The show (or exhibit, as I was corrected by a Fowler employee) Sinful Saints and Saintly Sinners at UCLA's Fowler Museum offers a loose exploration of the blurring of sanctity and sinfulness embodied by a multitude of "folk" saints. The US-Mexico border is most fully represented, which makes sense given that curator and professor Patrick Polk is based in Los Angeles and has dedicated considerable time to studying the city's permeation by popular saints and icons via the botánica. His exhibition catalog Botánica Los Angeles is the only resource I have been able to find that is dedicated solely to the botánica and its role in the commodification and hybridism of religion today.
This show explores the lives and afterlives of these saints with altar-arrangements of artifacts, a combination of objects by unknown artists and mass-produced candles, pamphlets, etc. In addition to these groupings, contemporary artists are featured including Alma Lopez, Matjames Metson, Delilah Montaya, and Maria Romero. Altogether, it's a smattering that touches upon an extremely broad range of mythologies and indicates the fertile complexity of contemporary hagiography.
The altar above is for Juan Soldado, "John the Soldier", considered a guardian to migrants. The label explains, "While a young private in the Mexican army, Juan Castillo Morales was executed in 1938 for a brutal rape and murder many believe he did not commit. Blood, it is claimed, began seeping out of his grave in the municipal cemetery, an age-old sign of the guiltless martyr." According to Wikipedia, the victim of the rape and murder was Olga Camacho Martínez, an eight-year-old girl from Tijuana.
This large altar installation is to Santa Muerte, or Holy Death. According to the label, she has recently risen to popularity and is "Viewed as one who will accept those whom others turn away," and has "variously been described as an Aztec goddess of the underworld, a Judeo-Christian primordial force, a medieval European-inspired female Grim Reaper, an allegoric death figure shaped by Baroque Spanish Catholicism, a deified Native American woman who was horribly mistreated in the mists of the colonial past, the skeletal La Catrina of modern Mexican Day of the Dead festivities, and an Afro-Cuban inflected New Age divinity."
Jesús Malverde is perhaps known best as a narco-saint, but Polk argues for multiple facets to his character, such as his strong connection to agriculture. He is considered a sort of "Mexican Robin Hood", a thief born near Culiacán as the son of poor farmers who took the redistribution of resources upon himself.
Other altars not shown here are to Marie Laveau, San Expedite, and El Rey Pascual. In addition to the unattributed presentation of saints, Sinful Saints features a great number of contemporary artists working in different mediums, with works "representing folk, popular, and cutting-edge modes of invoking spirit." My favorite pieces are Alma Lopez's "Queer Santas" (below), Maria Romero's Quitapesares (Solace), and the amalgamations of Matjames.
Quitapesares (Solace) was inspired by the chapel to Jesús Malverde in Romero and Malverde's shared hometown of Culiacán. It is a house built of fiber collage, first made with pieces of clothing from Romero's deceased loved ones. The interior features the Tree of Life and an image of Romero's father as Malverde...The work of Matjames gives homes to lost and searching objects, and he is the only artist featured whose work does not deal directly with some interpretation of sainthood - the inclusion of his work indicates that curatorial tightness was not on Polk's agenda, and makes an intriguing gesture towards the contours of object worship. Read my interview with Matjames here.
Christopher Knight writes in the LA Times, "The subjects defy simple, binary characterizations of good and evil. Forget god or devil, hero or villain. These saintly sinners (and vice versa) instead operate in a gray zone that incorporates both." Gray, but very colorful indeed!