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Una Cultura: Tres Voces and Altar Girls

"A Fine Time for Dine," by Carlos Frsquez, mixed media.

The influence of Latin American culture, and Mexican in particular, is easy to find in Denver. For more than a generation, Chicano artists have been front and center here, creating a distinctive category of art based on ethnic, religious and cultural identity. Also a generation back, local visionary José Aguayo founded a museum on Santa Fe Drive to highlight Hispanic art from the Western Hemisphere, and he called it the Museo de las Américas. With all of the Cinco de Mayo festivities happening, let's celebrate art that has a Latin beat.

In Una Cultura: Tres Voces, William Havu Gallery has brought together the distinctively different work of three of the city's most notable Spanish-surnamed artists: Tony Ortega, Jerry De La Cruz and Carlos Frésquez. In the space that unfolds right inside the front door, their work is all mixed together, but in the spaces beyond, each was given a separate section.

For many reasons, Ortega is the starting point, both because his work faces us as we enter Havu, and because his oeuvre virtually defines the idea of Chicano art. Though he is not a pioneer of the movement, which began in the 1970s, Ortega did get on board early, making his first contributions some 25 years ago. He has a BA and an MFA from the University of Colorado at Boulder. He also studied in Mexico, and the influence of historic Mexican art, especially that of the modernist muralists of the '30s to the '50s, is apparent in his pieces. He has a taste for depicting social interaction and using strong colors.

Ortega does signature Chicano art, and over the past quarter-century, he's made a name for himself throughout the West. His pieces typically involve residents of the barrio, who are depicted at work or play. He does not paint them realistically, but instead explores a sort of figural abstraction that suggests his characters. His depictions of people are minimally fleshed-out silhouettes, which are often done in a monochrome. Ortega also uses profile views of the figures, and the facial features are clearly Mexican-American. These flattened figures are set into the foreground of imagined three-dimensional spaces that fall away behind them. He also includes elements, like signage and storefronts that are collaged in placed, to reinforce the barrio setting.

Next comes a survey of De La Cruz's career, with some pieces dating back three decades to the period right after his graduation from the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design. De La Cruz has explored many mediums over the years, including painting, assemblage, collage and a variety of digital forms. Some of the works have Chicano content, but mostly De La Cruz responds to pop and funk. In an early painting, "Red Headed Devils at Night," he incorporated a photographically realistic portrait of a woman's face atop a highly abstracted body, with stenciled words across the top. "We All Have to Go Sometime" is similar, if a lot smaller, with a parody of the Mona Lisa dominating a dense composition that includes other faces, flames and geometric forms.

In the window space are funky assemblages made from found objects such as old tables and wooden boxes. The pieces, which have narratives, are related conceptually to De La Cruz's recent works based on antique book pages of engraved portraits that he alters with collage and drawing. These works on paper are constrained as opposed to exuberant.

In terms of their art, Ortega is doctrinaire Chicano while De La Cruz is not, and that leaves it to Carlos Frésquez to strike a balance with his post-Chicano art. Like Ortega, Frésquez comes out of the Chicano tradition, but like De La Cruz, he's been affected by the broad currents of non-secular contemporary art.

Frésquez is virtually a household name around here because he exhibits his work so regularly, and because his talent and vision are so obvious. He earned a BA at Metropolitan State College of Denver and an MFA at the University of Colorado in Boulder. His work of the '80s and early '90s was definitely in the Mexican muralist vein, in particular his juxtapositions of scale, with enormously rendered figures in the foreground and tiny ones in the background. His topic was the cross-cultural nature of being Chicano, having roots in the indigenous peoples of Mexico and the Spanish conquerors.

This dialectic was just the start of what he was getting at, as he also juxtaposed the past with the present. A Frésquez painting of this type would include imagery such as a Mayan pyramid and a Conquistador's sword alongside lowriders and gangbangers. These older paintings are brilliant, but Frésquez has gone way beyond them by delving into post-Chicano art. For this newer direction, he combines his previous interests with corporate logos, maps and cartoon characters, and he delivers them in a more contemporary style, as in the over-the-top "A Fine Time for Dine." The huge painting is divided in half with a flaming heart on one side and a skull on the other. Sitting on the floor in front is a stump with a shovel stuck in it.

Una Cultura: Tres Voces at Havu provides some great insights into the development of Mexican-American art in Denver. But it's important to remember that this show is hardly all there is to the story. The three artists included are admittedly among the most respected around, but they represent only the tip of the Chicano/post-Chicano scene that boasts dozens of other serious players as part of the mix.

Going over to the Museo de las Américas, we switch from Latinos to Latinas for the Altar Girls feature. This is not so much a unified show as it is two very different exhibits exploring very different topics that roughly collide with one another in the middle of the Museo.

One part, put together by Museo curator Kristi Martens, is an extravaganza of historic and contemporary santos, mostly made in Colorado, Mexico and New Mexico, depicting women saints and the Virgin. The other part is a selection of contemporary art by women artists from the Americas curated by Museo director Patti Ortiz. Women saints, women artists, Altar Girls -- get it?

For her part of the show, Martens drew from the Rickenbaugh Santos Collection, an important recent gift to the Museo, and from various private lenders, notably Carl Patterson and Regis University. In the group of santos, there are renditions of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Santa Barbara and Mary Magdalene, among a cast of many others. It's an embarrassment of riches, and there's a dizzying array of intriguing religious sculptures.

Ortiz, on the other hand, could have used more pieces to fill out her part. The works in her section mostly explore the roles of girls and women in contemporary society, both Latin American and our own. Photography plays a major part in this show, including the elegant black-and-white abstractions based on beauty products by Christina Kahlo from Mexico, the heartbreaking close-ups of little girls crying by Argentina's Flavia Da Rin, and the large color images of young women swimming by Estela Izuel, who's also from Argentina.

Contemporary realism is interpreted in colored pencil, including a sophisticated piece done directly on the Museo's wall by Carolina Rodriguez from Colombia, and in a charming diptych of Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf carried out in modeling clay by the Argentine artist collective Grupo Mondongo.

The only artist who truly bridges the two halves of Altar Girls is Denver's Judy Miranda, who used wood-burning tools to create depictions of noted holy women on the top of old ironing boards. They are simultaneously santos and contemporary art.

There's a good deal that's worth seeing in this show, even if it doesn't hold together at all.


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