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Walking among saints and sinners at Fowler Museum

Review: The show 'Sinful Saints and Saintly Sinners at the Margins of the Americas' at the UCLA Fowler Museum looks at mythic figures who fuse sacred and profane in the U.S., Mexico and South America.

April 23, 2014|By Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times Art Critic
  • Vitor Amati's "Ze Pelintra" is part of the exhibit "Sinful Saints and Saintly Sinners at the Margins of the Americas."
Vitor Amati's "Ze Pelintra" is part of the exhibit "Sinful… (Fowler Museum at UCLA )

The image of bandit Jesus Malverde turns up as a kind of venerated saint inside "Quitapesares (Solace)," a makeshift chapel by artist Maria Romero erected near the end of a large new exhibition at the UCLA Fowler Museum.

On May 3, 1909, the outlaw was hanged from a tree in the town of Culiacán, capital of Sinaloa near the country's northwest coast, by the federal government of Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz.

He was left to rot in the sun.

At least, that's what people say. Historians have found no evidence that the story is true. In fact, it is doubtful the outlaw ever lived.

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Legend says he was an ordinary fellow who battled the rich to help the poor. A sinning saint — or saintly sinner — Malverde is Mexico's Robin Hood. In a century's time he has become a regional folk figure of considerable renown.

And considerable complexity. Even his name shows how.

Malverde combines dark, crushing "evil" (mal) with hopeful regeneration implied by springtime "green" (verde). Religious inflection is added by his given name, Jesus, among the most popular in Catholic Mexico. Together, the neologism speaks of a cleansing of sin.

Romero's tent-like chapel is just large enough for two or three people to enter at one time. The installation sculpture is erected from the clothing of deceased friends and family. Step up onto a floor covered in cheap linoleum, whose beige tile pattern crosses carpet with stone.

Fabrics form the walls and roof, while bundled cloth strips dangle like ornamental ribbons. The side walls are adorned with painted or collaged figures of a mustachioed man, which a label says represents a fusion of typical depictions of the mythic Malverde and the artist's own absent father. Personal mingles with political.

The most arresting element is a vividly colored, quilt-like wall hanging that covers the rear wall. Riotous blooms of hibiscus and fruits picture an elaborate tree of life. The profusion springs from sturdy roots adorned with upside-down cloth dolls of the mustachioed man.

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Lovely, poignant and quietly mysterious, Romero's homey chapel is a standout among the recent art in the show "Sinful Saints and Saintly Sinners at the Margins of the Americas." The exhibition, sizable if somewhat jumbled, looks at a variety of mythic figures who fuse the sacred and the profane in areas that encompass parts of the Southern and western United States, Mexico, Guatemala, Argentina and Brazil.

Fowler curator Patrick A. Polk has brought together examples of folk, popular and fine art. The subjects defy simple, binary characterizations of good and evil. Forget god or devil, hero or villain. These saintly sinners (and vice versa) instead operate in a gray zone that incorporates both.

Think of Malverde. In the wake of Porfirian campaigns for Mexico's modernization, he began life as a defender of the dispossessed and forgotten in the early 20th century imagination. By the end of the century he was breaking bad: Malverde is today a so-called narco saint — a Walter White for the Sinaloa drug cartels.

The others are equally varied. Among them are "Voodoo Queen" Marie Laveau from 19th century New Orleans, part selfless giver to charity and part dispenser of snake oil; the Native American figure of Coyote, a wise cross between animal and human who often functions as an impish catalyst for social chaos; and, Santa Muerte — Holy Death — a Mexican skeleton-woman whose combination of aristocratic robes and farmer's sickle suggests a collision between the altruistic Virgin Mary and the doomsday Grim Reaper. Her skeleton form can be traced to Mesoamerican death cults.

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Santa Muerte's skull and Malverde's head turn up affixed to assorted ancient gods in fine, painted clay sculptures by Oaxaca artist Demián Flores. He seamlessly merges Aztec, Mayan and other Pre-Columbian idioms with contemporary motifs, producing primal "artifacts."

Some works represent personal fictions. New Mexico artist Delilah Montoya's character of San Sebastiana is a martyred woman with a shaved head painted like a skull. Shown in photographs and a video, she blends Santa Muerte with a pop star (sort of "Real Housewives of Albuquerque").

Three painted, highly individualized portrait banners by Alma Lopez characterize lesbians as queer saints. Their differences from socially defined norms are formally sanctified through simple appropriation of Catholic artistic traditions.

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