo art painted by men in prison. There are pieces that come straight from the folk art traditions of New Mexico: tin work, straw inlay, colcha stitches, bultos and santos that might have been found in churches or moradas in mountain communities.
And there are contemporary interpretations of the Virgin and her importance in the life of La Raza: photographs, lowrider style paintings, computer-generated images, collages assembled from glossy magazine art, even a piece that uses scrabble tiles.
My own favorite is an almost life-sized statue of Our Lady carved from a single log of aromatic cedar and ornamented with aspen “rays of light.” It should be installed in a New Mexico church dedicated to Guadalupe.
Unfortunately, it isn’t possible to simply display 90 examples of New Mexicans’ love for Our Lady of Guadalupe without stirring controversy. The tiny Indian virgin’s apparition in 1520 forever joined indigenous spirituality to Old World religious concepts. That complex bonding of dichotomous elements still ignites anger … even five centuries later.
Six years ago a Santa Fe exhibit of contemporary interpretations of La Guadalupana was catapulted onto editorial pages when local church leaders and self-anointed defenders of cultural orthodoxy complained loudly and at length that some pieces in that show were offensive.
Apparently, some of the same guardians against heterodoxy have again overreacted, not at the pieces in this show (I can’t imagine even the bluest of noses taking offense at anything on display there) but at the underlying idea itself that personal interpretations of the meaning of the Virgin might be placed on public display.
This is nuts.
It also may be a result of mistaken identity. One of the speakers at a panel on Guadalupe last Saturday at Offcenter held in conjunction with the show said her employers were contacted to demand (unsuccessfully) that she be stopped from speaking. She figures they somehow thought she was connected to the Santa Fe show—which she was not.
The episode comes on the heels of the Natural History Museum’s weak-kneed cave-in to an objection from a single financial supporter to pull future gifts if the Museum went ahead with its invitation to Doctor Richard Berchtold to speak on Classical Greece in connection with the Museum Theater’s premiere of its new movie.
That awful censorship (connected not to Professor Berchtold’s vast knowledge of Greece and his passionate lecture style but to his comments in a UNM class after 9/11—an “offense” for which he has already been drastically punished) is a blot on the Museum’s record.
Thank goodness the organizing committee of the Offcenter conference was not similarly cowed. The best way to end bullying is to stand up to it. For their courage as well as for the wonderful quality of the current show, Offcenter deserves broad patronage from the entire community.
Go visit La Guadalupana. It will move you and it will delight you. If you can afford it, many of the pieces in the show are for sale and the commission to the gallery will spread its work farther.