For more than two decades artist David Mecalco has sold hand-painted devotional images (retablos) from a stall in Mexico City’s La Lagunilla Sunday antiques fair (commonly referred to as the Thieves’ Market). In recent years these vibrant works—pulsing with images of the Virgin Mary, the devil, skeletons, animals, petitioners, and more—have brought him international recognition. Traditionally, wooden or metal-backed Mexican retablos are placed in churches, shrines or home altars, and many are now commissioned as expressions of gratitude (retablos ex votos) for prayers answered. See dozens of examples of Mecalco’s lively re-conceptualization of the art form, inspired by the realities of life in the barrios and pulquerías (saloons) of Mexico, which show a keen interest in the suffering of those marginalized or abused by mainstream society.
For art collectors and bargain hunters alike, Mexico City’s La Lagunilla Sunday antique fair (commonly referred to as the “Thieves’ Market”) spreads out along the Paseo de la Reforma like a tantalizing pageant of not-so-hidden treasures. Here, among peddlers of vintage costume jewelry, out-of-print magazines, and mass-produced action figures, the artist David Mecalco has sold handmade devotional images (retablos) for more than two decades. In recent years these vibrant works, which frequently reveal small acts of faith while at the same time reveling in outrageously impious behavior, have brought him international recognition.
Mexican retablos, which are painted on wood or metal, traditionally feature a likeness of the Virgin Mary, Christ, or a patron saint (retablos santos) and are used to decorate churches, shrines, or home altars. As typified by examples on view in the Art and Transformation section of the Intersections exhibition (directly across from the entrance to the present exhibition), many, if not most retablos, are now commissioned as expressions of gratitude (retablos ex votos) for prayers answered and serve as visual testaments to divine intervention. As such, the paintings tend to graphically depict severe illnesses, life-threatening accidents, natural disasters, and other trials and tribulations.
Although stylistically influenced by artists as different as Frida Kahlo and Vincent van Gogh, Mecalco’s re-conceptualization of the art form is more inspired by the realities of life in the barrios and pulquerias (saloons) of Mexico. His sometimes near sacrilegious ex votos show a keen interest in the suffering of those marginalized or abused by mainstream society, most notably prostitutes and homosexuals. Thus, while his works rely upon prevailing Catholic notions of the holy and unholy, they also often suggest that easy distinctions between virtue and vice may disappear in the lonely darkness of the city or within the brilliant light of the soul.
David Mecalco (b. 1963) is a lifelong resident of Mexico City. He received his formal art training at Mexico’s National School of Painting, Sculpture, and Engraving from 1980 to 1985 and is best known for his folk-influenced votive paintings (retablos), wall-mounted shrines (altares), and reliquary boxes (relicarios and cajas). Mecalco first began experimenting with devotional imagery in the early 1990s, blending elements of Mexican religious iconography with contemporary graphic and fine art influences. The resulting works of art, which are deliberately executed in an untrained or naïve style, test the limits of the traditional forms after which they are patterened. Mecalco’s artistic vision is particularly notable for its startling depictions of street life (la vida más bajo) and alternative lifestyles in contemporary Mexico. His juxtapositions of time-honored sacred symbols such as Milagros with starkly secular and controversial content is especially popular with foreign collectors, and in recent years his work has been exhibited at the Tate Modern in London, the Museé International des Arts Modestes in Sète, France, and art galleries across the United States.