Robert Waters is a 35-year-old Canadian artist based in Mexico City. His current exhibition features works that touch on themes having to do with the Catholic Church, and although Waters is provocative, he manages to avoid the easy sensationalism that frequently accompanies artistic critiques of the institution.

Titled “Taparrabo,” meaning “loincloth” or, literally, “cover your tail,” Waters’s exhibition includes a dozen works, some in series. Finely crafted, and executed in a range of mediums and formats, they also reflect the postmodernist, appropriationist mode of art-making still prevailing in Mexico, in which humor mixes with social commentary, and self-conscious cleverness borders on gimmickry. Waters plays down the latter tendency, instead emphasizing an inventive use of materials and allowing for interpretive ambiguity.

In “Jesuses” (2007-09), he offers a dozen portraits of Jesus Christ as played by various film actors; their images are painted with Sangre de Christo (Blood of Christ), a Mexican red wine. In the series “What You Can’t See” (2007-09), Waters cuts into large sheets of graph paper with an X-Acto knife, making delicate “copies” of the loincloths worn by Christ in paintings by Cimabue, Giotto and other Renaissance masters. Waters’s handiwork also shines in Bad Priests (2008), a crucifix made up of communion wafers and small circular paintings pinned to a wall. The paintings, in pig’s blood on paper, depict Catholic priests who have been convicted of sexual crimes in recent decades.

Control (2008) features a small resin sculpture of the late pope, John Paul II, creeping along, holding up a crucifix as he confronts another mounted on the wall. From the end of the pontiff’s robe extends a serpent’s tail, sliced like a sausage to reveal a meaty interior. The effect of this meticulously painted, paper-and-balsa-wood protrusion is unusually visceral. Is Waters’s pope otherworldly, or somehow more earthly than ordinary humans? Or is he maybe even monstrous? By contrast, The Wave, the Particle, the Light (2009), a wall projection that was shown in the apse of the old church that is part of Ex Teresa, a former colonial-era convent, has a computer-drawn, naked Christ figure that is rotating slowly before spinning out in an intense white blaze, giving visible form to the metaphorical notion of the Christian savior as pure, spirit-cleansing light.

Waters commissioned a local ex-voto painter to custom-make the 12 “devotional” paintings in The Miracle of the Female Pope (2007), based on his own texts, which are written at the bottom of each. Here the faithful thank the saints for helping to make a first-ever woman pontiff a reality. For some viewers, the idea of such a development actually occurring may seem deliciously subversive. So is much of Waters’s intelligent, sophisticated art, in which the poetic always trumps the polemical.

Photo: Robert Waters: Control, 2008, resin, balsa wood and mixed mediums, 30 by 16 by 70 inches; at Ex Teresa Arte Actual.