Dueling Virgins

Competing shows offer contrasting visions of a Catholic icon

Hailing Mary is not just a rote exercise for area artists honoring the Virgin of Guadalupe. In fact, the passion and intensity poured into spiritual art is all too evident in two local exhibits paying homage to the Virgin. The December shows also give ample evidence of the conflict between the traditional and nontraditional in art and faith.

The exhibits will run in December during the annual celebration of the first sighting of La Virgen de Guadalupe on Tepeyec Hill, in what is now Mexico City.

According to legend, Santa Maria de Guadalupe first appeared on the morning of December 9, 1531 to an Aztec Indian named Juan Diego. She told him that she was the mother of God, and she asked Juan Diego to have the local bishop build a church in her honor on the hill where she was standing.

After repeated visits from Juan Diego, Bishop Zumarraga on December 12 was persuaded to build the basilica when a bouquet of red roses was transformed into a miraculous image of the Virgin embedded in the material of Juan Diego's tilma--a cactus-fiber apron.

The image of the Virgin of Guadalupe was central to the conversion of the polytheistic, human-sacrificing indigenous people into devout Catholics. Now, more than 400 years later, close to 10 million pilgrims visit the shrine every year. It inspires the same devotion and sense of awe as the Mary apparitions in Lourdes, France or Medjugorje, Yugoslavia.

All year long, but especially on December 12--the traditional feast day--penitents shuffle across the plaza on calloused knees to pray to the Virgin. The original tilma shows no signs of deterioration, and the image of the Virgin is now found on T-shirts, buses, and in Mexican taco bars.

It was in one of those taco baras that local artist Jesús Chaírez photographed a shrine to the Virgin surrounded by red, green, and white neon tubes. Chaírez--a freelance public relations consultant who also hosts a Sunday evening radio show on KNON called Sin Fronteras ("Without Borders")--displayed the photo in his first Virgen de Guadalupe show, held at his East Dallas home in 1991.

Fellow Latino artist Jose Vargas was inspired by that first show. "I went to look at that exhibit, and it brought back so many memories of my Catholic school and of the altars families would have in their homes," Vargas says.

Vargas and Chaírez began organizing meetings in Chaírez's home for other Latino artists, eventually founding the group ARTE (Artists Relating Together & Exhibiting), a not-for-profit organization.

When Chaírez decided not to repeat the Virgen de Guadalupe show the next year, Vargas took it over. An artist friend, Samuel Torres, offered his Oak Cliff home to Vargas for the Virgen de Guadalupe show. Torres, a computer graphic artist for Central Methodist hospital, moved the furniture out of his front rooms "so we'd have a nice flow of art and people."

"Most of our visitors were from Oak Cliff," Torres remembers. "But we had city councilmen visit the exhibition, as well as other artists from around Dallas."

The success of Vargas' show rekindled Chaírez's interest. In 1993, he and Vargas collaborated on a third Virgen de Guadalupe exhibit with ARTE, again in Chaírez's East Dallas home and studio.

But this time, the collaboration didn't click--the two artists' ideas of what should be included in the show diverged sharply.

"With the Virgin, you're looking at a well-known icon," Vargas says. "She's the mother of God, but she's a very personal image for indigenous peoples, the patron saint of Mexico. I wanted people to explore the spirituality but to show respect for the culture and the icon."

But Chaírez's vision for the show involved more abstract--and controversial--treatments of the Virgin. In addition, ARTE was disintegrating into bickering factions at the time, and Vargas, then president, resigned. Samuel Torres left the group shortly thereafter, when art he'd submitted to an ARTE exhibit was summarily withdrawn without his knowledge.

The schism was evident when the men staged separate Virgin shows last year. Torres again opened his home to Vargas for his exhibition. Meanwhile, Chaírez and ARTE held the La Virgen de Guadalupe exhibition in rented space at the 500X Gallery. The two approaches were in sharp contrast.

"Last year's show had a feminist slant," explains Rosemary Meza, ARTE's president. "I wanted to explore the idea of the Virgen as a role model for Latino women. Is she an image which holds back the progress of women, or is she a positive role model?"

Mary: Handmaiden or feminist? This conflict between the spiritual world and the secular is challenging to contemporary Catholic women. But in such a show, another equally controversial issue quickly rises: When does productive dialogue cross the line into poor taste?

When Vargas visited ARTE's 1994 show, he came upon a piece he had found so repugnant he rejected it from his own show. For Vargas, talking about the work is nearly as offensive as viewing it.

"This artist told me she wanted to exhibit in the Virgin show. I knew of a prior work she'd done which depicted Christ getting a blow job while on the cross, so I was hesitant," Vargas says. "She described the painting to me as the Virgin, with a woman between her legs, getting her pussy eaten. I found that disturbing, so I told her no. When I saw the painting at the ARTE exhibit, she'd titled it something like 'La Virgen de Guadalupe Gives Birth to Womanhood.'"

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