It's hard to imagine that there was a time when Western popular culture was obsessed with saints, an era when devotees would pay big bucks for the supposed milk of the Virgin Mary or a blood-covered sponge of Euphemia's. Nowadays, we prefer stories about flawed, fallen heroes — even, literally, monsters. Vampires and mutants and blue-skinned aliens sate our anxieties better than halo-holders.
The classic polarity of angel and monster is the subject matter for "Santos y Otros Creatures" at Creativity Explored, the visual arts workspace for developmentally disabled adults. Curator Victor Cartagena, who teaches at the center, says that the exhibit grew out of his daily observations and conversations with students, a majority of whom are Roman Catholic and of Latin American descent.
"Many belong to the same congregation, and often on Mondays question those who did not show up for Sunday mass," Cartagena says. The other students adhere to Buddhist, African, Islamic, and other beliefs. He became intrigued by the mythological figures that routinely showed up in their work, "the way that traditional folk beliefs, myths rooted in tradition, and an inclusive spirituality appeared side-by-side with imagery that was influenced by religious texts and rituals." He thought that exploring these faiths visually would be an exciting basis for an exhibit of all-new work. "Not all teachers or students felt comfortable exploring this issue," he says, but the archetypes of religion and folklore proved to be rich territory for many of his students.
One traditional folk figure, the cadejo, or black dog, greets visitors in the gallery's front window. Charlie Barthelet and instructor Pilar Olabarria's large yarn sculpture, a dark snarl of braids on a skin of primary-colored skeins, is striking enough to live up to the fearsome legend, which supposedly represents death. To be "handled by the cadejo" is to be touched by madness, to be cast outside of regular society, and this manifestation's red button eyes gleam through the glass with predatory impersonality.
Inside the gallery, Bertha Otoya's Serpente diptych features her trademark cursive transcription of text from classic sources. On top of the lines of text are printed large serpent heads detailed with layers of scales. The pieces neatly symbolize how interpretation works: We read the folklore, and its stories are passed down to us through generations, yet we each project our own images of the creatures therein. Each of us lives in the religion of our own imagination.
Gerald Wiggins' inner world evidently teems with fantastic creatures. He presents three monotypes for this show, one of which — Holy Cat Man — is witty enough to elicit grins or shivers. In this saintly depiction, a man with Jesus hair stares out at us in the familiar, dignified pose of Christian icons. His features, however, are blended with those of a feline. He has the nose of a cat, whiskers, fangs, and pointed elf ears. Lovers of Lolcats may have found their patron.
The beasts and angels in "Santos y Otros Creatures" rise from a collective shadow-world, and the archetypal power of these images conjures the kind of communion that art shares with religion: the ability to peer beyond the veil of the everyday. We modern folk may think of demons as tempters, as simple metaphors for weaknesses that bedevil us, but the original Greek word "daimon" meant "divine power," in the same spirit as "genius." The daimon existed on some mystical level as the essence of beauty, whispering to us the secrets of the ideal.
To the artists at Creativity Explored, this definition may hold more sway. "The process of making art is at the center of these artists' lives," Cartagena says. "It is what brings meaning to their lives." Sharing the vision with an audience is an act of faith in the commonality of the human condition, all of us saints — and other creatures.