Dueling Virgins

Competing shows offer contrasting visions of a Catholic icon

Although Vargas no longer considers himself Catholic, he has a serious regard for the religious symbols of the faith and often incorporates the sacred heart, angels, and the cross into his own artwork and photography.

"Most of the art in our show is traditional," Vargas says. "Every now and then, someone will do something abstract, which is OK. People get very upset, however, when artists tamper with a sacred subject. Some artists use religious images in a controversial manner because they really have something to say. But others just want to offend."

The conflict escalated sharply when ARTE's Meza took offense to Vargas billing his 1994 show as the "third annual" show. She fired off a letter to the Dallas Observer in which she labeled Vargas' billing an "error," and declared that Vargas could not be a "curator" because he has "no foundation in art history." Because curator means little more than "the one in charge," the point seemed petty.

Vargas, who has a community college associate degree in arts and science, acknowledges his lack of formal credentials, but says he has what he needs--a love for the culture and a desire to promote Latino artists. "I grew up in West Dallas. My family were low-income people, so I couldn't afford art classes," he says. "I took some drawing and photography classes at El Centro, but I'm mostly self-taught."

The campaign by Meza and ARTE to discredit his exhibition surprised and hurt Vargas. "There's still some bad feeling," he admits. So he was reluctant to make another change when Teri Aguilar, gallery director at the Bath House--a city-run facility for emerging artists and groups--suggested he relocate his 1995 exhibit there.

"I resisted moving the show out of Oak Cliff, because we've had a real sense of community, and having it in someone's home just heightens that feeling of intimacy," Vargas says.

"But I trust Teri Aguilar," he adds. "I've done some other shows at the Bath House, and she really cares about the artists. The more I thought about it, the more I thought that making it accessible to more people would be a good thing."

Vargas is expanding his December exhibition beyond the past shows' loose network of part-time and full-time artists, even going outside the area to attract talent. "I go to a lot of art exhibits, and if I like someone's work, then I'll speak to them and invite them to contribute something to the show. And with Hispanic artists, especially, I frequently encounter Catholic themes."

One regular contributor to his show is Alex Rubio, who works as artist-in-residence at the Bexar County Detention Center in San Antonio. "I encountered Alex's work when I was visiting the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center in San Antonio," Vargas says. "He has a studio there, and he'd painted a huge mural of the Virgin which I noticed right away."

Rubio works with Bexar County inmates through a grant from the Texas Commission on the Arts. "In the living units, there is a lot of frustration," Rubio says. "The art room releases that tension. These inmates are being creative, maybe for the first time in their lives. We've never had a fight in the art room."

Many of the inmates produce what is known as ba–o or handkerchief art, a traditional prison art form. The artwork is drawn on handkerchiefs using pen or paint or colored pencils. A second inmate, perhaps less adept at drawing, surrounds the artwork with a frame made from match sticks, held together with a water-based glue.

The drawings are traditional, brightly colored, and carefully rendered. "This is the Madre de Mexico," Rubio says. "She is highly respected among these inmates in the same way you would revere your mother. Some of the men even have the Virgin tattooed on their bodies."

Vargas has also invited a traditional Aztec healer to the Bath House exhibition. Andres Segura G. will be at the center on December 16 to provide a ceremonial blessing.

ARTE is now preparing for its "fifth annual" show, scheduled for December 10 through December 29 at the Trammell Crow Center-East Pavilion. Its call for entries in the La Rosa Mistica-La Virgen de Guadalupe exhibit specifies that its focus is "paying homage to the brown Madonna" and "about crossing borders and religion."

The group also solicited entries through the World Wide Web, under "LatinoLink." This year, Cha’rez plans to exhibit the same photograph from 1991, hand-tinted and surrounded by a festive altar draped in tinsel and Christmas lights.

Together, the exhibits--which mix Aztec folklore and Catholic dogma--shed light on the importance and accessibility of the Virgin's mythic image and on the need of a people to believe in her heavenly intercession.

But one of the more impressive examples of Virgin artwork in Dallas won't be in either exhibit. A mesmerizing six-foot-by-seventeen-and-a-half-foot tapestry of the Virgin hangs in the Cathedral Santuario de Guadalupe on Ross Avenue and Olive Street. It was needlepointed by women of the parish.

Although Samuel Torres does not have to share his home with the Virgen de Guadalupe show this year, he is contributing artwork to the Bath House exhibition. He's philosophical about the presence of two competing shows.

"As far as I'm concerned, the more the better," he says. "The show educates people about Hispanic culture. I think there's room in Dallas for eight shows.

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