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Walking among saints and sinners at Fowler Museum

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The image of bandit Jesus Malverde turns up as a kind of venerated saint inside "Quitapesares (Solace)," a makeshift chapel by artist Maria Romero erected near the end of a large new exhibition at the UCLA Fowler Museum.

On May 3, 1909, the outlaw was hanged from a tree in the town of Culiacán, capital of Sinaloa near the country's northwest coast, by the federal government of Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz.

He was left to rot in the sun.

At least, that's what people say. Historians have found no evidence that the story is true. In fact, it is doubtful the outlaw ever lived.

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Legend says he was an ordinary fellow who battled the rich to help the poor. A sinning saint — or saintly sinner — Malverde is Mexico's Robin Hood. In a century's time he has become a regional folk figure of considerable renown.

And considerable complexity. Even his name shows how.

Malverde combines dark, crushing "evil" (mal) with hopeful regeneration implied by springtime "green" (verde). Religious inflection is added by his given name, Jesus, among the most popular in Catholic Mexico. Together, the neologism speaks of a cleansing of sin.

Romero's tent-like chapel is just large enough for two or three people to enter at one time. The installation sculpture is erected from the clothing of deceased friends and family. Step up onto a floor covered in cheap linoleum, whose beige tile pattern crosses carpet with stone.

Fabrics form the walls and roof, while bundled cloth strips dangle like ornamental ribbons. The side walls are adorned with painted or collaged figures of a mustachioed man, which a label says represents a fusion of typical depictions of the mythic Malverde and the artist's own absent father. Personal mingles with political.

The most arresting element is a vividly colored, quilt-like wall hanging that covers the rear wall. Riotous blooms of hibiscus and fruits picture an elaborate tree of life. The profusion springs from sturdy roots adorned with upside-down cloth dolls of the mustachioed man.

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Lovely, poignant and quietly mysterious, Romero's homey chapel is a standout among the recent art in the show "Sinful Saints and Saintly Sinners at the Margins of the Americas." The exhibition, sizable if somewhat jumbled, looks at a variety of mythic figures who fuse the sacred and the profane in areas that encompass parts of the Southern and western United States, Mexico, Guatemala, Argentina and Brazil.

Fowler curator Patrick A. Polk has brought together examples of folk, popular and fine art. The subjects defy simple, binary characterizations of good and evil. Forget god or devil, hero or villain. These saintly sinners (and vice versa) instead operate in a gray zone that incorporates both.

Think of Malverde. In the wake of Porfirian campaigns for Mexico's modernization, he began life as a defender of the dispossessed and forgotten in the early 20th century imagination. By the end of the century he was breaking bad: Malverde is today a so-called narco saint — a Walter White for the Sinaloa drug cartels.

The others are equally varied. Among them are "Voodoo Queen" Marie Laveau from 19th century New Orleans, part selfless giver to charity and part dispenser of snake oil; the Native American figure of Coyote, a wise cross between animal and human who often functions as an impish catalyst for social chaos; and, Santa Muerte — Holy Death — a Mexican skeleton-woman whose combination of aristocratic robes and farmer's sickle suggests a collision between the altruistic Virgin Mary and the doomsday Grim Reaper. Her skeleton form can be traced to Mesoamerican death cults.

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Santa Muerte's skull and Malverde's head turn up affixed to assorted ancient gods in fine, painted clay sculptures by Oaxaca artist Demián Flores. He seamlessly merges Aztec, Mayan and other Pre-Columbian idioms with contemporary motifs, producing primal "artifacts."

Some works represent personal fictions. New Mexico artist Delilah Montoya's character of San Sebastiana is a martyred woman with a shaved head painted like a skull. Shown in photographs and a video, she blends Santa Muerte with a pop star (sort of "Real Housewives of Albuquerque").

Three painted, highly individualized portrait banners by Alma Lopez characterize lesbians as queer saints. Their differences from socially defined norms are formally sanctified through simple appropriation of Catholic artistic traditions.

Perhaps the most powerful single group of objects dates from 19th century Guatemala. Small, skillfully carved wooden skeletons sport deeply shadowed eye sockets and the inevitable grin of a raw skull's bared teeth. The finest is dressed in a well-preserved cape of crimson satin worn over a delicate lace tunic, a small tin crown capped by a cross resting lightly atop his head. El Rey San Pascual — sometimes called the King of the Graveyard — embodies the power and even glory of mortality.

He's an old Mayan figure visually related to the more modern Santa Muerte. These sculptures derive from the widespread Spanish Colonial tradition of santos, carved and often elaborately dressed figures representing innumerable Catholic saints, made for public and private veneration. But conventional saints are always the good guys, rewarded for unblemished piety or wholesale conversion.

Not this one. Rey Pascual parades a distilled pageant of conflicting human motivations of pomp and fearsomeness. Unsurprisingly, the folk figure and his distinctive fusion are not officially recognized by the church.

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To establish the artistic difference between idealized purity and saintly sinners' messier, more conflicted condition, the Fowler show starts off with a display of penitent saints. Then it moves on to images of purgatory — that "in-between" state after death, where the fires of purification prepare those not quite ready for heavenly prime time.

This opening sequence includes three Mexican paintings on tin, several Guatemalan santos and two Peruvian works — a folk figure of St. Sebastian and a more academic painting of a penitent nun (she's stripped to the waist and engaged in a bloody ritual of self-flagellation). There's even a late-20th century ceramic jar from Jalisco, Mexico, painted with a sinner from Calvary condemned to the flames.

Subsequent rooms focus on a single theme or artist. The sequence can be a bit difficult to follow, as might be imagined given such a broad swath of cultures and geography — not all of them intimately tied to Christian ritual. (A catalog, unfortunately not yet published, is forthcoming.) Focused on subject matter and narratives at the expense of formal character, the quality of the selected work is also wildly uneven.

Zé Pelintra, for example, is an Afro-Brazilian dandy recognizable from his tropical white duds and crimson necktie and saddle shoes. A spiritual guardian of the barroom and gambling den, he is represented here by a diverse selection of paintings, sculptures, drawings and photographs, some pedestrian and others beguiling.

But, as with the Native American Coyote, I couldn't tell whether a distinguishing connection was being made with all the Catholic iconography that dominates the exhibition.

One thing, however, is clear: This swaggering party animal would be a blast for a night out on the town, but I'd sure as heck keep an eye on my wallet.

christopher.knight@latimes.com

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'Sinful Saints and Saintly Sinners at the Margins of the Americas'

Where: UCLA Fowler Museum, 308 Charles E. Young Drive N., Westwood

When: Through July 20. Closed Monday and Tuesday

Contact: (310) 825-4361, http://www.fowler.ucla.edu

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