press release

Organized by Susan Landauer, Katie and Drew Gibson Chief Curator at the San Jose Museum of Art, Contemporary Devotion was an exhibition of nearly 40 works by 14 contemporary artists who incorporate or reflect the imagery and style of traditional 19th-century Mexican retablos and ex-votos - Catholic devotional paintings on tin - in their art. For this exhibition, the word devotion refered not only to religious issues and personal faith, but also to the practice of artmaking and the creative process. Running concurrently with El Favor de los Santos: The Retablo Collection of New Mexico State University, an exhibition of some of the finest historical retablos held in the United States, Contemporary Devotion opened on March 4 and continued through June 3, 2001.

Throughout the ages, religious and spiritual themes have been the inspiration for major artworks, ranging from the caves of Lascaux to the Renaissance to searing portraits of the Pope by Francis Bacon. While many modern artists such as Mark Rothko and Cy Twombly for example, have avoided overtly religious content in favor of mystical abstraction, a number of contemporary artists have found inspiration in the imagery of their own personal faith. Many of these artists, such as Manuel Ocampo, Enrique Chagoya, Elizabeth Gomez, and Juan Carlos Quintana, have turned to the Mexican folk traditions of retablos and ex-votos, drawing from their emotionally charged imagery and naive style. Contemporary Devotion examined this trend, featuring a broad range of artwork - that re-framed timeless issues of morality and devotion within a contemporary context.

Other artists included in the show were Tracey Barnes, Diane Llewellyn Barnes, Susan Marie Dopp, Erin Goodwin-Guerrero, Kathleen Jesse, Michele Muennig, Lisa Ramirez, Tino Rodriguez, Fred Stonehouse, and Inez Storer.

As vehicles of compassion for the anguished and afflicted, the iconography of retablos lends itself to themes of social abuse and injustice. The socio-political critiques of Chagoya, Ocampo, and Quintana provide potent examples of contemporary responses to the retablo tradition. Raised as devout Catholics, these artists share a common heritage as first and second-generation immigrants from former Spanish colonies - Mexico, the Philippines, and cuba, respectively - and each uses the imagery of Catholicism to expose the political and social inequities of cultural imperialism. Chagoya and Quintana address the clash of Anglo and Hispanic societies, while Ocampo explores the cruelty and greed of despotism, whether in Nazi Germany or New Spain.

Other works in the exhibition ranged from incisive self-portraits that portray the enigmatic power of martyrdom through self-inflicted wounds to compassionate artworks that commemmorate loved ones and honor self-sacrifice. Two examples included Kathleen Jesse's Bloodletting in the Desert (1998-99), where the artist martyrs herself for the cause of her art, and Manuel Ocampo's Heridas de la Lengua (1991) (the literal translation is "wounds of the tongue"), which portrays his pain and isolation as a displaced Spanish-speaking immigrant. Michele Muennig, Elizabeth Gomez, and Lisa Ramirez pay homage to loved ones through their work. In La Vida (1994), Muennig depicts her undying love for her husband, Cuban artist Juan Carlos Quintana, through imagery and symbols that represent his homeland and evoke the retablo tradition to portray a secular emotion.

In his painting The Hand of Power, (1993) Enrique Chagoya presents a pungent commentary on the "innocuous mask of cultural imperialism" by combining familiar Mexican Catholic images with icons of American culture. Chagoya depicts the religious Mano Podarosa (hand of power) of Christ as a Mickey Mouse glove, complete with stigmata spouting crude oil in place of Christ's blood. Images of a stealth bomber, a Picasso painting, a gold brick, and a television allude to American values that have become misplaced and corrupted by a materialist corporate culture.

Likewise, Manuel Ocampo indicts human greed, hypocrisy, and abuse of power with his large-scale painting Untitled (Burnt-out Europe) (1991). In this work, Ocampo's specific subject matter is Nazi Germany and the Holocaust; however, its overarching subject is the never-ending global cycle of subjugation and/or domination of one political system or country over another. The complexity of symbols and meanings is a signature of Ocampo's work. Here, the head of Christ elevated to the sky and framed by swastikas, might on first glance imply Christian responsibility for the Holocaust. However, Ocampo does not attach blame to Christ or Christianity, but rather, only to those who have misused "the true faith" to victimize and exploit innocent people. He recognizes Christ as both victim and judge, two of the most important tenets of Christian iconography, in this powerful work.

Tino Rodriguez, born in Guadalajara, Mexico, creates paintings in which he portrays a "syncretic universe in which all is integrated, whether it be good or evil." In El Amante (The Lover) (1998), Rodriguez mixes a love of Aztec and Mayan myths, Celtic fables, and medieval fairy tales with potent images drawn from a deep reservoir of Catholic images he inculcated as a child growing up. According to Rodriguez, the central image of the painting - a nude young man with stigmata wounds on his hands cradled in a bed of flowers - represents a desire to return to the purity he believes all humans long for: a primeval Garden of Eden where we are unified with nature and without sin. In Rodriguez's work, the retablo tradition has come to represent a humanistic rather than a religious point of view.

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mit Tracey Barnes, Diane Llewellyn Barnes, Enrique Chagoya, Susan Marie Dopp, Elizabeth Gomez, Erin Goodwin-Guerrero, Kathleen Jesse, Michele Muennig, Manuel Ocampo, Juan Carlos Quintana, Lisa Ramirez, Tino Rodriguez, Fred Stonehouse, Inez Storer ...