HOME IDOL RICH

A new interest in collecting religious icons marries a passion for folk art and voodoo.

On the wall, hanging by a twisted piece of rusting wire, is a crude metal-relief crucifix, white- washed and fastened to a beat- up board. Nearby stands a pair of brilliantly painted Mexican candelaria-the central fig- ures, a man and a woman, are grinning skeletons, surround- ed by meticulously painted twisting vines and garishly bright flowers. And on a pedestal, arising from a cascade of iridescent tinsel, a pastel aqua, melon-sized egg holds a star-covered pink Madonna standing on a bouquet of satin rosebuds. The effect is of a funky, Fabergé-style egg inspired by Cool Hand Luke: “I don’t care if it rains or freezes, long as I’ve got my plastic Jesus.”

This hodgepodge of old and new religious images is not displayed in (he chapel of some new California religion. They are items for sale at RED, one of a number of local shops and galleries (hat sells religious objects as objets d’art to an increasing number of collectors.

There has always been a market for religious art and images, but until recently, it was primarily a small group of serious collectors who were mostly interested in specific kinds of pieces-19th-century exvotos, bultos of Santiago, or colonial retablos, for instance. Now the range of collectible icons has broadened. Along with purely Christian forms, such as Mexican and New Mexican santos, galleries are selling art inspired by the fusion of French and Spanish Catholicism and pre-Christian culture-Day of the Dead skeletons and Haitian voodoo flags-as well as creations by contemporary artists, like the Judy DeSanders egg described above.

The craze for everything Southwestern has helped to foster an interest in religious pieces (every adobe-style interior has an Indian rug and a santo), and folk art’s recent rise in popularity probably has something to do with it, too. Still, dealers and collectors agree that there is more to it than that: these are powerful objects, with a spiritual resonance that enhances their aesthetic value.

Collectors in this part of the country are most familiar with the Catholic santo of Mexico and Central and South America made in the 18th and 19th centuries. “Santo” is the overall term used to describe a number of devotional art forms including bultos, three-dimensional images of saints, often carved from native cottonwood or ponderosa pine and varying in size from a few inches to several feet. Usually painted in oils, they were originally dressed in fabric robes and adorned with metal jewelry, crowns, and halos. More elaborate bultos were fitted with glass eyes, like a doll’s. Older pieces have chipped noses, missing ears, or broken limbs, so they now appear to have suffered martyrdom like the saints they represent.

Retablos are also representations of saints; painted on flat pieces of metal, they illustrate symbols of the saint as well (keys for St. Peter, arrows for St. Sebastian) and may indicate his area of patronage (carpentry for St. Joseph). The exvoto is a purely personal folk art form of the retablo. Also painted on metal, an exvoto tells an individual story of a prayer answered, as does a milagro, a small tin charm representing an everyday object of part of the body and pinned to a santo’s garment or fixed to a cross in thanksgiving- an eye for a restored eye, a tooth for a cured toothache, for instance.

Spanish Roman Catholicism blended with pre-Columbian religion in Mexico to produce a uniquely Mexican celebration, El Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead (November 1 and 2). The folk art deriving from this holiday is gaining more and more attention among collectors. The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth mounted a full show focusing on the complex traditions of art revolving around Day of the Dead, and several local galleries followed suit with their own celebrations and exhibitions {some of which will be repeated this year).

The Mexican belief is that death is a part of life-so, to celebrate life, one must also celebrate death. The folk art created for Day of the Dead combines life and death with macabre humor and festive abandon. Skeletons (the Mexican symbol of death) are constructed in all sizes, from a couple of inches high to life-size, and in all mediums- papier-mache, wood, wire, clay, and even bread dough and sugar. The figures are portrayed in all kinds of all-too-true-to-life activities: a skeleton bride and groom, dressed in veil and tux, clasp hands before an altar; a skeleton woman sits under a hairdryer; a skeleton writer (journalist, no doubt) bends hopelessly over a typewriter.

Other artistic traditions show the same blend of native and Catholic-conqueror beliefs-the Mexican village of Ocumichu has developed a powerful mythology of pre-Columbian demons and Biblical devils. Executed in ceramic and painted in bright, flat colors, the startlingly vivid and complex constructions often tell a story. A piece about heaven and hell shows men crouching on a platform cornered by skulls and supported by a writhing mass of grinning devils, snakes, and monsters. Haiti’s mysterious voudoun cults, a blend of African religion and French Catholicism, produce large se-quined banners with the name and symbols of the voudoun loa (gods and goddesses) written in beads and spangles.

Religious themes have engaged some local creators as well as collectors, but the work of these latter-day artists seems one step removed. Instead of drawing inspiration from personal spiritual experience, many of these artists seem charmed by the folk art derived from someone else’s. The results are a little more calculated, more tongue-in-cheek, more oblique. Fort Worth artist Roscoe West’s ceramics are direct descendants of Day of the Dead folk art-the same bright, flat colors, grinning skulls, and high spirits. West’s spunky skeletons sunbathe in a child’s wading pool or peer from the manhole-cover lid of a pot in modern America versions of Day of the Dead vignettes.

Still, the strength of the images endures. A local collector notes that ten years ago her friends may have recoiled slightly at the sight of the crucifixes and madonnas she collects; now they own pieces themselves, not because they’ve converted, but because these objects have an inner appeal as strong as their outer one.



SOURCES

RED, 3210 Armstrong Ave. Santos. Day ofthe Dead, Chiapas sculpture, contemporary.

Waterbird Traders, 3420 Greenville Ave.18th- and 19th-century Mexican and NewMexican santos (retablos and bultos).

Susan Brannion, 6634 Snider Plaza. 19th-century Mexican retablos, bultos, and ex-votos, Day of the Dead.

La Mariposa, 2817 Routh St. Day of theDead, milagros, Chiapas sculpture.

Modern Toys. 4524 Cole Ave. Day of theDead. Haitian voodoo flags, cut paper.

Michele Herling Gallery, 3200 Main. Santos, retablos.

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