Thank You, and Help
Fifty-Three Stories of Gratitude and Saints
Ex-voto paintings are thank-yous and requests. They are not art objects in the modern sense, disconnected from life's chains of causes and effects—they take part in real events: An appeal has been granted, a prayer answered, a protection is still needed, therefore oil paint is applied to a scrap of metal. The three young Vilchis brothers of Mexico make especially contemporary ex-votos. Some are commissioned, others inspired by stories they hear.
"Armando is infinitely grateful to San Sebastian," the caption under one of their paintings reads (but in Spanish), "because Felipe is by his side asking forgiveness for having doubted him, thinking he was with another man." In the picture are two simply drawn men sitting on a red bedspread in their bikini underwear, gazing across the room at a hovering Saint Sebastian, who is tied to a tree and bleeding from the arrows piercing his fine six-pack.
The Vilchis brothers, who live in a working-class barrio of Mexico City, are Hugo Alfredo, Daniel Alonso, and Luis Angel. (Their father is renowned self-taught ex-voto painter Alfredo Vilchis Roque.) Fifty-three of their paintings line a long wall at Vermillion—each a modest rectangle of metal just larger than a place mat, with a nail hole in the top—sharing the gallery with larger, also wry, oils on canvas with glittery text by Seattle artist Kelly Lyles.
The show is called La Condicion Humana, and what a condition we are in. So many cheaters have not been caught! Lion tamers have narrowly survived. Farmers have been saved from their horses by their dogs. Much drinking has been followed by much poor decision-making. A butcher nearly cut off his hand when he was distracted by the legs of a lady customer. In one Vilchis painting, as a wife waits, lying buxom and half-naked on the bed, the husband turns to the saint floating in the corner of the bedroom to sneak in a thanks for Viagra.
In addition to sympathizing utterly, you will laugh out loud. An additional man grateful for Viagra is painted sitting stiffly upright in bed next to his lady, with his arms straight up in the air, as if the drug had affected his entire being (he is excited about being excited). A grumpy-faced farmer named Puebla salutes the man with the crucifix hat in the sky: "I dedicate this to the Virgin of San Juan, for sending me relief from the fucking rheumatism. Today I can return to work my land and I ask you not to forget to bless my land so it gives me a crop." Get on it, saint.