SAN FRANCISCO -- Madonna smooching with Mother Teresa. Cesar Chavez embracing Che Guevara. John F. Kennedy kissing Fidel Castro. These images in the window of a Mission District art gallery have touched a nerve and are likely the reason the gallery has been vandalized twice in three weeks.
Galeria de la Raza at 24th and Bryant streets has been targeted because of a new installation by Los Angeles artist and teacher Alex Donis, depicting homosexual kisses among religious leaders, Latino community heroes and pop icons, gallery officials contend. The images - which include Jesus Christ kissing Lord Rama and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. kissing a Ku Klux Klansman - have apparently proved too much for some observers to stomach. On two separate occasions, someone threw rocks and a wooden traffic barrier through the windows, destroying two pieces of art worth $5,000 each.
"Where is the respect?" questioned Lydia Orteaga, a 43-year-old housewife who lives in the Mission District.
"This is disgusting. I don't want to see (Mother Teresa) this way."
People get so riled up about the displays that Donis said he had gotten into shouting matches with some patrons over the content of his exhibit, which is something he didn't expect.
"I knew this work would be difficult to take, but I didn't expect to experience it firsthand," Donis said.
"People were filled with rage, to the point where the (gallery officials) had to step in because they feared a fight."
The vandalism highlights the gaps that still need to be bridged in the Mission, he said. To that end, a special community meeting will be held Sunday afternoon to talk about the controversy. Donis will attend.
The installation has proved to be one of the most popular in the gallery's 27-year history, with first-week attendance the highest for any opening.
The gallery had seen some of Donis' previous work several years ago and commissioned him to do the five-week exhibit, which began Aug. 19 and ends Sept. 27. The potential controversy was not a consideration in the gallery's selection of Donis, said gallery spokesman Dino Piacentini.
"Anything can be offensive," Piacentini said. "A lot of people think the political work we show is offensive. We don't back away from the controversy."
In fact, the gallery - located in a neighborhood of Latino families and businesses, with a church and playground close by - has had its share of controversy.
Two different shows by prominent artist Yolanda Lopez, depicting the Virgin of Guadalupe as a modern feminist, resulted in bomb threats and a broken window in 1978 and 1981. Most recently, the gallery was picketed by feminist groups for not including Latina artists in an installation showcasing the Latino art movement in 1994.
But Piacentini said no other show had generated as much controversy as the current one, which, he added, could be a good thing if it broke down taboos about homosexuality in the Latino community.
"If these works had to be sacrificed for the cause of getting people to talk, then that's a worthy way to go for a work of art," said Donis. "Hatred is a better response than not even noticing."
A plywood board outside the gallery displays the artist's words: "Freedom of expression is not a privilege but a right . . . all artistic expression must be respected and allowed a voice."
Whether or not onlookers consider the images good pieces of art, they have achieved the goal of getting viewers to explore their feelings about homosexuality in relation to popular figures, said Piacentini.
San Francisco police documented the second window-breaking incident but could not classify the vandalism as a hate crime because they could not be sure that homophobia was the motivating factor, said Sgt. Pablo Ossio.
The images, painted on illuminated light boxes, show the figures embracing and kissing. Donis said he had intentionally chosen to match people who were either opposites or who could counterbalance each other.
Inside the gallery, the exhibit depicts embraces between Queen Elizabeth II and Rigoberta Menchu, Adolf Hitler and a skeletal man, Emilio Zapata and Pancho Villa, and Christopher Columbus and an Aztec warrior, among others.
Coriander Reisbord, a 33-year-old artist who lives in Potrero Hill, said she liked the exhibit and its message.
"It's an interesting show in presenting these figures that are icons from different positions and having them meet at the boundaries of sexuality," Reisbord said.
But not everyone saw it that way. Comment sheets placed outside the exhibit were filled with good and bad feedback.
"I find this exhibit to be a result of a repressed background," wrote one patron. "Why would anyone want to put Mother Teresa with Madonna? Only to shock! Sorry I am simply disillusioned that my Latin American brother artists are not living up to their potential."
Maurice Healy of the San Francisco Archdiocese would not condemn the works for what they depicted and said the church supported freedom of expression.
"We respect the Galeria de la Raza and the role of artistic freedom while recognizing that the images may be offensive to some individuals," Healy said.
"I think we'll have an interesting meeting Sunday," Piacentini said. "I'm hoping there'll be a dialogue about homosexuality in the Latino community, because we need to address it."
The Sunday meeting will be held from 2 to 4 p.m. at Brava Theatre for the Arts on 24th Street between York and Hampshire.