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Our Lady of Controversy

Her image of the Virgin has been called 'a tart,' but Alma Lopez sees only feminist strength.

May 27, 2001|AGUSTIN GURZA | Agustin Gurza is a Times staff writer

Alma Lopez still doesn't get it.

She can't quite understand why some Catholics are so shocked by her voluptuous version of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the one causing a commotion in New Mexico. She can't understand why they're so angry with her-- a Mexican-born artist who professes reverence for this mestizo manifestation of the Mother of God.

Sure, her Guadalupe appears half-naked, legs and navel exposed. But what's wrong with that? Doesn't the real Guadalupe have a real woman's body underneath her flowing gown and distinctive blue and gold cloak?

In Lopez's defiant computerized rendition of the nearly 500-year-old apparition, the Madonna's private parts have been digitally covered by wreaths of roses, like an ample floral bikini. A live model stands in for the Holy Mother in the photo montage, head cocked back and hands on her hips. She is held aloft by a bare-breasted angel, portrayed by another Latina model generously endowed by her Creator.

"I see this woman's legs and her belly and [the angel's] breasts, and I don't see anything wrong," said Lopez, 34, inspecting a copy of the artwork, trying to fathom all the fuss.

The problem, she said during an interview at her spare Santa Monica studio, is in the eye of the beholder. Especially the Catholic men who "freak out about it." And most especially the Most Rev. Michael J. Sheehan, archbishop of Santa Fe, who publicly denounced the artist for turning the Holy Virgin into "a tart."

That one hurt, Lopez said. She meant no disrespect. She intended to portray women as strong, not sleazy.

"They're just breasts," Lopez said, defending her buxom angel. "I have them. Don't rage against the breasts."

The rage against Alma Lopez and her Guadalupe is now in its 14thweek and still smoldering. Titled "Our Lady," the piece is part of an exhibition called " Cyber-Arte: Tradition Meets Technology," which opened Feb. 25 at New Mexico's state-sponsored Museum of International Folk Art.

Lopez, who holds a master's in fine art from UC Irvine, created "Our Lady" in 1999 with a grant from the city of Los Angeles. It barely raised an eyebrow when first exhibited here. But it's the talk of the town in Santa Fe, where waitresses hash out the controversy while pouring coffee for customers. Even a local taco vendor left his corner stand to join a protest against the piece.

Many Latinos consider the work a cultural as well as a religious affront. No other symbol captures Mexico's indigenous identity more powerfully than the brown-skinned Virgin said to have appeared to a humble Aztec worker in 1531, following the brutal Spanish conquest.

Outraged Catholics from across northern New Mexico have held demonstrations, written letters to the governor, and even delivered a toilet and dead fish to the museum to express their disgust at the artwork. Some 750 residents attended an all-day public forum on the issue April 16, the vast majority demanding removal of what they consider a desecration of their cherished icon.

"In your computer trickery, you say you want to portray a strong woman," said one man at the forum, dressed in a cowboy hat and addressing the absent artist. "Alma Lopez, you don't know what a real woman is. Look around you. New Mexico has genuine women."

The controversy has taken its toll on museum administrators who have so far steadfastly defended artistic freedom. Although a museum committee last week recommended that "Our Lady" remain on view, museum managers separately announced their decision to cut short the exhibition's planned yearlong run. The move, offered as a compromise to community concerns, calls for "Cyber-Arte" to close in October, four months early.

Meanwhile, Lopez herself rebuffs appeals from Latino activists to voluntarily withdraw her work.

"It would mean Latinas don't have a right to their own voice," said Lopez, who launched a Web site to defend her work, .

Not all of her critics, however, are calling for censorship. Bishop Jaime Soto of Orange County urged Catholics to "engage this art seriously, and the issues it raises." Which doesn't mean he likes the image.

"I'm concerned that what she's done denigrates women," said Soto. "Rather than present something new and ennobling, I think she perpetuates an almost pinup-like image, not only of la Virgen , but of women in general."

Heated as it is, the scandal could have been much hotter. "Our Lady" could have been pictured totally naked.

Raquel Salinas, the Los Angeles performance artist who posed as Lopez's modern-day Madonna, stripped to her underwear for the photo session. Spontaneously, she tossed out the idea of going all the way.

"Raquel, maybe you're ready for that," Lopez told her friend and feminist soul mate. "But I'm not."

Discarding the notion of a nude Guadalupe ("Imagine that!" exclaimed Alma), the artist focused on her model's inner spirit. "Give me attitude," she told Salinas. "Just stand there and look strong and be yourself."

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