Dueling Virgins

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.

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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 Jess Charez photographed a shrine to the Virgin surrounded by red, green, and white neon tubes. Charez--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 Charez began organizing meetings in Charez's home for other Latino artists, eventually founding the group ARTE (Artists Relating Together & Exhibiting), a not-for-profit organization.

When Charez 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 Charez's interest. In 1993, he and Vargas collaborated on a third Virgen de Guadalupe exhibit with ARTE, again in Charez'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 Charez'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, Charez 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.'"

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 bao 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, Charez 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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