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.

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