Review: At Home with the Saints — Latino Cultural Center

[Originally published in Arts and Culture magazine]

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For most Westerners space and time have been branded by homogeneity and an eerie “sameness.” Shopping malls and the Kardashians offer the same — or greater — visual thrills than art and architecture. There’s little understanding that a resurrection of the flesh need not be confined to a religious notion of Christian imagery. However, we can all find higher ground and genuine loft when we exit the space of the TV Machine and re-enter the world to discover places and things that encourage us take flight in ways we find meaningful.

Philosophers such as Mircea Eliade reminded us that a truly rich life is filled with rituals, rites, initiations and spaces that are radical departures from everyday experiences. In fact, perhaps the key to maturation is an ability to traverse realms and “mix it up” with things we deem both sacred and profane. Obvious examples of such an exploration are the retablos, sometimes referred to as “laminas” in Mexico, currently on exhibit at the Latino Cultural Center. They’re small, devotional paintings that “re-present” saints and moments of spiritual significance. One need not be Catholic — or even religious — to relate to an image of Christ scourged. We’ve all felt whipped. And, if you allow honesty to prevail, what you see in retablos is some sliver of your own psyche peering back from the framed images. They depict deeply universal themes that evoke moments of temptation and triumph.

The retablo art form enjoyed a renaissance in central Mexico from 1850s until about 1900. They flourished during Mexico’s battle for independence from Spain and utilized the generous availability of tin as a painting surface. Aficionados of folk art will enjoy the untrained, yet highly evocative, quality of their workmanship. And everyone should be able to relate to the fact that they were painted for only one reason — love. They were a means of invoking the Divine to preside over any and every occasion, especially inside homes.

Some of these works aren’t appreciated by the Catholic hierarchy.  In fact, “The Powerful Hand” was reviled by the Church — yet the image was still collected and revered by believers. It shows an image of the Holy Family situated around a hand with a stigmata, the wound of Christ. The spilling blood fills a chalice from which lambs — presumably congregants — drink. The surrounding figures are Joachim, Mary, Joseph, Jesus and Anne. It’s an innocent image of familial life and it conveys the universal urge for supplication and renewal. Some people channel the desire via “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” and others choose more elevated routes.

There are many things at the LCC worth your time and attention. Dallas is fortunate to have these pieces on loan from the Museum of the Big Bend at Sul Ross University. It’s located near the art mecca of Marfa and no doubt offers a great destination for a road trip. Meanwhile, you’re in luck; the pieces have taken up temporary residence locally and Live Oak is substantially livelier than ever.

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