Torments of Faith

Daniel Martin Díaz takes Catholic representations into new and darker terrain

The night is dark, and the vibe is supercool during cocktail hour at the Hotel Congress.

Young couples jam into side tables near the bar, bathed in amber electric light. Others lounge on the couches, awaiting their turn in the packed Cup Café. Beneath the low din--the chatter, the clatter of dishes, the clink of glasses--the hunger for food, alcohol and sex is palpable.

Suffering Christs and sacred hearts are the last thing you'd expect to find here. But sacred art is what Tucson artist Daniel Martin Díaz is showing on the walls in this profane place.

The condemned Jesus, his head swathed in a crown of thorns, sweats blood as he prostrates his body on the ground in Díaz's painting "Verberantia." In another painting, "Resurrectio," he's in a coffin, awaiting Easter's dawn. His classic sacred heart, bound with thorns and erupting into a tongue of fire, is drawn in black in the etching "Cor Sanctum."

Appropriate as these pictures may be for the current penitential season of Lent--if not for a lobby bar--they are hardly the stuff of dogma. Díaz begins with the bleeding imagery of his parents' traditional Mexican Catholicism. He paints the sorrowful face of the Virgin Mary, the wounds of the crucified Christ, the heart in flames. But he takes these Catholic representations and flies away with them into new and darker terrain. His Jesuses and Marys and angels land in an exotic, even bizarre psychological space, where strange occult symbols are mixed in with familiar Christian icons.

In "Verberantia," for instance, the suffering Christ bleeding on the ground does not surprise us. But the instrument of his torments does. A disembodied hand floats above his bloodied back, and an all-seeing human eye is painted into its raised palm. The cruel hooks ripping into Jesus' flesh dangle down from this hand. A skull is at his side. Snake-like coils wrap around his body; another serpentine figure slithers on the ground. And a strange Latin text--Condemnant quod non intellegunt--is inscribed in old-fashioned letters across the bottom. They condemn that which they do not understand.

A raven stands on the Christly corpse in "Resurrectio," and the coffin lies next to an open grave that looks like the entrance to hell. From its fiery depths, pitchforks rise up, along with human hands begging for mercy.

A new book of Díaz's paintings, Mysterium Fidei (Mystery of Faith; La Luz de Jesus/Billy Shire Fine Arts Press), offers elusive clues to what he's doing. The self-taught artist, raised in Tucson, recounts that among his earliest memories is "the way death and religion played an important role in my family's life." His work "evokes the mystery, fear and irony of those vivid memories. ... I do not claim to understand these questions. I just paint and let them reveal themselves to me."

Faith is essentially without "logical explanation," as he notes, and once religion unmoors him from the demands of reason, Díaz can plunge unfettered into other imaginative realms. His surreal paintings would be pure Id, if the Id had ever found religion.

For all his wildness, though, Díaz draws on multiple art-historical sources. The retablos and ex-votos of Mexican folk art are most recognizable in his pictures. These forms have always been on the far side of Church orthodoxy, and folk painters have felt free to mix dreams and visions into more standard religious scenes. Likewise, the wild "Apocalyptic Resurrection," reproduced in the book, has poor Jesus pulling himself out of the earth, to find neither angels nor the faithful women who sought him at the tomb in the Gospels. Instead, this resurrected Jesus is confronted by a terrifying three-headed demon and monstrous writhing snakes crowned like kings.

Elsewhere, skulls fly about with wings; Jesus' severed head lies on a plate; skeletons embrace; and a woman has the body of a bird. Díaz pulls some of these medieval horrors straight out of Hieronymus Bosch, and his strangely still faces owe a debt to the flat, mysterious portrait paintings of Byzantine art.

Even so, his distinctive painting style is all his own, and it's won him considerable attention. He had a major show at the new Mesa Arts Center this winter; he has a new full-color monograph complete with scholarly essays; and his work has been sought out for CD covers and TV. Interestingly, given his heterodoxy, he's even been commissioned to paint altarpieces in a church in Guaymas, Sonora.

He typically works on distressed wood, using a media mix of oil paint, or old-fashioned egg tempera, to create limited-palette works in somber burnt sienna and blood red and black. Both the paintings and prints are meticulously drawn, with a strong black line. Elaborate frames that he crafts himself have the look of church pieces.

We're never entirely sure what the artworks have to say--and the untranslated Latin texts traced out on painted banners and lurking in the painted earth add to the sense that their meaning is just beyond our grasp. It's safe to say that Díaz's subject is torment, but he goes beyond the torments of faith into universal human suffering. Turning a compassionate eye on both the sacred and the profane, his paintings are like prayers offered up for those who sorrow and seek.

Which makes his art eminently suitable, after all, for the souls in the Hotel Congress.

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