Alejandro Mendoza invites viewers to ‘do something taboo’
“The Cross … is, and has been, a source for miracles; dreams longed for … However, it is also a source of sadness, despair, pain and torture; desolation and the great fear for punishment that ends with the very death.”
“For me, it was amazing that they invited me to put my pieces in the City Hall,” Cuban-American artist Alejandro Mendoza said of the decision made by the city of Fort Collins, Colo., to show his boundary-pushing work in its Walkway Gallery.
Even more amazing to Mendoza—known for his signature sculptural work focusing on crosses—was the fact that someone went into the gallery one night, took down one of his pieces and smashed it to bits on the floor.
“They found it offensive,” the 40-year-old ex-pat said in a thick accent from his home in Miami. “I am not trying to be offensive at all. … It’s not my way to make scandal. My motivation is that I am always trying to say something to someone, trying to create something, to reflect something through my art. I don’t believe in making ‘art for art’s sake.’ “
That Fort Collins experience prompted Mendoza, during a recent talk at his Chico Art Center opening reception, to plead with the audience to please not break any of his pieces. “I told them, ‘If you want me to explain the meaning of something, ask me here. Ask now.’ “
Lest anyone think that Mendoza feels disrespect for the symbol of the cross, he assures otherwise: “The cross for me is a great human symbol. I think it’s the most interesting one created by man.”
It is understandable that some viewers might be taken aback, even angered, by some of Mendoza’s work.
Mendoza, a Catholic who left Cuba in 1992 (ending up in Miami via Mexico and Philadelphia), creates pieces that challenge the very notion of what a cross signifies.
For instance, a Catholic coming to Mendoza’s show expecting to find the traditional image of Jesus crucified on the cross might be disappointed, unless he or she is content with the jointed wooden figure-drawing dolls in “The Creation” that Mendoza has “nailed” to the front and back of a standing, blonde-colored, wooden cross.
Mendoza’s crosses play with notions of sexuality, punishment and death lurking beneath the beautiful surface of traditional Catholic iconography. It is likely that some viewers may cry sacrilege when confronted with such pieces as “The Kiss"—a large, captivating, Art Decoesque wooden cross painted to look like patinated copper, and featuring a realistic likeness of a woman’s labia, also in a greenish patina, displayed in the center where one would expect Jesus.
It is also possible that the same viewer, if alone in front of “The Kiss,” might be tempted to reach out and touch the life-like, erotic lips that, unlike most of the centerpieces of Mendoza’s crosses, are not shielded from the public.
“It was my intention not to put glass [over the centerpiece of ‘The Kiss'],” acknowledged Mendoza. “I was trying to invite people to do something taboo.”
Mendoza’s “Wax People"—a squat wooden cross painted to look like brushed metal—more overtly addresses the issue of sexuality, and death. Its two square, shiny, red areas above the sea of tiny human skulls near its base evoke thoughts of both candles and nipples; the tiny, central “wicks” signifying both at once.
Other pieces—"Yellow,” with its central bed of 567 small, sharp nails, or “¡Me Fui Al Carajo!” (roughly translated: “What the hell!?"), which features small, rusted jail doors closed by a padlock—deal prominently with the theme of punishment.
Some crosses are irreverent and thought-provoking in a more playful way. “Turn On My Fire,” with its faux-marble ivory Formica and four electric coils, resembles a stovetop as much as a cross. Its title is humorously just a step away from the more sexual “Light My Fire.”
“I’m a strong sexuality man,” said Mendoza, his voice softening. “I remember when I was 15, I was thinking about women. At about the same time, I started studying art seriously. I think I have a very strong connection between my passion for women and my passion for art, my passion for everything.”