SAN DIEGO — “It is the past and current history of Raza that is the resource I take as a visual artist. It has given me my voice,” wrote Yolanda López in 1978, when she was 36 years old. This text introduced Lopez’s MFA exhibition at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), where she, the only student of color in the program, debuted a body of work whose imagery would reshape the visual language of Chicanx feminism. Yolanda López: Portrait of the Artist, on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego (MCASD), presents an edited and expanded version of López’s groundbreaking MFA show, celebrating the contributions of this long-admired artist-activist in her first solo museum exhibition.
Portrait of the Artist takes its title from López’s most iconic work, “Portrait of the Artist as the Virgin of Guadalupe” (1978), one of a triptych of portraits in which López reimagines the Virgin through a critical feminist lens, casting her mother, grandmother, and herself in the role of a liberated Guadalupe. “It is a call to look at women,” López wrote in her artist statement, as “hardworking, enduring, and mundane, as the heroines of our daily routine.” López’s self-portrait is a modestly scaled, richly colored pastel drawing that pictures a broadly grinning López bounding out of the Virgin’s radiant halo, clutching her star-spangled mantle in one hand and a snake in the other as her muscular legs and sneaker-clad feet trample an unfortunately positioned angel. This image, which the exhibition curator Jill Dawsey describes as “anthemic,” has become one of the most celebrated artworks born out of the Chicano civil rights movement.
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Though López grew up in the Barrio Logan neighborhood of San Diego, she spent most of her life in San Francisco, leaving southern California as soon as she graduated high school, eager to escape the oppressive conservatism of San Diego’s then-dominant military culture. While a student at San Francisco State College (now University), she devoted herself to anti-war and Chicanx activism. She joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF) before becoming a founding member of Los Siete, a committee initially formed in defense of seven young Latino men accused of killing a police officer (they were ultimately acquitted), which then became a grassroots movement for Chicanx empowerment.
Portrait of the Artist focuses on works created during López’s brief return to San Diego between 1975 and 1978, with the inclusion of a handful of related works produced as late as 1988. The show opens with six of the nine monumental charcoal portraits of López, her mother, and grandmother that comprise the Three Generations: Tres Mujeres series. Gloriously overwhelming in scale, each woman mirrors the other’s poses against a stark white background, removing personal affect and becoming portraits of collective power. “They stare right back at you, wrote López, “…[they] know who they are and demand acceptance on their own terms.”
While at UCSD, López negotiated the rarified spaces of both the art world and university as a woman, Chicana, and person of color, and foregrounded that experience in her art. The series ¿A Dónde Vas Chicana? Getting Through College literally and metaphorically illustrates the endurance this period of López’s life required. She became a cross-country runner and found running to be, as Dawsey writes in the exhibition catalogue, a “‘revelation’ that allowed her to embrace self-care and physical training as a feminist act.” In these paintings, an oversized López doggedly traverses the UCSD campus, dwarfing familiar landmarks and brutalist architecture; in the final image in the series, “Runner: On My Own!”(1977), she transcends the oppressive environment, propelling herself off the paper entirely.
López appears again in her running shorts and tank top in the series of 12 ebullient photographs that comprise “Tableaux Vivant” (1978), taken by friend and artist Susan Mogul. In them, López appears to rehearse for the “Portrait of the Artist as the Virgin of Guadalupe,” posing with various symbolic items, like a bouquet of paintbrushes, and experimenting with gestures such as a raised fist. Additional studies reveal the depth of López’s own investigation into the visual representation of Chicana women (or lack thereof) in contemporary culture. Combining imagery from family photos, art historical sources, and popular media such as National Geographic with a photocopied reproduction of the 16th-century Guadalupe portrait housed in Mexico City’s Basilica de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, López pieced together alternative realities for the Virgin and gave visual form to an inclusive range of Chicana identities and experiences. In “Nuestra Madre” (1981-88), the final work in the “Guadalupe” series, López returns Guadalupe to her precolonial roots. Removing what she referred to as “the thin veneer of Christianity” that the Spanish applied to the Aztec pantheon, López paints a massive portrait of Coatlicue de Coxcatlán, the Mother Goddess, Mother Earth, fashioned from stone and set within the Virgin’s blazing halo.
Even when laced with critique, López’s work remains inviting, finding its level between power and vulnerability. Her portraiture is devoid of sentimentality without sacrificing intimacy, and there is a tremendously satisfying cohesion to the works on view in this exhibition. I was, however, left with one lingering thought: in reiterating the emphasis on this period of López’s career, and particularly on the “Guadalupe” self-portrait, we risk narrowing the critical interpretation of half a century of art and life. López’s work over the past four decades has spanned video art (“When You Think of Mexico” 1985), installation (including the celebrated and well-traveled “Things I Never Told My Son about Being a Mexican” 1985), and printmaking (“Woman’s Work is Never Done,” c.1995-1999). In 2014, López even turned the personal threat of eviction into a performance piece. When I asked Dawsey about the decision to focus on the ’70s and ’80s, she explained that after considering the logistical challenges to mounting a retrospective in a relatively short amount of time, López, who worked closely with Dawsey and museum staff on all aspects of the exhibition, “ultimately preferred to focus on this body of work. She felt that it had coherence as a feminist corpus and called it a ‘compendium.’”
López is yet another member of a generation of women artists and artists of color whose influential careers receive little museum attention during their lifetime. López’s case is particularly heartrending, as she succumbed to her cancer just one month before the exhibition finally opened, after a year of COVID-19-related delays. Hopefully this introduction to López’s work fuels new scholarship, and leaves others equally curious to follow it beyond “Guadalupe.”
Yolanda López: Portrait of the Artist continues at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (1100 Kettner Boulevard, San Diego) through April 24.