Sure, we try. Hollywood blockbusters steer clear of religious references, and doodad companies often scrub holiday-inspired figurines of any spiritual content. But if you look closely at popular media—whether music or fashion or television—it’s easy to see that America still formulates its emotional life primarily through the use of religious symbolism. Even when not overtly religious, popular shows deal with moral dilemmas by couching them in Judeo-Christian terms.
But as ubiquitous as religion is in popular culture, it’s harder to find in the world of high art. This makes little or no sense. Art that examines how religion functions within our culture could do us a lot of good. Every psyche, however secular or even atheist, remains heavily populated with what Saul Bellow called “large numbers of highly individual ghosts”—and few of those are uninfluenced by prevailing religious beliefs.
This is why it’s worth considering the ghosts that have found their way onto the canvases of the three artists in POP Gallery’s Memento Mori show, which opened in July in conjunction with Spanish Market.
This work stands well within the tradition of Spanish colonial art—symbolic, Catholic in its influences and contributing to the ongoing evolution of the world’s first globalized cultural engine. The artists all tackle the shifting interplay between New World Catholicism and culture in their own communities, and reveal points of conflict at which the relationship becomes paradoxical.
Brandon Maldonado’s oil painting “Till Death Do Us Part” shows a somber pair of newlyweds in their finery standing with faces painted like the decorative skulls used in Día de los Muertos celebrations. Cartoonishly enhanced with huge eyes and oversized heads, the stylized faces appear whimsically childlike. Yet their eyes are so still, so serious. Whether the painting is hopeful or tragic is anyone’s guess.
Much of the work projects a sort of folk-art sensibility, something both naive and wise. Perhaps “folk art” is the best term for this emerging urban tradition, which reflects on-the-ground beliefs and heavily recycles the tropes of both religious and communication media, while also displaying painstaking attention to the technical aspects of the work.
Daniel Martin Diaz’ graphic visual arrays combine figurative scenes and esoteric symbols with the adeptness of a classical mapmaker. Marie Sena’s retablos of round-faced, flowing-robed figures—ranging from la Virgen to Death himself—practically burst with ripe fullness. All the pieces are deeply subversive to the traditions of their communities in some way, and undercut dogma to get at the human element of the religious experience as it is lived in the 21st century.
While the show’s content not only deserves but requires notice in today’s political climate, the art is disappointing. Much of the work is stunningly cliché or over-the-top. Sena’s blood-spattered, black-rose-bedecked “Vulture,” for instance, is like a bad action flick, an overdose of cheesy allegorical grotesquery. But mostly, the work’s conceptual link to a larger America seem limited to projections seen through the internet and cable television—that virtual country of beautiful people who keep you entertained; one we all have seen and in which none of us live.