The art of identity takes shape in three new shows

It would be easy to argue that all art is partly about the artist who created it. But that doesn't mean every piece can be classified as art of identity. No, that relies on a person's sexual, ethnic, racial or religious background as a key element. The current art-of-identity era goes back to 1960s counterculture movements like Chicano art, African-American art, feminist art and so on. In the intervening decades, these sensibilities have persisted, but they've changed and become part of postmodernism. And this topic helps explain some shows around town right now.

The first is The Power of Then, a Museo de las Américas show curated by former director Patty Ortiz, who now runs the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center in San Antonio, Texas. The exhibit showcases art that refers to the shared Latino experience, as in old-fashioned Chicano art — hence the reference to 'then' in the show's title. But Ortiz added a new wrinkle by zeroing in on post-Chicano works.

There are several Western artists included, the first of whom is Francisco Zamora from Colorado, who does updated santos that refer to traditional New Mexican folk art. The santos look at first as though they could be antiques, at least until you notice the pop elements that have been integrated into them. Zamora's pieces well express Ortiz's aim at striking a compromise between old-line Chicano art and new-era, post-Chicano style.

Beyond the Zamoras are a group of odd mixed-media pieces by San Antonio's Rolando Briseño, in which tea towels, napkins and tablecloths laid on canvases have been smeared with Mexican food. Although they are visually interesting, there are too many of them in Power, and they throw off the show's balance.

To the right is a smaller space with a quartet of stenciled paintings by David Almaguer, also from San Antonio. These strikingly — if not garishly — colored neo-pop panels depict four archetypal objects from Almaguer's childhood memories. There's a Mexican-style wrestler, a fruit drink, a piñata — humorously titled "I'd Hit That" — and a doily. Using some of the same stencils, Almaguer has also painted a very cool mural directly onto the wall in the larger space beyond.

Across from the Almaguers is an installation by Linda Arreola called "The Wall." It is made out of unpainted wooden blocks neatly stacked into a mass that's vaguely suggestive of a pyramid. Arreola, from Los Angeles, is the most conceptual of the artists Ortiz picked, and her work can be appreciated on a non-narrative level, whereas everything else employs ethnographic information as an essential part.

The second Colorado artist in the show, Alex Hernandez, is likewise conceptual, but his works invariably tell Latino stories. "La Piñata," for example, is a room-like construction that has a piñata hanging from its ceiling; candy spills out of it onto the museum floor. (Visitors are invited to take a piece.) Hernandez also has a series of fiber hangings that are as subtle as the installation is bold.

The last artist, Franco Mondini-Ruiz from San Antonio, is riffing off neo-dada, using found — and mostly unaltered — objects. In one, "Culture Clutch," plastic models of tacos have been stuck inside a glitzy if battered purse.

Chicano and post-Chicanos artists can claim a major piece of the art-of-identity phenomenon of the last generation. Less well known is the involvement of American Indian artists, now being highlighted in Currents: Native American Forces in Contemporary Art, at Metropolitan State College's Center for Visual Art. This show was curated by CVA assistant director Cecily Cullen, but the idea behind it was first put forward by a Metro student, Michelle Kimball, and the work of the seven artists included shows how it's possible to do thoroughly contemporary work with a Native American quality.

The painters — including Norman Akers, Melanie Yazzie and Jaune Quick-To-See Smith — all share certain attributes, such as crude and expressive renderings, complicated off-balance compositions, and wild palettes dominated by bright tones. Akers, from Kansas, is represented by paintings and works on paper that feature groups of enigmatic if recognizable images with landscape-based backgrounds. Yazzie, the only Colorado artist in the show, does figural abstractions that incorporate decorative patterns of repeated shapes. Smith, meanwhile, is a well-known artist from New Mexico, but the pieces here don't exemplify her classic look. Instead, they incorporate recognizable elements, though the compositions are hieratically symmetrical.

Arizona photographer Will Wilson is represented by monumental enlargements that take in the majestic Western scenery in the background with close-up portraits in the foreground. There's a science-fiction aspect to some of these, with figures wearing gas masks and the series title "Auto Immune Response."

In the main space is a wall-mounted installation by Nicholas Galanin made up of objects from his "Imaginary Indian" series. On sheets of traditional-style wallpaper, he has placed replicas of Tlingit masks and figures finished to match the background. There's also the remarkable "Tsu Heidel Shugaxtutaan," a two-part video that juxtaposes a traditional dance with modern music, and modern dance with tribal music.

New Yorker Jeffrey Gibson also made a video, as well as a pair of related installations of painted mannequins in cages specifically created for this show; they have an odd, '80s art disco look. More successful is "My Balls, My Beads," a suspension piece studded with giant versions of trade beads. Gibson's work has a different aesthetic than that of the other Currents participants, perhaps because he's the only one not from a Western tribe — or maybe it's about living in New York and not out west.

To me, however, Marie Watt's pieces — in particular, the sculptures "Column" and "Staff Custodian" — are the real standouts. They share the same basic form — stacked elements that rise to form spires — and the basic reference is the blanket, a key element of American Indian iconography. Watt, from Oregon, folds and piles up the blankets, using pieces of cloth for "Column" and cast bronze renditions of it for "Staff Custodian." They're really great, as are her related wall hangings, which are actual blankets.

Currents is excellent and follows the formula for a great group show; it's not only filled with interesting work, but includes a range of mediums, as well. And it's all been perfectly installed, with each artist given a well-defined space.

The last stop on this sociology of art tour is also the most radical: Floyd Tunson: Remix, at the van Straaten Gallery. Unlike the other two exhibits, Tunson, who's one of Colorado's most significant contemporary artists, addresses racism head-on.

One of the best-known stories in the history of modern art is how in the early twentieth century, some leading French artists began to incorporate elements from African art into their works, ultimately leading to cubism. Tunson references this, but he turns the whole process on its head. First he paints convincing copies of famous Picasso and Matisse works, then he turns them on their sides. After that, he paints in a copy of a racist cartoon or caricature, some taken from "Tin-Tin" illustrations, others off Mexican stamps. These images feature exaggerated and stereotyped depictions of Africans.

The eye-popping results put a new twist on the history of art and on notions about conceptual realism, not to mention racism. In "Remix D," Tunson appropriates a Matisse studio view and adds a cartoon of an idealized little boy standing over a group of seated natives and instructing them with the aid of a gramophone. It's strange, but by putting the vulgar cartoon over the sublime masterpiece, the Matisse recedes into the background while the racist gag is pushed into the foreground. It's so smart, it's head-spinning.

These three shows demonstrate how much life is still left in the art-of-identity movement. More than that, they show how taking on topics of race and ethnicity in art doesn't preclude the possibility of coming up with work that is credibly contemporary.

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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