Border Dispute

For the third time in two years, there's a major show addressing how traditional Chicano art has progressed into post-Chicano art. The latest is Chain Reaction: Chicano/a and Latino/a Art in Colorado, at the Vida Ellison Gallery on the seventh floor of the Denver Central Library.

The dialogue began locally in the spring of 2005 with Leaving Aztl´n ("Nuevo and Improved," April 14, 2005) at the Center for Visual Art in LoDo. That show was guest-curated by Kaytie Johnson, who works at the Richard E. Peeler Art Center at DePauw University. It was Johnson who posited the idea of a post-Chicano sensibility emerging out of Chicano art.

The word "Aztl´n" specifically refers to the Aztec Empire, which extended into what is now the American Southwest. The boundaries of this empire were expanded and codified in the 1500s by the Spanish, who turned it into a colony and called it Mexico. In 1846, the United States declared war on Mexico. In 1848, at the end of the war, the U.S. paid Mexico $15 million to secede a huge part of its territory, including all of what is now California, Utah and Nevada, and portions of what would become Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. Thus, Mexican culture has been a part of the Southwest for centuries, and Leaving Aztlan specifically referred to art made by American artists who may or may not be able to trace their roots back to Mexico proper.

A prerequisite for understanding Leaving Aztlan was familiarity with Chicano art, because otherwise the idea of post-Chicano art wouldn't have made sense. Chicano art arose in the late '60s and early '70s as part of the broader art-of-identity movement, which also included feminist art, African-American art, gay and lesbian art, and so on. Chicano art arose in the Western states and came out of the progressive politics of the era, thus often featuring a liberationist theme that drew inspiration from the examples of "Los Tres Grandes" -- Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco -- the three masters of the Mexican mural tradition from the 1920s to the 1950s. Like Los Tres Grandes, many Chicano artists strove to tell sweeping narratives about the historic struggles of their people.

Leaving Aztlan was fabulous in highlighting how styles have changed since Chicano art was launched, but some of the artists represented were not so much doing post-Chicano art as they were making contemporary art with an international flavor. Some of the best artists in the show were only eligible because of their Spanish last names and their Mexican -- or Mexican-American -- ancestry.

Even before Leaving Aztlan opened, George Rivera, an art professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, proposed a rejoinder to the exhibit, which he dubbed Never Leaving Aztlan ("Turf Wars," March 2, 2006). Rivera wanted to prove the ongoing relevance of Chicano art amid the rise of post-Chicano art, but because of a serious struggle with cancer, he played only a limited role in organizing the show. Instead, Patty Ortiz, the director of the Museo de las Américas, which was the host institution, took over and changed Rivera's original concept considerably. Her idea was not to simply put on a Chicano art show, but to compare and contrast it with the cutting-edge material being done by those upstart post-Chicano artists. Never Leaving Aztlan, like Leaving Aztlan, was sensational.

Chain Reaction, believe it or not, is not a continuation of either of its predecessors, even though it explores the same set of ideas. This show was actually conceived by Kay Wisnia, who oversees the library's exhibition program, before either of the other shows were put up. Wisnia had noticed the plethora of art being done by artists with Spanish surnames, but she didn't feel she had the expertise to put together a presentation of their work. So she approached Quintín Gonzalez, whose pieces had caught her eye, and asked him if he would like to show in the Vida Ellison Gallery and invite other artists whose work he respected to participate. This explains why Gonzalez, who is represented by Sandy Carson Gallery and is one half of a duet hanging there now, has work in a show that he himself put together. Since he was asked, he gets a pass on what would ordinarily be an art-world no-no. Gonzalez named the show Chain Reaction to reference the "chain of events that took place in art and politics that led to the development of Chicano art."

