By Casey Sanchez for the New Mexican
The Visions of Alex Chavez
July 29, 2011
“A lot of my work goes back to a more primitive idea of what God may be,” said Alex Chavez. The Taos artist walks a fine line between the urbane and the profane in his hybrid photo-paintings, with their nuanced remixes of religious imagery. Using Renaissance-era Spanish oil paintings, he takes images of saints and sinners, Christs and Marians, and recasts them as apes, aliens, and human-animal composites. The result is a spiritual burlesque, a freakish fusion of Christian and pagan elements fit for the Weekly World News tabloid. But unlike many other artists working in the pop surrealism scene, his provocative imagery isn’t just to titillate.
“My mother is from Taos, But I grew up in L.A. Those churches in East L.A. were my first museums,” Chavez said. “I’ve always been attracted to the cryptic symbolism that was there in those church images. I didn’t want to ever solve the mystery”. Just in time for Contemporary Hispanic Market, Chavez’s work is shown in Curiosities, a new exhibit at Pop Gallery starting Friday july 29.
To create his images, Chavez often starts with the oil canvases of obscure Spanish Renaissance painters, scanning the pictures into a computer, where he begins to alter a rich iconography of winged cherubs, robed virgins, haloed saints, and fig-leafed Adams and Eves.
With Photoshop manipulation, he then swaps the faces of these icons with visages culled from natural-history books, discarded science-
fiction magazines, and old prayer cards. The images are then printed on canvas, where they are often hand-embellished with gold leaf and acrylic paint.
Far from a jab at the church, Chavez says his work is a conscious attempt to create new saints for modern-day ideas and social movements that the Roman Catholic Church has scorned. The literally flaming diva of his Virgen del Fuego is a saint for lesbians, gays, and the transgendered, he said.
Chavez has also created a religious tableau to honor biological evolution, the unifying force in the life sciences that explains species adaptation. The fact that the scientific theory remains hotly disputed in some fundamentalist churches led Chavez to make an image inspired by the controversy. In RE: San Simian, a human infant with a monkey head smokes a cigarette as he clutches the face of a monk, who wears a masquerade-ball mask over another red-bell-pepper-shaped mask. The painting accomplishes what traditional iconography does in many homes it provides a calm visual repose in which the viewer can dwell in abiding belief.
In Divine Intervention, a priest in a tribal mask officiates a marriage between an ape and a female alien with a shaved head. Chavez said he sought to create religious imagery that would speak to the millions of people who believe in aliens and alien encounters with humans. While not quite what most would consider religious faith, a belief in aliens, however eccentric, does tap into an ancestral need to account for humanity’s origins and its place in the larger world.
Oddly enough, several viewers have commented that the female alien figure looks just like pop singer Britney Spears when she shaved her head. It’s not, Chavez countered. “Everyone asks that. It was a model from a magazine. I think she was playing a movie alien. She was kind of jeweled. It looked like they glued some rhinestones to her head.”
The image reflects Chavez’s lifelong wrestling with the tenets and beliefs of the church. In his own art, he wants to generate icons that reflect the beliefs and mysticism of those who don’t find their faith mirrored in a formal religious institution. “I’ve kind of slung in and out of Catholicism. I’m not practicing; I question lots of ideas behind it. There were a lot of times I was practicing. For a while, I was even mayordomo at the church. I guess I recognize and love jesus’ teachings.”
In his work, Catholicism shows up in unlikely places. In Crown of Creation, the Virgin Mary; lifted from an 18th-century painting, has her face replaced by a halved apple and cradles an infant jesus, his head encased inside an apple. Instead of the Marian figure standing on angel wings, a grotesquely large bee supports her while a butterfly hovers over her midsection. Winged equine and ape-human hybrids bow before her. Chavez incorporated many earthy fertility symbols in an attempt to link Mary; as some religious historians have, to pre-existing goddess worship cultures in the Americas.
“The theme is one of goddess worship and its relationship to Mary - how Mary was used in the New World, where they were already worshipping goddesses,” Chavez said. “It made it easy to swallow the Catholicism. In the image, there’s a coronation going on of a goddess.
That’s where the chimpanzee and horse come in. It’s the animalistic nature of man and the male who are worshipping her.”
Chavez has also experimented with making art based on the icons of outsider faiths. In 2009, he created an image of Santa Muerte, the syncretic icon of the death-goddess cult that has attracted a large following among many Mexicans who live and work on society’s fringes. Unlike other skeletal images of the Santa Muerte that build on traditional Mexican Day of the Dead motifs, his Santa Muerte looks stately and Victorian, her bony skeleton protruding through her pale flesh. The image won over the art directors of Breaking Bad, the AMC channels meth-lab drama set in Albuquerque’s South Valley In the third season of the show the image is woven into a magical-realist foreshadowing scene. “They had her hovering over the shoulder of a drug lord just before he was going to be assassinated,” Chavez said.
While Chavez said he’s glad the image has found a larger audience through a popular cable show, the image, like nearly all his work, was inspired primarily by his own spiritual struggles. “I just turned 50. I’m always thinking of my own mortality "I’m trying to grapple with spirituality even episodes in my own life. If there’s a little mystery; a person can put their own interpretation. I find that exciting.”