For his new exhibition at Galería de la Raza, Alex Donis has transformed the storefront gallery into a storefront church. In a sense, he has seized upon a phenomenon that is not uncommon in Latino neighborhoods across the United States, where bodegas and laundromats are frequently turned into houses of prayer for evangelical sects. Unlike the austere décor of those Protestant chapels, however, Donis does not eschew Catholicism’s baroque visuality. Instead the Guatemalan-American artist reworks it into a religiously infused dreamscape, offering us a cathedral of learning and subversive ecstasy. In his virtual landscape, a range of personae representing fragments of different, even conflicting histories, are brought together and bound by queer desire.
Numerous critics have explained that postmodernity is characterized by a stress on the visual over the verbal, by the tendency to collapse time into space, and by a sense of life as dominated by symbols. This is to say that the contemporary subject experiences mediation as being just as real—if not more real—than physical phenomena. In this sense, environmental installation is the postmodern art form par excellence, enveloping the viewer in a world of stimulation that is at once both real and not real. Theorist Celeste Olalquiaga has also noted that this prevalence of mediation and the concomitant distancing from physical sensation and affect engenders an attraction, albeit an ironic one, to religious imagery as the embodiment of the very sensations that have been drained from experience. (1)
Contemporary mainstream culture’s attraction to Catholic imagery dovetails with a longer history among Latino artists of using religious symbols either to legitimate vernacular aesthetics or to critique Christian morality and philosophy with a semiotic subversion of piety. This is the tradition that has given us Amalia Mesa-Bains’ altars and Yolanda Lopez’s seamstress/Virgens de Guadalupe on the one hand, and the iconoclastic pastiches of Andres Serrano, Juan Davila, Manuel Ocampo, Alejandro Jodorowsky and Pier Paolo Pasolini on the other. Donis’ artwork falls squarely between these two camps. The artist’s eclectic upbringing no doubt contributed significantly to his ability to straddle a variety of influences.
After spending his early years in East Los Angeles, he attended a Guatemalan military academy. He then returned to the United States, first to study at an exclusive East Coast prep school, then at Cal State University, Long Beach, and then finally at the Otis Art Institute where he received his MFA. As a child, he went to Catholic school and Mass, while he also accompanied his parents to their Pentecostal services and partook in Guatemalan holiday traditions. During his adolescence in the Guatemalan countryside, he continued to attend Catholic and Pentecostal services, and began absorbing the pop mysticism of Carlos Castañeda. Though he claims to have never been a believer and recalls resenting Christianity’s homophobic and authoritarian tendencies from a tender age, Donis avows an early attraction to religious art, particularly that which he saw in the colonial churches he frequently visited in Guatemala.
Even Donis’ earlier work that does not specifically refer to religion bears the trace of his love of baroque excess, both in his use of materials and his ironic celebration of melodramatic sentimentality and bicultural double entendres. The centerpiece of his installation Moscas en Leche (1994), for example, was a rotating black drag queen dressed in an oversized ball gown festooned with flowers, with an enormous white bouffant wig. With his 1995 installation at Armand Hammer Museum, Altar de Amor: Notes on Proper Balcony Conduct, Donis begins to play with the idea of creating devotional spaces in order to make manifest those forbidden or dangerous desires that are otherwise displaced from the public sphere. Finally, in a series of iris prints (produced in 1996) in which he places erotically charged phrases over close up details of mass-produced pictures of Catholic saint and the Holy Family, Donis turns a sarcastic eye toward the hypocrisy of religious morality, teasing out the images’ sexual potential to make us realize how it is usually suppressed by Catholicism’s strict discursive division of the carnal from the spiritual.
My Cathedral provides a more complete immersion in Donis’ fantasy world of clashing symbols than these previous works. Our experience of the piece begins outside the gallery, from where we can view the “stained-glass windows” he has created to lure us into his universe. Six light boxes with translucent paintings on plexiglass each bear a same-sex couple kissing. Donis describes his choices as heroic or saintly figures who are part of history, but whom for him inhabit a world of symbolic representations distinct from his lived reality—what he calls a black and white world of old television shows, news clips and films. Each pair represents a fictional encounter of opposing energies: Mother Teresa and Madonna, Fidel Castro and John F, Kennedy, the Pope and Gandhi, Martin Luther King and a Klansman, Christ and Lord Rama, and Che Guevara and Cesar Chavez. Inside, we are confronted by an apse-shaped altar composed of fifteen plexiglass panels, across which are more translucent renderings of icons. Here Mary Magdalene kisses the Vírgen de Guadalupe, Hitler holds a Holocaust survivor, Emiliano Zapata is paired with Pancho Villa, Queen Elizabeth with Rigoberta Menchu, and an Aztec warrior with Christopher Columbus. The visual dimension of the piece is completed by a campy video in another room in which Donis, dressed as an angel, launches into a session of bilingual word-play and announces that he is the door attendant for a disco called Heaven. Throughout the gallery, on a soundtrack, dueling male and female voices proclaim “Ay Si” (oh yes), which could also be interpreted as “I see,” or “Asi” (that way), or Assisi.
By creating a fictitious “outing” of these figures, Donis actually succeeds in forcing us as spectators to “out” ourselves. There is perhaps no better way to make a viewer more embarrassingly aware of the voyeuristic pleasure of looking than to surround him/her with kissing couples. It is virtually impossible to look at them without some sense of guilty pleasure derived from getting a glimpse at the forbidden. That very feeling awakens us to our physical presence and to our erotic drives, elements of ourselves that, in theory, we suppress in order to attain the more cerebral state of contemplation that conventional critical inquiry demands. That such a realization would take place in a simulation of a devotional space only further exacerbates the transgression, for a cathedral, we are taught, is a place where souls commune, not bodies. Furthermore, that the couples are unlikely pairings, as much for their being placed with a member of the same sex as because of who each one is, adds to the sense of taboos being broken. Each personage represents an extreme, whether it be of piety, fame, self-sacrifice, inhumanity, or transformational political views. The extent to which we accept their being drawn into an illicit, although fictional, scenario serves as a barometer of our own dependence on apprehending their image as something that is real, which of course, it paradoxically is and is not.
Donis’ criss-crossing of boundaries thrusts this postmodern paradox into the foreground. Trouncing unceremoniously across the barriers that divide love from hate, black from white, East from West, the sacred from the profane, and the physical from the spiritual, Donis deploys homoerotic attraction as a trope for the carnivalesque spirit of disruptive pleasure that breaks down oppressive dyads, and ultimately the masculinist and heterosexist order they uphold. The artist’s blurring of conventional dualisms takes us into a more fluid and anarchic domain beyond singularly paired cultural differences, a terrain where opposing forces meet and melt into one another. In doing so, Donis calls upon his viewers to contemplate a universe beyond the paradigms that have trapped Latino theoretical and cultural production in the binarist and spacio-centric logic of the border for far too long.