Una Virgen, Tres Caminos

Artists interpret the religious diety and cultural symbol at Galeria Boccalero on Olvera Street

By Chrissie Castro
Published on LatinoLA: January 4, 2000

Una Virgen, Tres Caminos

Just picture this: La Virgen de Guadalupe stands in front of a blue sky, a few wispy clouds surrounding her. La Sirena ? that ubiquitous mermaid from the Loter?a cards ? is caught in her embrace, the Virgin's hand placed upon La Sirena's right breast. With her long black hair and curvaceous mermaid tail, she looks up at the Virgin, as if in love.

La Virgen ? gay? How could that be?

Already, she's painted on the back windows of many a low rider and printed on your T?a Chelo's favorite scarf. She adorns back alley walls and is back-lit on your abuela's votive candle. But if you think for a moment, that just may be the artist's point.

She's everywhere. And she's everything to everybody.

This image is the centerpiece of a suite of digital prints by Alma L?pez, part of the "Una Virgen- Tres Caminos" exhibit at Olvera Street's Galer?a Boccalero, open through January 9. The exhibit also features the work of sculptor Michael Amescua and printmaker John Montelongo.

L?pez drives her point home ? making sure no one misses it ? by recurrently using la Virgen's image with that of other familiar icons: old photos of the Eastside, maps of the Southwest Territory pre-1848, cherubs, and downtown L.A.'s skyline.

But, what is L?pez really saying? Is she out to just to shock her audience? Maybe. But I would suggest that she is probing for a deeper message.

If you can get beyond the startling idea of a homosexual religious figure, you can start to see the figures as symbols rather than as pornography. L?pez uses La Sirena much like a representation of the secular, or natural, world, while showing La Virgen, a religious deity, as a combination of both the earthly and the spiritual.

What L?pez suggests is a spiritual union of the indigenous nature-based gods and the religious Catholic figures. In "Coatlicue and Guadalupe," for example, the Virgin is encased in an indigenous stone sculpture. The background is a reddish-brown sky and around her are digitally enhanced yellow, pink and red roses. It appears that the Virgin is almost being born from the Aztec earth goddess.

Likewise, Michael Amescua's sculpture "Our Lady" touches on the nature-based religions of Pre-Columbian times. Unlike the other pieces in his collection, there is no literal representation of the Virgin. Rather, there are the steel indigenous silhouettes of a jaguar, a flame and a crescent moon. While it communicates the feeling of the Virgin, it sidesteps using her actual image.

While this piece is at first a bit puzzling ? I saw some people trying to find a hidden image of the Virgin in the silhouettes ? with a little historical background it makes perfect sense.

It references the duality between la Virgen de Guadalupe and the indigenous Aztec goddess, Tonantz?n. It is generally accepted that the place of the apparition of la Virgen de Guadalupe to Juan Diego in the 1500s was a sacred hill that was the original ground for the Aztec mother goddess. Many believe that because of the apparition's geographic location, it was easy for the Indians to accept this new, revised version of their female deity, Tonantz?n. And the two figures do have striking parallels.

For one, they are both strongly associated with the moon. Secondly, like Tonantz?n and unlike the European madonnas, la Virgen de Guadalupe stands alone without the Christ child. There are also the obvious shared characteristics of being nurturing, loving and holy.

Where L?pez and Amescua submerge into the origins of la Virgen, the third artist, John Montelongo, handles the more traditional representations. "La Virgen de la Causa," for example, is a dark watercolor that positions the image of the Virgin over several farm workers that wear the UFW logo on their ball caps. Manifested in her traditional role, she protects them, looking over them. He places her, however, in a modern context ? the struggle for civil rights.

Although these scenes are noteworthy, Montelongo best modernizes the image of the Virgin not in meaning, but in artistic technique. In "La Virgen Sobre Los Angeles" figurine-sized Virgin Mary's seem to be raining down on a rough sketch of downtown's skyline. There are about thirty Virgins painted with haphazard splashes of reds, yellows and oranges.

The cartoonish colors are reminiscent of the pop art movement and are visually similar to Andy Warhol's famous prints. Albeit both artists portray cultural icons, they do it with distinctly separate intentions. Where Warhol sought to communicate irony and cultural criticism, Montelongo intends to transmit honor and exaltation.

As the interpretations of the Virgin in "Una Virgen ?Tres Caminos" tell us, there are as many variations of meanings of the Virgin as there are people that believe in her. Maybe that's why ? on any given city block ? she's on a little holy card tucked away in the inside of a viejita's handbag, flashed on tattooed arms and backs, or hung with care in the living rooms of thousands of homes in LatinoLA.

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