Barely 100 yards from La Conquistadora's stronghold in the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis, a new statue of Our Lady waits to be burned.
This one's made of white wax on the outside, with a wick poking out the top. Her head will someday melt, revealing layers of beige and brown.
The dramatic transformation intended for the work won't occur during its stay in Ellsworth Gallery's front window, though. I saw the Virgin's true colors myself on a visit to Martin Wannam's studio at the UNM Mattox Sculpture Center in Albuquerque, where he has a half-melted copy of the candle propped up on cinder blocks.
We spoke about his exhibit, They, which opened at Ellsworth on Jan. 10 but is having a public reception this Friday. Wannam says the piece in wax is an opportunity to speak to "the subject of whiteness, specifically about how religious iconography predominately is white."
"I'm getting to think about brown subjects, and thinking about myself and my experience," he says. "The default beauty has always been imposed…thinking that we're white or trying to fit this ideal, but we are not, right? So we have to deconstruct ourselves."
The title of the exhibit is a nod to the multitude of individuals who do not fit the mainstream heteronormative, white, colonial narrative.
Wannam is from Guatemala and is pursuing an MFA in photography at UNM, while also working part-time at SITE Santa Fe. His work mixes photography, sculpture and performance, constructing and deconstructing moments familiar to queer Latinx people in subtle sleights-of-hand that are fully intended to deceive and draw long second looks.
The image used to publicize They is a photo of Wannam's friend posed like a saint or the Virgin, but awash in soft pastel colors and clearly quite queer.
"I have this piece back home framed in my parents' house, and my grandma… her memory's in the past," Wannam tells SFR. "Every time she passes that frame, she's like, 'the Virgin is so beautiful.' And the woman who takes care of her just smiles… That's what my utopia means as well."
In a few works of sculpture, insulating foam has been crammed into a frame-shaped space and bursts at the edges, defining its own geometry as it engulfs little plastic saint statues.
"I'm caught up in myself. Because I was raised in a heterosexual Catholic environment I'm like, 'ugh I cannot do that,'" Wannam says when I ask about his process behind the work. "But then I'm like, 'of course I can…' [I've been] thinking about specific social constructs that we have to follow, that specific action of queerness and thinking like, 'no, we can swallow them,' but they're still there, a little bit."
In his role as a performance artist, Wannam has swallowed chocolate versions of baby Jesus in front of Guatemalan churches.
"People don't even stop," he says. "I like the idea of being near church, I'm quite interested in disrespecting specific beliefs of people. Not in trying to be like, 'I wanna disrespect you,' but the idea of making someone think outside of what they are used to, even to make them mad—I love that."
Despite its subversive and contemporary appeal, Wannam is engaged in a centuries-old tradition of altering Catholic imagery. There are plenty of connections to be made between They and, for instance, the early Spanish Colonial Cuzco School paintings of the 1600s. Where Indigenous artists once used native plants to decorate their paintings, Wannam appropriates the glittery plastic found littering urban scenes; he alters representations of people to make them more familiar to an intended audience, asserting a new narrative while taking on outwardly "reverent" appearances.
In Wannam's case, it's not so much an appearance as a total inversion of the divine, making people into saints and elevating lived human experiences. For a moment, we can join Wannam in his utopia and reject the conditions of the here and now—conditions that produce violence and trauma; for our survival, we must find time to do so, and They is an essential work towards that end.