"Fluorescent Virgins" exhibit illuminates local artists' work for Dia de los Muertos

Cesar Chavez Student Center
Pilar Gordillo is co-curator of the Fluorescent Virgins exhibit at the Cesar Chavez Student Center’s Art Gallery. She attributes the idea for the show to friends asking her to arrange altars like the one in her own home. Photo by Tearsa Joy Hammock / Xpress.

In a dimly lit gallery, images of the Virgin Mary with hands folded in prayer glow through lightbox displays of blinking fluorescent colors. Arranged on ceremonial altars dedicated to the dead, the components of the displays vary, but each reflects the artist’s personality and the lives of loved ones who have passed.

“Fluorescent Virgins: Contemporary Altars and Offerings for the Dead” is a featured exhibit at the Cesar Chavez Student Center Art Gallery celebrating Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. The Latino tradition is celebrated Nov. 1 and often honored in conjunction or associated with All Saints’ Day before All Souls’ Day Nov. 2.

This year, SF State artist Pilar Gordillo brought her vision of reinventing the old tradition. Gordillo, local artists and student organization el Movimiento Estudiantil Chicana de Aztlán at SF State came together to contribute their contemporary perspectives on the holiday.

“The idea started when I got here and proposed it a year ago, and I tried to relate it to the Mission District, which is one of my biggest inspirations,” Gordillo, a visual communications major, said. “Somehow, I found all these markets around the Mission and it intrigued me, which made me feel like I was back home.”

The Peru native moved to San Francisco four years ago and quickly identified to the thriving culture of the Mission markets. There she met people with whom she was able to relate — and most of them happened to be artists.

Cesar Chavez Student Center
Six students from MEChA contributed their artistic efforts to an altar to display in the exhibit. Photo by Tearsa Joy Hammock / Xpress.

Gordillo realized the opportunity to share the culture through celebration of Dia de los Muertos. “Fluorescent Virgins” is her way to connect and have sentimental feelings with the deceased in the most personal display of affection.

“We (the artists) wanted to show something that we have in our room that’s very intimate and (is a) narrative of our lives; the stories that we had involving strangers, ex-lovers, friends and family,” Gordillo said. “The other artists and I wanted to bring it all together into an art exhibit with tons of imagery where you can learn about the Day of the Dead.”

Since Gordillo proposed the idea of “Fluorescent Virgins,” she acts as a co-curator to the exhibit, along with Art Gallery Director Carolyn Ho. The gallery has been open since Oct. 25, but the opening reception will start at 5 p.m. for Dia de los Muertos Nov. 1. The first 50 attendees will receive candles to decorate on the altar and may leave personal items to remember their loved ones. In addition, there will be a workshop teaching visitors how to make marigold flowers from tissue paper, which is another ceremonial item associated with the holiday.

“(What) we’re doing for this exhibit in particular is to have a bunch of empty frames for people to decorate and put photos of their deceased,” Ho said. “It’s not fun to have an art exhibit where you come to just look at stuff, so I always like it when we can make people feel like they are associated with the show.”

Gordillo said there will also be a station for visitors to write letters to the dead that they can leave on the altar. She explained the public has the freedom to display what they like, encouraging people to make the altar their own.

“All their objects can be ceremonial-related and can be domestic items,” Gordillo said. “We’re going to encourage people to add to the community altar that reflects their loved ones and relatives who have passed.”

Gordillo explained that “Fluorescent Virgins” is a diverse expression of art. Though there is a theme and everything is related, each altar is the artist’s own and students can agree.

“The art gallery surprises me every time and it just gets better, especially this one,” Genevieve Leighton, a criminal justice major, said. “‘Fluorescent Virgins’ is themed well and it revolves around Day of the Dead, which we never had here before.”

Featured artists are Dick Van Dick, Gabriela Sanchez, Hannah Birch Carl, Ivana Pinto, MEChA and Gordillo. Whether the altar is the artist’s expressions of struggling with mortality, the belief of something higher and greater, or the memories and adoration of the deceased, each piece is unique.

“We find diversity here on campus and we want to convey that through our altars,” Gordillo said.

“Fluorescent Virgins” opened Oct. 25 and runs through Nov. 8. The reception is Nov. 1 from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. The gallery asks that contributors to the community altar retrieve their items no later than Nov. 9.