The Center for Visual Art in LoDo is currently taking on the interesting -- and risky -- topic of "post-Chicano" art in the group exhibit Leaving Aztlán: Rethinking Contemporary Latino and Chicano Art. It's interesting because many of the pieces in the show are great, risky because there's an entire generation of Chicano artists who have cast their fate with the idea of never leaving Aztl´n.
In fact, the Museo de las Américas is in the initial stages of organizing a show on that very theme with University of Colorado at Boulder professor George Rivera. Rivera has long been a champion of the doctrinaire Chicano approach as it applies to art, and that show will serve as a rejoinder to the CVA show.
CVA director Kathy Andrews conceived of Leaving Aztl´n, but she turned over the reins to guest curator Kaytie Johnson, director of the museum at the Richard E. Peeler Art Center at DePauw University. Nonetheless, Andrews obviously had a lot of input into the content, and she designed the installation.
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"I can't do everything," says Andrews, who came up with the idea for the show through her travels around the country. "I wanted to bring to the attention of the Denver public that Chicano and Latino artists are doing some of the best things I've ever seen," she explains. "I'm sensitive to the issue of stereotyping, so the message is that these artists deserve to be there with the best."
The exhibit Johnson put together under Andrews's mandate is a sophisticated effort that requires viewers to have some background in the genre to fully appreciate it. Primarily, the viewer needs to bring to the show some idea about what constitutes Chicano art so that what might be called "post-Chicano" becomes self-evident.
The term "Chicano art" refers to works that are political and based on Mexican American or Latin American cultural identity. This second feature is key, as many pieces pointedly reveal the artists' shared heritage as it has been altered through relocation to the urban centers of the United States, including Denver. Chicano art is contemporary, but it relates to other kinds of contemporary art only thematically, not stylistically. Thus, it can be linked to other politically driven, identity-oriented art, such as African-American, feminist or gay-and-lesbian, but it cannot be so easily connected to the broader currents in contemporary art, like postmodern, conceptual or neo-modern. Strangely enough, Chicano art has no direct corollary in the contemporary art of Mexico. There, artists have followed international currents because there was no need for them to define themselves ethnically. After all, there's nothing remarkable about Mexicans in Mexico.
As part and parcel of the liberation movements of the 1960s and '70s, Chicano artists originally looked to Mexican art history for inspiration, and they found the left-wing movement that included "Los Tres Grandes" -- Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Conveniently, for our purposes, Siqueiros, featuring that artist's mural studies, is now on display at the Museo de las Américas, offering a first-hand view of what inspired the earlier generation of Chicano artists. Plus, Museo director Patty Ortiz has put together a small show on the subject of Denver Chicano artists -- including one mural study each by Bob Luna, Emanuel Martinez, Leo Tanguma and Carlos Frésquez -- that provides examples of classic Chicano art that can easily be contrasted with the post-Chicano art at the CVA.
Local master Frésquez is a pivotal figure in this discussion; his earlier work at the Museo is classic Chicano-art style, but his more recent pieces at the CVA fully qualify as post-Chicano. Frésquez starts off the CVA's Leaving Aztl´n in the entry, where his ad hoc mural, "b/I," made up of more than a dozen altered found landscapes, has been installed. Frésquez scrounged in thrift stores to find cheesy Sunday paintings and then altered them with black silhouettes depicting a man, woman and child running. By addressing illegal immigration from Mexico (the silhouettes) in a post-modern context (the thrift-shop paintings), Frésquez defines the post-Chicano sensibility.
On a lighter note, Frésquez has forcibly joined Mexican heritage with everyday life in the United States in three similar wall hangings made of plaster. In each, Frésquez superimposed Wal-Mart's smiley-face logo on top of a found replica of the Aztec calendar. These pieces, from the "Tiempo Trippin'" series, are clear expressions of the post-Chicano ethos. Only a few other artists in the show are as post-Chicano in their sensibilities as Frésquez, and most of the rest of the pieces in the show seem to be there owing to nothing more than the Hispanic surname of the artists who created them.
From my point of view, that's the case with the monumental painting "Exile Off Main Street," by Texan Benito Huerta, that's hung in the space that runs across the back of CVA. "Exile" is an oil-on-velvet copy of Picasso's "Demoiselles d'Avignon" that's been paired with a lead panel. All right, I'll admit that the velvet is a Mexican-associated art material, but it has appeared in contemporary art in the United States for decades and thus lost that association. "Exile" doesn't sound as good as it is -- not to mention that there's nothing new about appropriating Picasso or using lead -- but partly because of its enormous size and partly because of Huerta's skill, it's a knockout in person.
