Ruben Maqueda makes art in this tradition, but mercifully, Maqueda manages to bring some contemporary kick to "Tradiciones de Mi Gente (Traditions of My People)," his show of photography and art at Museo Chicano in downtown Phoenix. It's a mixed aesthetic; some of the pieces tweak tradition and make it new again, while others adhere too faithfully to the old way.
The best work is Maqueda's striking photographs of descansos (wooden crosses erected along roadsides to commemorate a dead person). He has used a computer to pump up the colors to the garish intensity of the plastic flowers typically adorning these humble memorials, and he glues glitter onto some of the images. It's digital age meets dollar store, a knowing wink at the anti-intellectualism that runs beneath much folk art.
An altar for the victims of Hurricane Katrina and the tsunami dominates the gallery. Maqueda surrounds the requisite skeletons with a heap of busted phones, shattered cinder blocks, scratched CDs, bent wire, broken toys and jagged pieces of plastic. White wooden crosses jut from the pile of detritus. A Day of the Dead altar isn't wildly original, but see the assemblage from across the room and you immediately think of flood wreckage. Maqueda has turned a centuries-old Mexican folk custom into 21st-century visual shorthand for the inescapable TV images of destruction on the Gulf Coast and in Sri Lanka, the ones we keep seeing in our heads. The altar is oddly comforting, even to those of us who are neither Hispanic nor Catholic. Somehow, seeing the recent, raw tragedies depicted in the old, familiar conventions of folk art makes you believe that this, too, shall pass.