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One Work: Yolanda López’s “Tableaux Vivant”

Yolanda López’s “Tableaux Vivant” series (1978) comprises twelve color photographs depicting the artist as a young woman wearing running shorts and sneakers, adopting various poses: grinning toothily while thrusting one fist in the air and clutching a bundle of paintbrushes in the other; standing in coy contrapposto with her head cocked to one side, left hand resting on her hip and right arm brandishing the brushes; or lunging forward, wielding the brushes like a sword. This iconic work in López’s oeuvre, on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego , also positions the artist as a saint: she stands in front of a body-height, hand-painted mandorla, while at her feet is a makeshift altar of everyday objects arranged on a traditional Mexican blanket, among them a potted plant, a ceramic jug, a Wonder Woman comic book, small American and Mexican flags, a pomegranate, a vase of flowers, and—most significantly—an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, as well as a red prayer candle dedicated to her, and an image of the associated Aztec fertility goddess Tonantzin.
A powerful symbol of womanhood in Mexican culture, the Virgin of Guadalupe is traditionally depicted as a humble and passive Mary, enshrined in a halo of light with her head bowed, eyes downcast, and hands in contemplative prayer. By contrast, López appears proud and active as a modern-Chicana-as-Virgin, surrounded by symbols establishing that she is a feminist, artist, and athlete. An example of performance for the camera, a genre artists engaged especially in the 1960s and ’70s to toy with gender roles and identities, the series shows López starting to explore her own sometimes contradictory identities: traditional Mexican American culture was not always hospitable to feminist ideas, and second-wave U.S. feminism sometimes excluded women of color. López experienced those tensions throughout her life; indeed, this is her first solo museum exhibition, and it opened just one month after her death at the age of 78. Her long, notable career blossomed from this playful seed. shares always this Contents with License.

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