Nuevo and Improved

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.

"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.

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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