Santeros be praised Artists Nicholas Herrera and Patrick McGrath Muñiz
NICHOLAS HERRERA and PATRICK MCGRATH MUÑIZ
AS a young man, El Rito-based artist Nicholas Herrera was nearly killed in a head-on collision while he was driving drunk. He lived for thrills as a teenager and young adult, driving fast cars, drinking, and doing drugs. But Herrera, who spent three weeks in a coma after the accident, narrowly avoided becoming a statistic. The crash permanently altered his life for the better. He overcame his addictions and devoted himself to a very specific kind of art, one with a rich history in New Mexico: the art of the santero.
Herrera, who will be a recipient of the 2016 Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts this fall, is part of Vívido, a two-person show at Evoke Contemporary, along with fellow santero Patrick McGrath Muñiz. The show opens Friday, in time for Spanish Market weekend, but offers visitors an opportunity to view pieces that are more eclectic than the traditional bultos and retablos seen at the market, although both artists draw from, and expand upon, tradition.
While he’s no longer a daredevil behind the wheel, Herrera maintains his fascination with cars, using auto parts in his sculptures and lowriders as subjects for his retablos. One such piece, La Fiesta
del Rito, is named for the annual festival commemorating San Juan Nepomuceno, the patron saint of secrets, who was martyred in 1393 after allegedly refusing to break the seal of the confessional and divulge the private admissions of Sophia of Bavaria, the queen of Bohemia. “He’s a popular saint among the penitentes, too,” Herrera told Pasatiempo.
“There’s a lot of movement in that piece,” Herrera said. “There’s a lot going on.” Outside the doors of his rendition of the El Rito parish, named for the saint who was tortured to death under the apparently not-so-good King Wenceslaus, a parade of lowriders passes by, rendered in relief. The fiesta, however, is a celebration, and the celebratory spirit of Hispanic communities across Northern New Mexico, not just in El Rito, is embodied in the work. “I had done pieces with lowriders before, for collectors,” Herrera said. He also made pieces featured in Low ’n Slow:
Lowriding in New Mexico, a 1999 book by Carmella Padilla, Juan Estevan Arellano, and Jack Parsons, published by the Museum of New Mexico Press. “It’s always a challenge to do something new, but it’s fun,” he said. “Sometimes you start a piece, and all of a sudden you start to get more ideas and it changes. I don’t do a lot of sketching. I just start a piece, and it speaks to me. I really don’t plan it. Things are meant to be sometimes.”
Herrera uses natural pigments in his work, and the carvings reflect careful study of past religious iconography made by New Mexico santeros, but his own style of figuration is distinctive: squat, blocky depictions of people, rendered with an economical use of line and detail. “I’ve always gone my own way,” he said.
Santeros often carve popular figures such as Saint Francis, Our Lady of Sorrows, and the Virgin of Guadalupe. While Herrera’s bultos and retablos do depict some of the more popular figures in the Catholic canon, he also carves likenesses of Santa Lucia, patron saint of eyes and vision; San Pedro; and San Juan. His style derives from the Spanish colonial as well as from medieval art and remains true to these influences while updating them. “It’s a mix,” he said. “It’s part of my heritage, my blood. We’re all mixed here. We’re part Indian, part Spanish, and that’s the way it is with the art.”
Where Herrera really breaks with tradition is in his metal sculpture work, including Rueda de Corazón ,a flat, circular metal form depicting the Sacred Heart. Another metal piece, La Justicia, is a totemic construction made from recycled farming tools and two double-headed axes. The piece commemorates his cultural heritage and family history.
Patrick McGrath Muñiz derives his subject matter from Christian iconography and mythology, combining them with pop culture references and imagery of the modern, tech-driven world. Building from Spanish colonial-era religious imagery, he incorporates the visual language of tarot, astrology, and other esoteric sources, tapping into a set of universal, archetypal themes. McGrath Muñiz was born in New York and raised in Puerto Rico, where he was first introduced to colonial art. While his paintings reflect colonial styles, their references are to presentday neocolonialism, as commentary on the human condition. “What I see in my work and what I tend to present is a response to pop culture, consumerism, the mass media, and how these agents of neocolonialism are echoing past colonization narratives in the history of the Americas,” he told Pasatiempo in December of 2013.
His new work explores America’s consumer society, and the related imagery — laptop computers, cartoon characters, celebrities, cell phones, and burgers and fries — is at striking odds with the archetypal imagery, underscoring the emptiness and desperation of society’s preoccupation with consumption. The conflation of pop culture and religious iconography in his paintings provides a striking contrast.
The Believer, for instance, depicts a contemporary Christlike figure in a sleeveless white shirt. The background imagery appears to have been derived from the Confederate flag, its stripes loaded with cars, gas pumps, a mug of beer, grave markers, and the sign of benediction. The central figure holds an assault rifle in his hands while he pulls down his shirt to reveal a tattoo that combines the Sacred Heart and the Marine Corps emblem.
There are stylistic differences in the artwork of Herrera and McGrath Muñiz. Herrera’s work is rustic and humble, focused on local communities and
heritage. McGrath Muñiz paints detailed Baroque and Rococo compositions with a high degree of realism. His work has more in common, stylistically, with 17th- and 18th-century Spanish colonial art in the Southwest than with most contemporary iconography by New Mexico’s regional santeros. A major influence on McGrath Muñiz was José Campeche y Jordán (1751-1809) who studied in Puerto Rico under exiled Spanish court painter Luis Paret y Alcázar (1746-1799).
In New Mexico, artists such as Bernardo Miera y Pacheco (1713-1785) introduced late Baroque Mexican painting styles that were adapted from the Spanish Baroque. But, over time, the representational imagery in New Mexico shifted, in part due to the available resources. Hand-gathered pigments, cottonwood, and pine became favored mediums, and naturalism gave way to more reductive forms that emphasized symbolic gesture over anatomic detail, which is present in the works of Herrera. The artists at Evoke represent two complementary visions that show the influence and endurance of colonial art, and ironically, take the very systems from which they were born to task.
Above, Patrick McGrath Muñiz: The Believer, 2016, oil and gold leaf on panel Opposite page; Nicholas Herrera: top, La Fiesta del Rito, 2016, hand-carved wood with natural pigments; below, Espíritu del Corazón, 2016, hand-carved wood with natural pigments and bullets