Cosas: Luis Tapia's 'Chima Altar, Bertram’s Cruise'

Luis Tapia, Chima Altar, Bertram’s Cruise, 1992, carved and painted wood, photo by Blair Clark 

Lowriders often serve as the canvas for devotional art and iconography from the Roman Catholic tradition. Conversely, contemporary expressions of Hispanic devotional art sometimes include imagery of lowriders or other sweet rides.

New Mexico sculptor Luis Tapia’s painted bulto, Chima Altar, Bertram’s Cruise (1992), is unique because the religious iconography is presented in the form of a dashboard altar. The two front seats before the altar represent the chairs reserved for the priests in the Catholic church “except they’re tuck and rolled,” says Tapia.

The artist made approximately six such “Chima Altars,” inspired by the memory of his mother’s car.

“When I was a little kid, I remember that she had all these little saints on the dashboard, hanging from the rosaries, hanging from the mirrors.”

This one is on exhibit in Santo Lowride: Norteño Car Culture and the Santos Tradition at the Harwood Museum of Art (238 Ledoux St., Taos, 575-758-9826, through Oct. 10.

The title is a reference to a specific car.

“It belonged to my landlord’s son when I was renting my studio up in Remuda Ridge. He was an all-around mechanic sort of guy. He didn’t do it professionally, but he was always working on cars. He had this ’53 Buick Special in the lot, and I was always fascinated with the dashboard.”

Facing the driver’s seat is a steering wheel in the form of a crown of thorns enclosing the cross and sacred heart of Jesus. On the dash above the fuel gauge, speedometer, and car radio, Tapia depicts two carved santos: San Rafael, the patron saint of travelers, on the left and St. Francis on the right. The view from the windshield depicts the road ahead. In the rear-view mirror is the image of a carreta de la muerte (death cart), with the skeletal figure of Doña Sebastiana, whose presence cautions us to be mindful of the road we choose and use what time we have wisely because, as Tapia says, “She’s always with us.”

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