You may find cockroaches, stovetop burners, nails and miniature showers on Alejandro Mendoza’s crosses. What you’ll never find there is Jesus or any saint.
“I never touch that,” says Mendoza by telephone from his home in Miami, Fla. “That’s not my way. … In my cross, I put my own element. I build my own cross.”
It’s not that he isn’t religious. In fact, he sees his art as one way of practicing faith. It’s just that his view of faith doesn’t always coincide with that dictated by organized religion. “My art doesn’t practice any religion,” he says. This is illustrated in his exhibit Cross-ing Reno, now at Sierra Arts Gallery.
The exhibit is composed of wooden sculptural crosses and large, harried charcoal drawings on poster-size sheets of paper. Mendoza created the wooden crosses with strong attention to detail, careful placement of objects and fine geometric shapes. For instance, in “Yellow,” a yellow rectangle is painted in the middle of the cross. Atop the yellow are dozens of nails, each spaced equidistant apart.
His charcoal drawings, on the other hand, are grittier exercises Mendoza undertakes to explore his theme with a different medium and attitude. The lines indicate rapid movement. The images used in them—blood and what looks like a two-headed dragon chasing its tail—are quick and reckless compared to his measured and precise crosses. He calls his cross sculptures his “orange juice” and his charcoal drawings his “whiskey.”
Growing up in the highly Catholic city of Havana, Cuba, the now-40-year-old Mendoza says art and religion are intertwined in his work. But crosses, he points out, were used by the Egyptians, Greeks and others long before Christianity adopted it as a symbol. Taking Jesus off the cross opens the symbol up to interpretation.
Despite this, and perhaps because the images of Christianity are so ingrained in the Western mind, it’s difficult not to think of biblical references when viewing the objects he’s placed on his crosses.
In one striking piece, four stovetop burners are placed at each end of a cross. It’s called “Turn on My Fire,” which Mendoza says is a sexual idea. While sex is often discouraged by the Church, it can take on a different meaning when combined with the cross, he says. Nevertheless, evangelical phrases, like “Turn on to Christ,” came to my mind when seeing those coiled burners.
In another, “I Mean, You Need a Shower,” a miniature shower scene, like the kind found in gym locker rooms, takes place inside a small box carved inside the cross. Water is a no-brainer when it comes to religious symbolism, right? Baptism—the idea of a “dirty” soul being washed “clean.” But Mendoza was also connecting the practical need of people to take showers to the practical applications of faith in daily life.
But more than his intentions, Mendoza hopes viewers take their own ideas from his art. In this exhibit, the cross can be seen as savior, healer and life-giver, as well as a place of pain and sadness. Depending on your own beliefs, you may see this work as a sincere reflection and exploration of faith, or it may appear critical of religion, with ironic and humorous turns.
“This show should raise questions for people to think about,” says Mendoza. “To reflect about the problems in our heads and our consciences. How do we believe? And what do we pretend? Then to look for a form to do it. It’s a simple idea.”