Political art is popping up across Denver. At RedLine, CounterArt displays pieces associated with South Korea’s Candlelight Revolution, a series of peaceful protests held in 2016 and 2017. Para mi Pueblo: Chicano/a Muralists of Colorado at the McNichols Building originates right here, with works by nearly thirty local artists with a shared Latino identity as well as an interest in activist art related to their community’s history, struggles and triumphs. Despite the exhibit’s title, most of these pieces are easel paintings done by artists somehow associated with the state’s Chicano mural movement.
The title Para mi Pueblo translates to “for my people,” which neatly identifies the Chicano mural scene as being by, for and about Chicanos, though there’s plenty to appeal to everyone else. This is the first exhibit presented by the nascent Chicano Murals of Colorado Project, founded just last year by archaeologist and museum professional Lucha Martinez de Luna and Jillian Mollenhauer, an art historian who teaches at Metropolitan State University of Denver. The CMCP's goal is to promote an appreciation for the Chicano mural tradition in the state, documenting existing murals, interviewing their creators and attempting to save these works, which are being lost at an alarming rate.
"Developers and the city are changing the whole aesthetic here, and I think some of these murals deserve landmark protection," says de Luna. "At least, we need to start a conversation about it.” She comes to the project naturally, since she's the daughter of Emanuel Martinez, a pioneer in Chicano art in the area. His most famous mural, 1999's “Confluent People,” depicts three men — a Mexican-American, a Native American and a European-American — each wearing mirrored sunglasses that reflect the same Colorado landscape. Martinez's subjects offer a short-hand explanation of the predominant theme in Chicano art: to compare, contrast and combine the three sources of Chicano culture. His inspiration goes back to the Mexican muralists of the mid-twentieth century; in the '70s, Martinez worked with one of the all-time greats of that earlier movement, David Siqueiros. Sadly, though "Confluent People" is pictured all over the internet, the original on a wall of the Little Raven Street underpass at Speer Boulevard is in declining condition. It needs to be restored rather than painted over, the fate of many Chicano murals.
For Para mi Pueblo, de Luna wanted to include artists who could be connected across several generations, with acknowledged masters shown side by side with emerging artists right out of school. “There’s a certain aesthetic in Chicano art,” she explains, “that goes from the elders, like my father, to the young artists, with all of them gravitating towards similar colors and related styles, and all of them being political.” In addition to classic Chicano art, quite a few other influences are on display here, especially pop art and graffiti.
Among the old school Chicano artists is Martinez, of course, represented by a pair of major paintings exploring references to Meso-America in which figures with the trappings of indigenous peoples have been crisply conveyed in a contemporary realist style with just a whiff of surrealism. Leo Tanguma, the éminence grise of the Chicano muralists, displays a signature style that could be considered Chicano traditional. In one of his works, “Sand Creek Massacre,” an American Indian warrior stands to one side in the extreme foreground; his red, white and blue suit and tie are falling away from him. In the background behind him are scenes of the genocide, with the atrocities committed by soldiers against the natives unfolding below a sky that’s transformed into a waving American flag. It's a small painting, but with a powerful, in-your-face political message. Tanguma is best known for his two-part mural cycle at Denver International Airport that also includes some pretty outrageous imagery, so much so that the work has helped to inspire conspiracy theories about the airport.
Other big names associated with the movement are a little more irreverent and, instead of paying homage to the Chicano art tradition, they play with it. Tony Ortega, for instance, parodies Munch’s “The Scream” by substituting the screaming man in the original with the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The piece is funny and smart. Also mashing up cultures is Arlette Lucero. In “Coatlaxopeuh” (the word is believed to be the origin of "Guadalupe"), she conflates Catholicism, ancient Mexican and Guatemalan cultures as she carefully depicts an indigenous woman standing on a butchered snake; the woman is transforming into Our Lady of Guadalupe. Going a different way with the iconography of Chicano art are paintings by Stevon Lucero that have been meticulously done to resemble elegant cartoons. This is particularly true of the incredibly dense composition in “Aztec Calendar," an imaginative rendition in jacked-up colors of the circular ancient Mexican calendar, floating in space and surrounded by crackling lightning bolts.
A number of the artists here have abandoned the stylistic parameters of the Chicano art movement, though they hold onto the narrative aspects in terms of subject matter. In “Cochise,” by Josiah Lee Lopez, a Warholian photo-based technique is used to straightforwardly convey the Native American warrior, while the colors have been cut up to add an abstract, constructivist arrangement across his face — all done with spray paint and stencils. Though the technique has a street-art vibe, the piece itself does not.
Several inclusions do come right out of graffiti, such as the amazing “La Victoria” by DINCK, which conveys a running man with a gold tooth holding a phone while wearing Nikes and a baseball hat worn askew. The odd style in this showstopper is the result of sampling as well as tagging, the attitude toward rendering associated with Philip Guston and/or R. Crumb. Also having a foot in pop culture are paintings by Gregg Deal that are blown-up panels from a comic book, but with political content related to the Chicano experience.
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Works pushing the edges of what can be considered Chicano art still further include the shaped aluminum panel by David Ocelotl Garcia, in which painted skeletons of monks with pots on their heads are reduced to a baroque pattern. Even more abstract are the ambitious, post-minimal pattern paintings by Jason Garcia, in which hard lines, which are sometimes only suggested, are combined with fringes of dripping paint below. They are definitely eye-dazzlers, even if somewhat of a non sequitur.
Para mi Pueblo is the first show de Luna has curated, and she does a great job with this debut, which she would like to be just the start of many more such efforts. Even though this display is big (and I've only scratched the surface here), many other qualified artists, especially emerging ones, were left out, leaving acres of curatorial ground for de Luna to cover in the future.
Para mi Pueblo, through December 21 at the McNichols Building, 144 West Colfax Avenue, mcnicholsbuilding.com.