Should you survive illness, be freed from false imprisonment or witness the safe return of your missing pig in 19th- or 20th-century Mexico, the proper response would be to express your gratitude to Christ, the saints or the virgins who saved you, via a narrative painting. The painting would then be presented at the altar, exposing the believer’s experience and sentiment to the world.
It is precisely that style of visual gratitude and humility, mixed with Christian iconography, that we see in Private/Public: Images of Devotion From 19th and Early 20th Century Mexico at UNLV’s Barrick Museum. Curated by Emmanuel Ortega, who teaches Mexican Art History at UNLV, the exhibit of ex-votos and retablos—culled from a private Las Vegas collection and the museum’s Braunstein Collection—includes dozens of religions paintings, sculpture and silver offerings.
The small, narrative paintings on sheets of tin are as intensely personal as they are intimate in scale. Far from decorative folk art and bereft of the European painting styles or official Academy rules, these visual declarations stand on their own as precious and telling personal testaments and documented miracles told in text and image.
“It is not about the individuality of the practice of the artist, or about European art or the Academy or the Guild,” Ortega says. “The bottom line was to bring that ex-voto to the altar, to get that message across.” Still, he adds, “There is inherent beauty in them.”
Artists would render the scenario of the miracle for the client who requested it: Vicente Melendes gave thanks in 1882 for being saved when run over by a wheel of a cart; in 1918, Francisco Martinez had invoked Our Lord of Clemency for “head shooting pain”; and in 1947 the Holy Virgin of San Juan de los Lagos was thanked for saving the gracious victim who’d been shot by a home intruder.
Among the works are 19th-century paintings of saints, portraits of virgins or depictions of sinners kneeling before Christ. The exhibit also includes a contemporary series of ex-votos by artist Matthew Couper, who lives in Las Vegas. His oil-on-metal paintings depict the artist praying for strength to complete a painting for a residency, explaining a new swear jar and plans to get fit by cycling.
Private/Public Through September; Monday-Wednesday & Friday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thursday, 9 a.m.-8 p.m.: Saturday, noon-5 p.m. Barrick Museum, 895-3381