In October of 2021, Yolanda Lopez: Portrait of the Artist opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, one month after López died at age 78 in San Francisco.
The Chicana artist didn’t live long enough to see herself the subject of her first solo museum show. But this week the traveling exhibit reopens at the San Jose Museum of Art. It’s both a retrospective and overdue tribute to López’s art and activism.
“That exhibition renewed a lot of passion and interest in Yolanda’s work,” says curator Nidhi Gandhi. “Given that Yolanda was a longtime resident and community member of San Francisco and the larger Bay Area, we felt it was really important that the show come to the Bay Area [so] the community would be able to see these works exhibited.”
The collection focuses on 50-plus paintings, drawings and collages López produced mostly in the 1970s and ’80s. Born to migrant parents from Mexico in 1942 in San Diego, López enrolled at San Francisco State University where, in the late-1960s, she became involved in local politics. The museum displays reproductions of some of her political posters and flyers, including ones she designed to raise awareness for Los Siete de la Raza, the name given to the seven young Latino men who were falsely accused of killing a police officer in S.F. in 1969 (and eventually acquitted).
After returning to San Diego in the 1970s, López started one of her first projects, Tres Mujeres: Three Generations, a group of large-scale charcoal portraits of herself, her mother and her grandmother. López draws Mexican-American women and the female form in a realistic way that evades any trace of caricature.
“She was very interested in representations of Chicana women and presenting this matriarchal lineage in her family,” says Gandhi. “She’s trying to explore a sense of self-presentation, the agency that each woman has. She’s also thinking about the legacy of Chicano murals that often depicted male heroes in Chicano history. How do you present Chicana women as heroes, the everyday woman as a person to look up to?”
López’s family reappears in her most recognizable work, a series of paintings begun in 1978 that pay homage to the Virgin of Guadalupe with a feminist twist. In 1978’s Portrait of the Artist as the Virgin of Guadalupe, for example, López reimages herself as the Virgin draped in the star-covered cloak. Only she’s wearing a short, pink dress and sneakers, holding a snake and running over an angel. She renders her mother and grandmother in similar paintings that reinterpret the Catholic icon. López not only uses Chicano culture as inspiration but rebels against its stereotypes.
“There’s a very particular choice by Yolanda in bearing her legs in that dress,” Gandhi says. “The original gown is extremely modest and the Virgin Mary is so associated with modesty and the ideal woman. So to flip that on its head and say that the bearing of her athletic legs is another way of seeing herself as the ideal woman is fairly controversial, but also quite revolutionary.”
While at UC San Diego, López created another series of paintings that depict her as a long-distance runner. Runner: On My Own!, from 1977, shows the artist running past the campus’s various buildings.
“For Yolanda, this was a symbol of her escaping the oppressive confines of academia and this institution of learning,” Gandhi says. “Running was a liberatory act for her.”
López went beyond works on paper. The exhibit also highlights black-and-white photographs she took in 1979 of members of Las Santas Locas, an all-female, low-rider club in the Mission.
Today, López’s influence is still growing. Her artwork is in a collection that opened at the Smithsonian Art Museum in 2020. And in 2021, several artists painted murals of López on an affordable housing building on Folsom Street in S.F.
“It’s so easy in her work to see not just the origins on feminist thinking but many points of resonance, because so many of the issues she was thinking about have not been resolved,” Gandhi says. “All of her art contributed towards her activism. She’s a role model to artists who find making art for art’s sake not enough anymore. Her thinking about this was beyond her time.”
Yolanda López: Portrait of the Artist
Opens Fri, 11 am, $10
San Jose Museum of Art