The two very different sides

The terrain of the holy can appear a rough row to hoe in a pair of strangely provocative exhibits fertile with the sacred and profane.

"The Saint Makers: A Living Tradition in American Folk Art" features more than 75 works of outsider religious iconography largely drawn from the collection of Chuck and Jan Rosenak, with a handful of pieces on loan from the Smithsonian. Rarely seen in South Florida, these crafty confections reflect the history of Southwestern devotional folk art — with roots in Spanish Colonialism and influenced by European Baroque religious imagery — conveying a quirky interpretation of traditional spiritual narratives popular among contemporary santeros in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado.

Often stylized in nature, much of the work seems crudely fashioned and at times cartoonishly rendered in stark contrast to the subject matter. At a glance, the bultos (sculptures) and retablos (two-dimensional images) exude a low-wattage vibe one associates with the rustic religious artifacts typically lining the shelves at high-end souvenir shops.

Horacio Valdez's Death Cart/Carreta de 
Horacio Valdez's Death Cart/Carreta de Muerte


Through December 4; 305-348-2890. Open Monday through Friday 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Saturday and Sunday noon to 4:00 p.m.
Frost Art Museum at Florida International University, University Park Campus, 11200 SW 8th St, Bldg PC 110, Miami.

The difference between this work and those commercially produced versions flooding the market can be difficult to detect if one is unfamiliar with the work of outsider masters. A visit to this show proves a worthwhile introduction to the contemporary santeros' creative process.

An obvious common thread is the amplification of agony that's used as a vehicle toward exaltation. Those unfamiliar with Sunday-school lessons might marvel at the ham-fisted misery and spiritual angst riddling this show. Images of the Catholic saints often provided inspiration to rural Southwestern desert villagers who depended on the saints for protection. For many, these images came to be venerated as representations of the holy who served as a conduit between man and the divine.

With water scarce, that unfriendly landscape offered steady hardship, and suffering was something to which everyone could relate. Experiencing the pain-varnished imagery almost makes a case that santeros appear to be suckers for punishment. Today they often add a contemporary spin to their visual lexicon and experiment with new materials. Santeros have also branched out into a representation of secular subjects, expanding their work's ring of interest.

A near-death experience inspired Nicholas Herrera — the self-styled santero poster boy for sex, drugs, rock and roll, and drunk-driving arrests — to create The Wreck, Mi Vida de 25, earning himself an outlaw reputation for his hard-core approach to the genre. The haphazardly carved and garishly painted wood diorama captures the scene of a terrible car accident. On a stretch of glass-littered highway, a form that represents the artist's body bleeds on a tarry patch of road. The Grim Reaper watches nearby, highlighting a beer can next to the victim's mangled torso. Behind a flipped coupe, a Christ-like figure outstretches his arms as if willing the dead man to walk.

A blue Chevy pickup truck at the bottom right corner carries a crate of Budweiser on its bed. The driver weeps over the body as a cop stands watching, waving a flashlight. Herrera's edgy sarcasm has knocked him into the international spotlight, earning him the Low Rider Santero moniker.

An interesting take on early religious persecution shows up in the popular figure of Saint Sebastian. In a painted wood carving, José Lucero presents a noticeably WASPish Tinseltown version of the Christian martyr. The figure — lashed to a stake — sports a striped designer loincloth. Lucero's pretty-boy saint is shot with arrows. One pierces his throat, another his heart, and the third his liver. The saint's Paul Newman peepers are set off by dark, jutting brows and high, rosy cheekbones. His pomegranate-stained lips are ajar as if in disbelief that he's gotten the shaft.

One of the most unusual pieces in the show is the ceremonial Death Cart on loan from the Smithsonian. Associated with the Confraternity of Our Father Jesus, also known as Los Penitentes, it was used by members of the order in ceremonial rituals. An unlucky member, who might have ended up on the wrong end of a short straw, had to carry the stone-laden cart from town to town as an act of penance.

This particular example, executed in 1978 by Horacio Valdez, depicts death, or Doña Sebastiana, riding what appears to be a painted cottonwood shopping cart. The nasty death effigy plucks a bow and aims her arrow at the spectator's heart. The bony snaggle-tooth crone is made all the more sinister by an unsightly tuft of human hair tacked to her dome and a gravedigger's pickax strapped to her side. I immediately wanted to kick this bitch to the curb.

After lingering around so much saintly gore, I felt a blasphemous itch to scratch — heavenly broken bodies be damned. But not before tipping my chapeau to exhibit designer Duane Brant, whose re-creation of a village chapel-like setting steals the glory.

I needed to cleanse my Catholic taste buds of the sappy gloom, so I sought a sampling of the forbidden fruit over at the spanking-new World Erotic Art Museum on South Beach, which was perfecting the concept of peddling hedonism.

Lordy, was I in for a shocking epiphany. Entering the museum's foyer from a rinky-dink elevator, I was fumigated by the cloying smell of rotting flora and the stinging incense of toxic cleaning products. It stunk like an embalming peppered with dozens of rancid flower arrangements. My first impression was of a decaying tourist trap in the same league as a hokey Ripley's Believe It or Not! attraction, and at $15 a head, a bit larcenous.

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