Like a Virgin

String together the words "modern" and "virginity," and likely the resulting image is of Britney Spears getting friendly with a boa constrictor on MTV. But the same kids who watch Total Request Live are also taking their parents' and grandparents' lead and becoming more interested in a 470-year-old virgin, the patron saint of the Americas, La Virgen de Guadalupe. The incarnation of Mary is credited with appearing in Mexico to a peasant named Juan Diego, who--after his attempts to tell local clergymen about his visitations failed--was given La Virgen's image surrounded by roses on his shirt.

Local artist Jose Vargas has always felt a kinship with this story and the resulting image of Mary perched on the moon, wearing a blue cloak and circled by red, blooming roses. So nearly 10 years ago, he started producing an art show to which local and regional artists could contribute pieces involving La Virgen. This year, the exhibit is being displayed at the Ice House Cultural Center in Oak Cliff and includes more than 40 artists from across the Southwest and Mexico.

Though Vargas' purpose has remained the same--to celebrate La Virgen during the month of her feast day in a public forum instead of the religious and private ones where she's usually found--the artwork has evolved continually. The artists--many of whom appear every year in the La Virgen exhibit and in Vargas' other annual show, La Corazon--take this revered and traditional image and present it in new ways, using painting, drawing, sculpture and photography. Along with more conventional interpretations such as reverent paintings and wood carvings, the exhibit also includes pieces such as photographs in which the image of a La Virgen statue is bent with a reflection in a piece of metal. Another uses computer-imaging programs to add La Virgen into other scenes, including making her face visible within an ear of corn. Other photographs show how the image is used in everyday life, adorning car windows, clothing and murals on the sides of grocery stores.

And the concept of La Virgen has changed as well. These days she's also a controversial topic. Some people believe that missionaries combined a native goddess with Christian images of Mary to create La Virgen, creating a tool to convert Aztecs that was at once different and familiar. That idea, Vargas says, has been appearing in the exhibits for about four years, sometimes in such subtle ways as using feathers to cloak La Virgen in a more Aztec-like fashion. Other artists have turned their attention to Juan Diego himself or to feminist ideas of the divine.

But to Vargas, La Virgen is a more personal, more emotional figure, one that people aren't afraid to turn to in times of need. But he's not here to preach or tell people what they should think. "I like people to look at images themselves, look at the symbolism and decide what to think," he says. "I want people to study the images and go with how it makes them feel inside, no matter what religion, race or culture they come from. It depends on if they feel something from it."

Judging from La Virgen's ever increasing presence south of the Rio Grande, it looks as if Vargas' exhibit will not lack for material for years to come. This virgin isn't going out of style. Britney should be so lucky.

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Shannon Sutlief