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Turf Wars

"Carpa Stage," by Carlos Frsquez, Frank Zamora and Los Supersnicos, multimedia installation.

In the late 1960s and through the 1970s, there arose what has come to be called the "art of identity." This genre was -- and is -- art by members of identifiable groups trying to explicate their specific and peculiar struggles for social justice and equality. To call something "art of identity" was not to make any kind of stylistic observation about it, because it was only the narrative content and not a specific style that qualified pieces for this moniker. There was feminist art by women exploring their plight. There was African-American art that did the same thing. And in the western United States, Chicano art made by, for and about Mexican-Americans became a staple on the regional scene.

If the art of identity generally had no stylistic construct, Chicano art did. With rising pride in their Mexican heritage, Chicanos began to delve into their history, in particular the art history of their ancestral homeland. Even the most cursory glance at Mexican art reveals that "Los Tres Grandes" cast a huge shadow over the subject. Los Tres Grandes were the masters of the Mexican mural movement of the early twentieth century: David Álfaro Siqueiros, Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco.

These artists created paintings that depicted the travails of the Mexican people in establishing their own identity during their long history. Chicano art took from Los Tres Grandes iconography that included literal references to the Aztecs -- los indios -- the Spanish conquistadors and the ever-avaricious Anglos, all playing their pre-determined and tightly proscribed roles. Stylistically, Los Tres Grandes and their followers north of the border worked in a social-realist style that had a leftist, "off the man" sensibility.

Fast-forward to the present day. The legacy of art of identity has led to the creation of parallel art universes populated by their own stars and with their own audiences, particularly among women, African-American and Chicano artists. Nearly all of it is walled off from the larger contemporary art world. In a way, it's as though the artists working on identity politics turned down roads that wound up being circles. Because they are deaf to, or unaware of, current events in contemporary art, they can't help but do exactly the same things they've been doing for thirty years.

This is only one of the issues relevant to Chicano art that's addressed in the impressive exhibit Never Leaving Aztlan, on display at the Museo de las Americas. The other topic considered is how some Chicano artists worked their way into the art world at large either by rejecting the "art of identity" concept outright, or by reconciling the identity sensibility to prevailing aesthetic currents. These artists are sometimes referred to as being "post-Chicano" -- a cute term that, though inadequate, is the only one out there that captures the idea.

The Museo show is not the first volley in this war of opposing ideals. In 2005, the Center for Visual Art in LoDo mounted a show called Leaving Aztlan that was meant to highlight how post-Chicano art had superseded Chicano art because of its greater relevancy. Just as it opened, University of Colorado professor George Rivera, long a proponent of Chicano art and its value, proposed an exhibit to rejoin the post-Chicano fest in Leaving Aztlan -- hence the title Never Leaving Aztlan.

Rivera is having serious health problems, and though he presented a list of artists to be included in the show, he handed over the curatorial baton to Patty Ortiz, the Museo's respected director. Ortiz changed Rivera's concept substantially. Whereas Rivera wanted to show that Chicano art was better and more meaningful than post-Chicano art, Ortiz took a more complex approach to answering Leaving Aztlan. She combined the two sensibilities into a single show, including many artists from Rivera's list as well as some names she compiled on her own.

The initial section of Never Leaving Aztlan is dominated by those artists who are still interested in doing Chicano art, but most of the rest of the main gallery is given over to the more contemporary crowd, giving the exhibit a bifurcated quality. The contrast between the two sections is hardly subtle; it's easy to see the fault line as soon as you enter the room. As I told Ortiz, the shift in gears between one side and the other is so striking, it's like getting hit in the face with a pie.

Ortiz says she wanted to reach out to what she refers to as the Chicano/Latino community, whose members are very fond of old-fashioned Chicano art. But she also wanted to survey contemporary art being done by members of that same community. Her balancing act is tremendously successful, and the show has more than enough variety to satisfy a diverse audience.

 

On the long north wall, Ortiz hung more than two dozen pieces that exemplify the Chicano-art point of view. They are arranged in a salon style, so that they function as one large installation. Most are paintings, but there are also mixed-media and photographic works. Realism and figural abstraction are the predominant styles of this section -- along with more than a little cartoon imagery -- and nearly everything relates back to the pioneering work of Los Tres Grandes.