Before getting into the show, I need to make a comment or two about how the Vida Ellison Gallery could be greatly improved with little effort. The gallery is made of two handsome curved corridors that are beautifully detailed in Michael Graves's signature post-modern style. These corridors meet in the middle, and a large rectangular room opens off of them to serve as the main part of exhibition space. The problem with the gallery is the north-facing wall, which can't display artwork because it is all windows and doors. I would never suggest making permanent changes to Graves's design, but here's my quick fix: Have the library's carpentry crew construct a moveable wall about five feet out from the windows. This would add space for hanging pictures as well as giving the gallery a sense of enclosure, which it really needs. Plus there would an ample passageway to access the views of the Civic Center framed by the windows.

Chain Reaction starts off in the cylindrical anteroom that connects the seventh floor's elevator lobby with the eastern curved corridor. In this space, Gonzalez installed a group of kitschy self-portraits by Veronica Herrera, who is a CU-Boulder graduate, teacher at Metro and education coordinator for the Chicano Humanities & Arts Council. In these color-pencil drawings, Herrera turned her features into brightly hued patterns.

In the eastern corridor, there's something of a surprise: Rivera, who conceived Never Leaving Aztlan, delving into post-Chicano. He is recovering from cancer nicely, and these 23 digital prints from his "Matrinoms" series are the best works I've ever seen by him. Rivera used a scanned picture of his mother from her citizenship papers as the base of the series, and then treated the images in a very neo-Warhol way. His mother is seen in a ghostly halftone laid on vibrant monochrome grounds with a single word -- such as "sister," "Hispanic," "mother" or "migrant" -- placed underneath each piece to create a narrative context for the all-but-identical images.

Across from the Riveras are ten abstract monotypes by Eugene Stewart-Huidobro, whose work is neither Chicano nor post-Chicano but mainstream abstract-expressionism. His inclusion indicates a key difference between Chain Reaction and Leaving Aztlan and Never Leaving Aztlan: artists of Latin American nationalities were also presented. Houston-born Stewart-Huidobro's mother is from Chile, while his father's family is from Cuba. Stewart-Huidobro moved to Colorado as a child and has lived in Denver since 1989. He currently teaches at Regis University.

Beyond Stewart-Huidobro's are half a dozen monotypes by Tony Ortega. For these pieces, Ortega silk-screened found Mexican posters onto board and used them -- instead of blank paper -- as his ground. It's interesting to see him pulling off something so edgy and post-Chicano, since, like Rivera, he is associated with traditional Chicano art. In fact, he's the city's biggest exponent of the approach.

Opposite the Ortegas are solar etchings by Sylvia Montero, who based them on photos of folk culture taken in Mexico. They look antique, mostly because the solar process results in a sepia-toned image. The entry to the main space, which is directly opposite the Ortegas, is dominated by the gorgeous Carlos Frésquez mural "Denver Vaquero ca. 1850," one of the few works in the show that is owned by the library. In this enormous painting, Frésquez set a Mexican cowboy in a fanciful version of the area's typography. It's totally Chicano in style, recalling pictures painted on buildings in the barrio. It's funny that this Frésquez, as well as his others in Chain Reaction, are all examples of the Chicano art he created a decade ago, since Frésquez was among the first local artists to delve into the post-Chicano manner. That was something that was underscored in both Leaving Aztlan and Never Leaving Aztlan, where his works were the very definition of post-Chicano.

In the western corridor, Gonzalez installed his own digital prints that depict surrealistic portraits. They hang next to a group of surrealistic photo montages in silver prints by Merlin Madrid; across are some smart-looking digital prints that employ the grid as an organizing device, which were done by Raquel Vasquez, who happens to be Gonzalez's wife. None of these works have either a Chicano or post-Chicano content since they are all representative of the larger world of non-hyphenated contemporary art.

Though Chain Reaction lacks the didactic aspect of either Leaving Aztlan or Never Leaving Aztlan, it's just as good. If you missed those, you'll get a good taste of what the dialectic of Chicano and post-Chicano art is all about, plus see some Chicano and Latino work that ignores the issue entirely.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia