San­teros be praised Artists Ni­cholas Herrera and Pa­trick Mc­Grath Muñiz


Pasatiempo - - NEWS - Michael Abatemarco

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

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