Luis Tapia is a pioneering Chicano artist who for forty-five years has pushed the art of polychrome wood sculpture to new levels of craftsmanship and social and political commentary. Tapia’s extraordinary figurative works speak to the complexity of a multilayered Latino/Hispano/Chicano identity, history, and contemporary culture, offering compelling insights and challenging perspectives on life in the barrio, on the border, and beyond.
Rooted in a folk art tradition established in seventeenth-century New Mexico, Tapia’s work at once honors its origins, reinterprets traditional subject matter, and revitalizes age-old techniques. Setting his subjects in innovative spatial and conceptual environments, Tapia illuminates the social, political, and religious issues of yesterday and today, and the joy and humor of daily life. His meticulously carved and painted figures flaunt brilliant color and intricate detail, utilizing symbols from history and popular culture with profound, playful, or provocative visual effect.
Tapia was born in 1950 in the village of Agua Fria, just outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico, and fully embraced his creativity during the Chicano movement of the late 1960s. The call for cultural awareness prompted Tapia to explore the artistry of his ancestors, who had established a strong tradition of making polychrome santos (saints) for home and religious use beginning in 1598, when New Mexico became a Spanish colony. The tradition continued under the region’s rule by Mexico from 1821 to 1846.
Unsatisfied with the convention of duplicating traditional subject matter and techniques, Tapia expanded on classic single-figure themes. He shunned the then-popular practice of making unpainted santos, instead applying bright paints to his carvings from local woods, as early New Mexico santeros (saint makers) had done. When homemade paints did not achieve the vivid colors he desired, Tapia opted for commercial acrylics. This approach underscored his belief that centuries-old santos, now faded with age, were originally brightly painted (a fact later confirmed by conservation scientists).
Though controversial at the time, the move quickly set Tapia’s work apart for its colorful balance of devotion to local woodcarving traditions and its artistic defiance to outdated, and often miscast, ideas of what “traditional” art should look like.
After taking the lead in reintroducing painted santos, now a standard practice among New Mexico santeros, Tapia again broke new ground. This time, the artist shed the culturally confining santero identity, venturing into the broad conceptual realm of sculpting works based on original ideas and commentaries reflecting modern life. His repertoire evolved to now include hundreds of works that continually push the envelope of his color palette and subject matter, including single- and multi-figured images set in complex architectural and conceptual environments that demand to be viewed fully in the round.
As renowned art and cultural critic Lucy Lippard has said, "Tapia is famous for breaking away from stylistic confinement while maintaining cultural continuity. He has disrupted the expectations of his genre while creating an art responsive to its own times, a complex task acknowledging and exploring the contradictions of modern life, or la vida loca.”
Today, Tapia continues to break barriers in his medium, inspiring other Hispano artists to follow his lead. His works have been exhibited internationally, and acquired by private collectors and museums. His work has been widely reviewed and included in several publications, and he has received many awards for his contributions, including the 1996 New Mexico Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts, the state’s highest artistic honor.