is a wood sculptor who defies accepted definitions of "tradition" in New Mexican art by creating colorful polychrome woodcarvings that honor centuries-old religious and social themes while transforming them into bold, often humorous commentaries on contemporary Hispanic life. Born in the tiny village of Agua Fria, just outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico, Tapia discovered his artistic motivations as a teen during the national Chicano movement of the late 1960s. The call for cultural awareness prompted Tapia to explore the artistry of his ancestors, who established a strong santero (a maker of religious images) tradition in the region beginning in 1598. Though he visited area museums to study traditional polychrome santos (saints), his first attempts at sculpting wood were in creating small-scale nudes. As his study into Spanish colonial art deepened, he began to make bultos (three-dimensional religious sculptures), retablos (religious images painted on wood), and even furniture.
Unsatisfied with merely duplicating old santos, Tapia expanded on traditional single-figure themes by sculpting multi-figured depictions of Old Testament subjects such as Noah's Ark and others. He shunned the then popular practice of making un-painted santos, and applied bright paints to his pine carvings. When homemade paints did not achieve the vivid colors he desired, he tried watercolors and egg tempera before finally opting for commercial acrylics. His use of paints underscored his belief that the old santos, while faded with age, were originally brightly painted. Tapia's theory, though disputed by some area scholars, influenced a revival of painted santos. Painted santos are now the standard among most santeros, though many prefer to mute their colors for an antique effect.
Though other artists followed Tapia's lead in creating painted works, none ventured into the broad conceptual realm of original ideas that distinguishes the artist's work as a contemporary visionary. Tapia's commentaries on modern religious, social, and political culture range from updated representations of saints, to serious examinations of crime and other social stigmas, to irreverent and humorous parodies of politics and everyday life. His meticulously carved and painted works employ familiar details of popular culture-such as cars, tattoos, golf courses, even one's weekly laundry-to encourage viewers to examine their own feelings about religion or politics, or to simply laugh and be entertained. Among Tapia's most popular images are his lowrider cars and life-sized "dashboard altar" installations, both of which explore religious themes within the context of contemporary car culture.
Tapia's work has been exhibited and acclaimed internationally by museums and private collectors. The artist has made hundreds of works, and both his single- and multi-figured images include complex architectural and conceptual environments that demand to be viewed fully in the round. The artist's subject matter and palette continue to expand into a truly limitless repertoire of profound and thought-provoking sculptures that transcend boundaries in culture and art.
See also Bultos; Furniture, Painted and Decorated; Painting, American Folk; Religious Folk Art; Retablos; Santeros; Sculpture, Folk; Tattoo.