ARTICLES OF FAITH

Everything in the picture was plastic, except Our Lady of Guadalupe and the dirt floor. Plastic flowers, plastic fruit, plastic saints, plastic covering the statue of Jesus, and behind it all, a pale blue plastic backdrop that looked like a used swimming-pool cover. It should have been the tackiest scene this side of the gift shop at Graceland.

So why should this photograph, taken by Dana Salvo in the home of a poor Mexican Indian, bring forth a sigh from the soul instead of a superficial giggle? It wasn't just the obvious signs of poverty, or the knowledge that the arrangement was a nacimiento, or home altar. Rather, I got the feeling that these poor offerings were not only accepted, but blessed. With that feeling, the altar changed: From an anthropological curiosity, it became a repository of faith.

About half of the 24 photos in this exhibition are nacimientos. Spaced evenly and tastefully in the pristine confines of the Lisa Sette Gallery in Scottsdale, the photographs show altars assembled from materials like garish wrapping paper, tinsel, Christmas ornaments, statues and photos of Jesus, Mary, and Catholic saints, and flowers, fruit, bread and candles. It's as if the sea of faith, receding, left this detritus on the shore, and these Indians picked up the pieces and made magic out of them.

Salvo, a Boston photographer, visited Chiapas, the Yucatan, Oaxaca, Michoacan, and other regions of Mexico during a five-year period, beginning in 1985. At that time, he and his family had gone to Mexico for health reasons, and happened to arrive during the Christmas season. Charmed by his young daughter, the Indians began to invite the whole family into their humble homes, where Salvo first caught sight of the nacimientos created for the annual Navidad rituals. He knew he had to photograph them.

Lisa Sette told me that two Hispanic women who came into the gallery to look at the photos were dumbstruck that anyone would consider the altars objects of serious art. "We grew up with these things," they said. For them, the altars were like a Midwestern grandma's bric-a-brac collection. But in the context of photography, and with Salvo's skill, even these two women admitted that the altars created a powerful effect.

At first I thought Salvo was more anthropologist than artist with this project. He didn't create these things, he only encountered them. I figured he provided the technical skill--some of these exposures were minutes long--and the Indians provided the art. But later I learned the process was more complicated.

Salvo made Polaroid exposures as test shots before setting up his four-by-five camera. When he showed these to his hosts, they would see the altars from a more distanced perspective, and that caused them to rearrange elements, or make additions. So in some cases Salvo was more a collaborator than a simple recorder.

But I can't imagine Salvo being unaffected by these scenes anyway. They are too poignant and powerful. Heaven and Earth coincide. Into the horizontal of a difficult earthly life descends the vertical of a much more sublime one. You can see parts of both kinds of life through the elements of each: Plastic bananas and limes hang like moons and stars in a frame of marigolds, the Aztec sacred flower of death. A television set stands near a garishly decorated statue of the Virgin. Family photos nestle next to those of saints. These people weave together the sacred and the profane, they themselves forming the link between the two.

Unlike our own culture, which confines the ineffable to special buildings and special times, the Mexican Indian lives within and among spiritual things. True, these altars don't exist year-round, but these people tie themselves much more closely to a liturgical calendar than we other Norteamericanos.

These nacimientos are a pleasing counterpoint to the huge, garish outdoor Christmas displays festooning many Valley homes. It's illuminating to compare the two. Ours cost hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars; perhaps the Mexican Indians make comparable sacrifices, but the results are much more humble. Ours are plugged in: They blink, they move, they sing; the altars glow only by candlelight. Ours are outside, for others to see; theirs are inside, for private contemplation. Finally, ours about Santa Claus and Frosty the Snowman; theirs are about Jesus, Mary, and Aztec deities.

Every holiday season somebody comes along to remind us of the True Meaning of Christmas, as if there were just one. These photos remind us that a life of faith is made up of a host of forces. On these altars, we find both death and eternity, Christianity and paganism, poverty and riches, austerity and idolatry. They make us wrestle with ourselves, which is what good art is supposed to do.

By way of contrast, Anne Coe's paintings at the Elaine Horwitch Galleries let us rest in our complacency. What's the big deal? they seem to say. Lighten up and laugh. Coe paints animals--everything from badgers to bears, leopards to lizards--in odd situations, usually trashing some human environment, as if in some lighthearted revenge of nature. Each is like an expensive gag greeting card, with the title being the punch line. The feeling is somewhere between Honky Tonk Sue and Gary Larson's The Far Side. Some examples:

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