Most everything about Daniel Martin Diaz’s work is swept up in the mystical.
And that’s just fine with the 40-year-old Tucson artist, whose paintings of largely Christian themes and icons — often rendered surreal, bloody and brimming with symbolism — have earned him international acclaim and collectors including Good Charlotte rock brethren Benji and Joel Madden.
A retrospective exhibit, “Mysterium Fidei” (Latin for “mystery of faith”), runs through Dec. 2 at Mesa Contemporary Arts.
A superstitious sort, Diaz doesn’t like to talk too deeply about his creative process — “I just start working,” he says, “and it happens” — or the symbols he chooses. The self-trained artist doesn’t want to tamper with the delicate connection between his art and his subconscious.
Already, he says, “Every time I start a piece, I think, ‘Man, can I still paint?’ ”
Lately he’s been pondering the upcoming move to a bigger house. For more than a decade he, his wife and their teenage son have lived in a single-story block house in a middle-class neighborhood; in all that time, he’s worked at the same modest wooden dining table in a nook off the kitchen, near the sliding glass door that overlooks a massive airplane graveyard.
In the new house, Diaz will finally have a dedicated studio. This both intrigues and concerns him.
“I’ll be interested to see if the magic will be the same,” he says.
A lot is riding on the outcome. Diaz and his wife, Paula Diaz, who serves as his manager, have created a cottage industry from his art: He sells T-shirts, postcards and even CDs of the duo’s etherial rock band, Blind Divine, on the Web site www.mysticuspublishing.com. He’s a darling of the so-called “lowbrow” (urban) art scenes in New York and Los Angeles. In 2003, he supplied the artwork for the San Diego rap-metal band P.O.D.’s fifth album, “Payable on Death.”
That kind of reception is its own kind of mystery, Diaz figures, considering his work fits in what he calls “a weird threshold” — either too religious for the art gallery or too gory, too surreal, for the church.
“Right now, the art world is so secular,” he says, “if your work portrays religion in any way positive, you’re, like, shunned.”
And then there are the critics who consider his images — Christ pocked with bloody nails, lying in a coffin; the head of the Virgin Mary on the body of a serpentine beast; bones and veins and disembodied hands painted in rusty, moody hues — more profane than sacred.
Diaz’s response: “Whatever, dude.”
The work is intrinsically Southwestern, deeply rooted in Diaz’s early memories of the Catholic Church of the Southwest and Mexico (he would often visit his father’s family across the border). In the devotional art he witnessed, he says, the Crucifixion is depicted in all its brutality; the Virgin Mary is given a supernatural reverence.
“I’m always trying to capture the suffering, the sorrow that’s associated with faith,” Diaz says. “I’m trying to capture the passion and suffering that we all go through.”
But Diaz looks beyond Christianity for symbolism. Astrology, alchemy, paganism, Eastern religions, the power of patterns — it’s all grist for Diaz’s exploration of all things mystical, the profound sensation of facing the unknown.
“He’s developed his own mythology,” says Billy Shire, whose influential lowbrow gallery in Los Angeles, La Luz de Jesus, published two collections of Diaz’s work, including a new retrospective also titled “Mysterium Fidei,” through its book imprint. Shire’s clientele, including the Maddens, is mostly drawn to the gothic edge of Diaz’s work — “the severed limbs and arms coming out of the ground,” Shire says.
Diaz doesn’t exhibit much in Tucson, he says, though he did design a new stage for Hotel Congress’ popular nightclub. (It features ornate proscenium pillars with Latin texts and the religiously symbolic number 13, and it’s classic Diaz.) And downtown’s Cafe Poca Cosa is almost wholly decorated with his paintings.
Not that Diaz wants to think too much about his success. He’s happy to be pleasantly mystified.
“It’s just amazing that I can do this,” says the one-time salesman for Procter & Gamble. “I’m not going to question it. I’m just going to keep going.”
What: Retrospective exhibit by Tucson artist Daniel Martin Diaz
When: Through Dec. 2; gallery open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, noon to 5 p.m. Sundays
Where: Mesa Contemporary Arts at Mesa Arts Center, 1 E. Main St.
Cost: $3.50; free on Thursdays
Information: (480) 644-6500 or www.mesaartscenter.com