A good example of realism is the powerful self-portrait "The Dreamer," by Ismael 'Izzy' Lozano, though the traditional gilt frame really has to go. Exemplifying figural abstraction is Tony Ortega's "Dos Beans," which depicts a Chicano couple promenading on the sidewalk. It's a signature Ortega in acrylic and collage. For cartoonish imagery, it's Stevon Lucero's oil-on-canvas "Xolotl," a depiction of an ancient Meso-American deity conjuring up a vision in the sky. Done in garish colors on a black ground, at first sight it looks like one of those tacky tourist paintings of a bullfighter on velvet.

There are a handful of things in this pastiche that more properly belong in the post-Chicano section, notably Ron Trujillo's pattern painting "Copper With White Flowers" and Daniel Salazar's two marvelous photographs of staged scenes populated by "Homies," small dolls that caricature barrio stereotypes.

Immediately to the left of the Chicano-art salon is the showstopper of the post-Chicano section: "Carpa Stage," an installation that apes a stage from tent shows in Mexico. The enormous and ambitious piece was done by Carlos Frésquez, Frank Zamora and Los Supersónicos, a collective made up of artists from the U.S. and Mexico.

The floor of the stage was painted with stripes that resemble those in Mexican weavings. Along the front is a fence made from wooden uprights linked by ropes in red, white and blue. Off to one side is a wheel of chance with good and bad fortunes written on it. Across the back of the stage are three large cloth panels covered with evocative imagery referencing Mexico, corporate America and the mass media. Three more panels, also crowded with the same type of pictures, are hung above to form a partial canopy over the stage.

"Carpa Stage" is a perfect representation of the post-Chicano sensibility because it references the Mexican-American experience -- those colored ropes, the Mexican and Catholic imagery, the stage itself -- and at the same time is an example of mainstream contemporary art. Frésquez, who was also in the original Leaving Aztlan show at the CVA, is one of the region's most important artists, without any qualifications and outside the context of this Chicano/post-Chicano dialectic.

Another definitive post-Chicano offering is Ricky Armendariz's "I work in hell pero cielo is on my mind." For this piece, Armendariz painted a postcard picture of a western sunset, on top of which he made shallow carvings of a pair of Mexican eagles and wrote out the text of the title in longhand.

To be honest, most of the rest of the post-Chicano section really only qualifies because the artists have Spanish surnames; the work itself does not refer back to Chicano art at all. In this category is Lewis de Soto's "Traveller," a found-object installation of an old wooden crib with a radio-powered monster-truck toy inside that's activated when the piece is approached, causing it to zoom around noisily and crash into the sides of the crib. (The noise can be startling at times.)

Also hard to categorize as being uniquely Chicano/Latino are the two manipulated digital-photo diptychs by Jerry De La Cruz. "The Big Bang Revealed" has two images of a wrecked car -- one straightforward and in focus, the other an ambiguous computer-generated abstract. The same idea can be seen in "The First Noel," which has a beautiful little child with a halo on one side and a completely abstract composition on the other. Both are very good, and Ortiz sees them as being breakthrough pieces for De La Cruz.

Achieving a beautiful result was obviously all that was on the mind of Quintín Gonzalez when he created the four spin-art drip paintings hung together on the south wall. Each of these -- "Mesmerizing Machine," "The Restless Sky," "Empire of the Meek" and "Adversary to a World" -- sports a unique color scheme, every one of which hits the mark. Gonzaez applied the paint thickly, resulting in luxurious surfaces. The palettes are dominated by luminescent and iridescent shades normally associated with nail polish and eye makeup. I first saw Gonzalez's fabulous and exciting paintings of this type down the street at the Sandy Carson Gallery, which loaned the quartet that's on display here.

Museo director Ortiz succeeded in making Never Leaving Aztlan interesting, thought-provoking and filled with things worth seeing. But she failed in reconciling the old-timers with the upstarts, and there's an obvious reason why: The two points of view are irreconcilable. For the most part, the tradition-bound Chicano artists are never going to accept the cutting-edge post-Chicanos, and, needless to say, it won't happen the other way, either.


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