Less successful -- even if they better qualify as being post-Chicano -- are the DVD projection and digital photos by Juan Ramos of Texas that are installed in a corner of the back space. As far as I could tell, there is nothing special about these combination live-action and animation pieces. They really reminded me of the kind of thing people do when they are still in art school.
It's really hard to make Illinois artist Diana Guerrero-Macia's two marvelous neo-pop compositions made of stitched felt fit into the post-Chicano theme, but they're so good, who cares? "Never Mind the Twist" is composed of three separate wooden panels covered in the fabric. One, in pink, green and black, is based on a well-known Sex Pistols album cover; another, in black and yellow, references a Twist album cover; and in between is a panel covered with a woven checkerboard pattern in black and white trimmed out in pink. For "Punk Painting," Guerrero-Macia created what looks like a poster that reads "A bulletproof soldier high on rebellion made you." These Guerrero-Macia felt-and-wood "paintings" have a lot of tactile appeal and are among the best pieces in the show.
Hanging adjacent to these works is the least post-Chicano piece included -- unless it's supposed to remind the viewer of the hood of a lowrider -- California artist Rubén Ortiz Torres's monochrome, titled "New Gold Dream." The urethane-on-aluminum piece is done in an otherworldly shade of metallic olive, and it is fabulous. Too bad it's been hung in the absolute worst spot, at the center.
If "New Gold Dream" is clearly not post-Chicano, then the other Torres work, done collaboratively with Jim Mendiola, is one of the most post-Chicano pieces in the show. In this DVD, called "Mapping of the Mascot Genome," Torres and Mendiola appropriated images from television and spliced them, so a figure dressed as a jalapeño is shown on one side of a split screen, and on the other is a figure dressed as a taco -- sometimes joined by another taco.
Around the corner, the first things up in the set of galleries that lead to the entrance are three wall-hung constructions by Maria Michelle Gonz´lez, the only artist other than Frésquez in Leaving Aztl´n who lives in Colorado. Gonzalez has exhibited work of this sort around here for the last couple of years. Other than the Spanish titles, her sculptures strike me as being more post-feminist than post-Chicano since they look like lingerie made with bandages, disposable underwear and other medical supplies.
In the niche to the right of the Gonz´lez sculptures is a thoroughly post-Chicano piece -- and one of the smartest things in the show. A series of nine photographs by Chuck Ramirez of Texas, part of his "Santos Series," depict the bottom of religious statues in inkjet prints on velvet. Across from them is another Ramirez, "Ethel (Piñata Series)," a blown-up digital print of an orange piñata.
Between the Ramirez digitals is a bas-relief by Texas artist John Hernandez that spills onto the wall. This cartoony surrealist abstraction in toned-up colors seems to hark back to the neo-expressionism of the 1980s and is definitely a crowd-pleaser. Several people have told me about how much they like it, but it seems to have nothing to do with the post-Chicano topic -- except that Hernandez is a Spanish name.
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The last two artists in the show are clearly working in a post-Chicano manner, though only one of them, Alex Donis, does it very well. On the dividing wall that runs down the middle of the CVA are two enamel-on-Plexiglas paintings by Donis, who hails from California. In these pieces, which are very similar to one another, Donis depicts Chicano gang members dancing with uniformed policemen. With dancing being slang for fighting, it's easy to see what Donis is getting at. Opposite are two pieces by Connie Arismendi, who, like so many others in the show, is from Texas. Her work comes up short, and I would say these are the weakest links in the show -- even including that uninspired DVD and photos by Ramos.
Especially ridiculous and at the same time offensive is "Victoria," in which Arismendi took an agave plant and mounted it on the wall with its roots exposed. (A friend of mine threatened to break into the center and water it, but, unfortunately, he was just kidding.) I'm sorry, but I'm over dying plants being used as art materials. No, I'm lying: I'm not over it -- I never could stand it.
There are definitely more than a few weak points in Leaving Aztl´n, but, then again, the topic is difficult and slippery. One thing I'd liked to have seen more of was explanatory, descriptive and biographical wall text, especially since the show requires some prerequisites. But I really liked Leaving Aztl´n anyway, and I urge people to get into the CVA and see it before it closes at the end of next week.