The annual Day of the Dead art exhibit that opened over the weekend at the Bath House Cultural Center at White Rock Lake is far from a collection of Mexican kitsch. Rather, it’s artistic evidence of how Day of the Dead traditions have evolved and picked up new and diverse adherents. And judging by the large number of non-Latino artists displaying works, the holiday’s universal appeal -- like so much of Mexican culture -- is only continuing to grow.
All of the works are aligned with the Mexican tradition of honoring the dead on All Soul’s Day, when the spirits ostensibly come back to visit, but most of the local artists used that traditional theme to explore contemporary ideas and visuals. A three-part painting installation by Kimberly Renelle Bradshaw features three brightly painted canvasses, each with a chair on it. In the center is a skull with butterflies painted on the face, and on either side butterflies sit on the chairs. “On the wings of buttlerflies they visit me,” is painted in cursive across the bottom.
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Next to it is an acrylic of a skeleton wearing a cowboy hat, smoking a cigarette and holding an electric guitar. “I lived and died with the blues,” artist Jose Vargas has painted on the canvas. “Bad luck and trouble were my only friends.”
An 8-foot shrine by Kathy Windrow and Amy Parker takes the tradition of building altars to celebrate dead relatives to a new level. The towering collection of candles and flowers is dedicated to an Alaskan Husky named Kona. Framed photographs of the dog cover the altar, surrounded by dog bones, dog food and a large fuzzy dog bed. Crossing Bridges, a painting of a transparent old man walking amid grass and bridges, is visually the most solidly un-Mexican piece of all, and yet the theme is the same.
Dia de Los Muertos figurines and paintings are often lighthearted and almost mocking, a way of making a jovial and familiar peace with the Grim Reaper by setting a place for him at the table. Yet some of the most powerful pieces in the show are the darkest: El Dia de Los Muertos for Nawlins, an acrylic memoriam to Hurricane Katrina survivors by Freddie McCoo, features a skeleton with a scythe near a sign that reads “Wel Kum 2 Nawlins, Pop. Washed Away.”
Most visually and emotionally intense is a large-scale acrylic called Bienvenidos Muertos! (which translates to: "Welcome, dead ones!") by Chris Cook. A crowned skeleton -- King Death -- stands screaming at the head of a long table covered with fruit and surrounded by smaller skeletons. With a fiery orange sunset behind him, the King’s arms are outstretched, and a churning swirl of wind and leaves makes the canvas come to life in an evocative and disturbing portrayal of death. Which, in the end, only seems appropriate. --Megan Feldman