Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live

Arts & Culture

'Always in her youthfulness and in her hunger': Yolanda López at MCASD

Yolanda López, at left in 1978 as part of her "Tableaux Vivant" series by photographer Susan Mogul, and at right in an undated photo by photographer Alexa "LexMex" Treviño.
Susan Mogul, Alexa "LexMex" Treviño, courtesy of MCASD
Yolanda López, at left in 1978 as part of her "Tableaux Vivant" series by photographer Susan Mogul, and at right in an undated photo by photographer Alexa "LexMex" Treviño.

"Yolanda López: Portrait of the Artist" opens at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego this weekend.

This weekend, the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego reopens for the first time since the pandemic began in March 2020. They will open with a major retrospective of work from Chicana artist and activist Yolanda López, who died Sept. 3 at the age of 79.

RELATED: Remembering Yolanda López, Chicana Artist And Activist From Barrio Logan

López's art — and her activism — had a profound impact on the region.


"One of my favorite visions of Yolanda López has always been the photograph of herself inside of the Virgen de Guadalupe, just the look on her face, and to imagine her always in her youthfulness and in her hunger and her eagerness in that passion that she always had," said Leticia Gomez Franco, executive director of the Balboa Art Conservation Center who has curated López's work in the past.

"But I always think, what would I have done if I had been alive in the '70s, during the height of the Chicano movement? What role would I have played? And I love imagining myself as a young and vibrant Yolanda López posing for her roommate and what feels like such a natural installation piece of performance art. But I'm really excited to see her Virgen de Guadalupe series because those were the first of her pieces that I saw. And those were the first — the pieces where I saw myself, and I saw ourselves," Gomez Franco said.

Jill Dawsey, curator at the MCASD, said the piece Gomez Franco describes is one of López's significant works, a sort of performance piece from 1978 called "Tableau Vivant."

"It's a series of photographs that document López's performance, in which it's sort of conceptual art meets improv comedy meets political revolution. She's wearing her UCSD track shorts, and she has a handful of paintbrushes, which are the tools of her trade. And she's clasping them like a bouquet. Or she's holding them up in the air like a trophy. And you really have this sense of contagious exuberance that defines many of her works," Dawsey said.

A transformative period
The exhibition focuses primarily on López's work made during the 1970s and 1980s, when López returned to San Diego. The exhibition focuses on this time at UC San Diego through her return to the Bay Area in the late 1980s, and it's when López produces some of her more celebrated and notable works, like her Guadalupe series.

"Portrait of the Artist as Virgin of Guadalupe" by Yolanda Lopez
Yolanda López / Courtesy of MCASD
Yolanda López's 1978 work, "Portrait of the Artist as the Virgin of Guadalupe," will be on view at MCASD beginning Oct. 16, 2021.

"It's this period in which she — through her embrace of Chicana feminism — produces this feminist corpus of work that investigates and reimagines representations of women within iconic culture and society at large," Dawsey said.

Dawsey added that in the 1960s, López was part of the Third World Liberation Front and involved with the Los Siete de la Raza movement in the Bay Area. López returned to San Diego first to get her bachelors at San Diego State, then in 1975, she enrolled in the visual arts program at UC San Diego.

"When she returns to San Diego in the early '70s, she really is an extraordinarily accomplished artist and activist," Dawsey said."The work that she did in the 1970s completely informed everything she did after."

Also on view is the iconic "Portrait of the Artist as the Virgin of Guadalupe (1978)" work and her "Getting Through College" series — self-portraits of running through the eucalyptus-studded hills of UC San Diego with bold buildings depicting the institutions of the education system.

Yolanda López's "Runner: On My Own!" will be on view at MCASD beginning Oct. 16, 2021.
Yolanda López / Courtesy of MCASD
Yolanda López's "Runner: On My Own!" will be on view at MCASD beginning Oct. 16, 2021.

Works from her series, "Three Generations/Tres Mujeres" are also in the exhibition, plus drawings and collage works. It's a mix of well-known and never-before-seen works, nearly 50 works in total, said Dawsey.

Activism, the patriarchy and Chicano Park
Alessandra Moctezuma is gallery director and museum studies professor at San Diego Mesa College, and she teaches López's work in her Chicano art courses.

"I want people to understand that she was also an activist as much as she was an artist, she was struggling, fighting right now for renters rights against evictions in the Mission District. The work that she did with community is, I feel, as relevant as the work that she did as an artist," Moctezuma said.

Moctezuma said that what impacted her the most about López was the way she tackled ideas of the patriarchy. "And that was not just in terms of the American patriarchy, but also in terms of being a Latina and a Chicana artist," Moctezuma said.

López was never asked to paint a mural at Chicano Park but found a way to do it anyway — by empowering young women to help.

Gomez Franco said that she asked permission from the men involved with the Chicano Park murals but was denied. "So then they went at night and they painted a mural that still stands there today. They represented what it was like to be a woman during the Chicano movement and the lineage of women and powerful women in our heritage," Gomez Franco said.

Unintentionally posthumous
Moctezuma said that despite López's accomplishments, she didn't get the degree of recognition she deserved from the art world during her lifetime.

"I think again that's the fate of a lot of Chicano artists in general, Chicana artists in particular," Moctezuma said. "I think she struggled a lot to even make a living. And I just feel it's a sad part about it. I know that she was amazing and she accomplished so much in her life, but I just still feel that it's hard for that generation of artists to get recognized. I don't think, for example, there's ever been a big show here of the Chicano muralists that painted at Chicano Park. And I just hope that we don't wait until people die to recognize that."

The exhibition at MCASD was originally planned for the fall of 2020, but during the pandemic, it was postponed, meaning López did not live to see her exhibition.

With the added time, the works were sent to a conservation studio in Oakland.

"I just wish that Yolanda could have seen them, because as I walk through the show, I think of the many conversations we had about every single detail, the framing of every single work, and I believe that she would have been really happy with it," Dawsey said. "So in some ways, the show itself, really, her spirit is alive in it, and the works themselves have so much presence."

Institutional soul-searching
As the downtown museum reopens, finally, after the long pandemic shutdown, they're also looking towards reopening their newly renovated La Jolla campus.

"We are talking a lot about how we can be a more visitor-centric institution, a more welcoming museum where audiences can come and see themselves reflected. And I hope that that is what can happen with the exhibition, 'Yolanda López: Portrait of the Artist,'" Dawsey said. "For the museum field as a whole, we are feeling the need to to think about the colonialist origins of collecting institutions. What is the nature of an institution? How do we redress the cultural biases that have structured museums in this country for centuries and that are visibly reflected in our collections and our exhibitions?"

Dawsey added López's work is an example. "Lopez's self portraits were meant to invite identification with new visions of ordinary womanhood, and they were also meant to invite a kind of radical self appraisal and were inspired by the artist's own embrace of Chicana feminism," she said.

"Yolanda Lopez: Portrait of the Artist" will be on display at MCASD Saturday, Oct. 16 through Sunday, April 24, 2022. Located downtown - 1100 Kettner Boulevard, San Diego. Free Admission.
Beginning Oct. 16: Thursday through Sunday, 10 a.m. - 4 p.m. Visit