There is so much activity and variety in the American visual arts that it is difficult to assess the significance of any individual artist, especially one still productive and unpredictable. Over the last quarter century, however, it has become clear that the sculptor Luis Tapia has accomplished something singular, important, and slightly surprising. He has reconceptualized one of the oldest traditions of Latino and American regional art—the santero’s craft devotional sculpture—in a way that is both strikingly original and deeply respectful of its origins. In the process, Tapia has not only redeemed this powerful but narrow tradition from the weight of its own past; he has given his personal revision of it an international presence, thereby elevating the distinctively Hispanic form of sculpture beyond its folkloric identity. Without losing his personal connection with the past, Tapia has transformed the restrictive roles of the santero and the santo into something meaningfully new—more fluent, contemporary, and expansive.
Luis Eligio Tapia was born in Agua Fria, New Mexico, just outside Santa Fe, in 1950. His father, a fireman at Los Alamos National Laboratory, died mysteriously when he was one, possibly from beryllium poisoning. His mother, who never remarried, worked at the New Mexico School for the Deaf. Tapia attended local Catholic schools and briefly studied at New Mexico State University. For a few years he worked in a retail clothing shop. As his interest in Latino traditional arts developed, he co-founded a local artist group, La Cofradia de Artes y Artesanos Hispanicos. In 1981 he worked on the restoration of San Francisco de Asis Mission Church in Ranchos de Taos. A self-taught artist, Tapia mastered the craft of carving and painting sacred images, called santos—a tradition that has been continuously practiced in New Mexico for four centuries. Unsatisfied with duplicating traditional subject matters and techniques, Tapia experimented with bold color and intricate design. He also renovated traditional subjects by executing old motifs in contemporary ways. He initially sold his art at regional fiestas. By the mid-1980s, he found a commercial gallery in Santa Fe. His work has steadily gained wider recognition through group and solo exhibitions. Tapia’s sculptures are now in major museums, including the Smithsonian National Museum of American Art, the Denver Museum of Art, and the American Folk Art Museum in New York.
The art world is more accustomed to disruption and transgression than to transformative renewal. (What is more normative in art nowadays than transgression?) It is easier to renounce or mock the past than to master and reshape it to new ends. Assimilating the past, however, allows new work to carry powerful formal and cultural resonance, such as Tapia’s adaptations of New Mexican Catholic folk subjects and symbolism into new secular and social contexts. Tapia does not approach the past with the distanced irony and intellectual condescension of artists such as John Currin or Jeff Koons. Tapia remains invested in the forms, themes, and techniques of the New Mexican Latino Catholic tradition. There is irony in his depiction of contemporary economic and racial relations between Anglos and Latinos, rich and poor, but his attitude toward his subject matter is never detached.
The vibrancy of Tapia’s ironic and incisive satire seems closer to Goya or Daumier than to his voguish urban contemporaries. If he is ironic, he is also big-hearted and vulnerably human. His mordant sense of humor—a rare thing in sculpture, especially in the Catholic devotional tradition—makes an immediate human connection with the onlooker. Tapia gains a particular kind of energy and authenticity by allowing the viewer to feel quite directly his complex and sometimes contradictory emotions. He is angry, amused, affectionate, rude, and reverent—often at the same time. Tapia is a visionary realist who visibly occupies the same daily world as the viewer but also reveals its hidden moral, indeed religious, resonances. He has made the devotional forms of the santero profane and political without losing their sacred authority.
Without renouncing his own roots, Tapia has become a significant American artist of unique identity, personal style, and political power. He did not abandon his tradition; he transformed it. Tapia has emerged from the Latino, Catholic, Southwestern, rural poor—five varieties of marginalization, all alien to the mostly metropolitan world of contemporary American art. He has made each of those “minor” and frequently patronized categories mean something different from his precursors. He has enlarged his tradition to make it capacious enough to contain his imagination and the complexities of contemporary Latino experience.
To discuss Tapia’s artistic identity in cultural and sociological terms is clarifying, but it also risks losing the main reason he is worth discussing in the first place—his excellence and originality. Contemporary art labors under heavy clouds of ideological weather. Latino artists in particular are rarely allowed to exist as individuals; they are abstracted into representations of group consciousness. Tapia’s art doesn’t matter because it is Latino, culturally marginal, or politically engaged. His art matters because it is so powerfully expressive, memorable, and original on its own individual terms. Studied in depth, his oeuvre reveals itself to be intellectually ambitious, thematically diverse, stylistically inventive, and masterful in technique.
Tapia’s particular genius is also refreshingly democratic and inclusive. His sculptures arrest the viewer’s attention whether that person is intellectually sophisticated or not. He has developed a visual language, drawn from both the Hispanic vernacular and elite traditions, that engages equally the cosmopolitan and the campesino. Significantly, his mostly small works hold the viewer’s gaze in ways that are simultaneously pleasurable and painful.
Tapia is a conceptual artist. There are always ideas animating both his forms and subjects, but those concepts are not imposed on the works. The meanings emanate from the physical objects themselves. We enter his disturbing and darkly beautiful work not intellectually but intuitively through its iconic images and visual narratives. There is also a conspicuously joyful mastery in his sculptures. They remind us that art, even tragic art, works most potently through pleasure.
I worry that I have taken too many theoretical flights in describing Tapia’s very sensuous art. If that has been the case, I blame him. I can’t look at Luis Tapia’s work without being flooded with ideas and emotions. Whenever I see his work in a gallery or museum, I have the same intense experience—I come, I see, he conquers. Even in a crowded exhibition, Tapia’s work arrests my attention, draws me in, and lingers in my memory. If you don’t believe me, turn these pages.
Dana Gioia, poet and librettist, is the Judge Widney Professor at the University of Southern California. He served as Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003 through 2009. He holds ten honorary degrees and has won numerous awards, including the 2010 Laetare Medal from Notre Dame University. In 2015, Gioia was named the Poet Laureate of California by Gov. Jerry Brown.
Luis Tapia is a pioneering Chicano artist who for forty-five years has pushed the art of polychrome wood sculpture to new levels of craftsmanship and social and political commentary. Rooted in a folk art tradition established in seventeenth-century New Mexico, Tapia’s work at once honors its origins, reinterprets traditional subject matter, and revitalizes age-old techniques. His works have been exhibited internationally and widely reviewed by several publications. Tapia has received many awards for his work, including the 1996 New Mexico Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts, the state’s highest artistic honor.