Tony Diego on Los Phantazmas, art education and the limits of labels

For Tony Diego, art and education are inseparable. For over fifteen years, he has worked with young people, using art as a tool to address social issues. Diego is also a part of the Chicano art collective Los Phantazmas, which started in the '90s with Josiah Lopez, Carlos Fresquez, Ismael "Izzy" Lozano and Diego, took a ten-year hiatus and has recently reformed. The collective's works are now on display as part of Declarations: An Examination of Chicano Identity, Culture and History at the Sangre de Cristo Art Center. Westword recently spoke with Diego about the collective, his artistic process and the role of social issues in his work.

See also: Carlos Fresquez on Los Phantazmas and Chicano art

Westword: Talk about your work as an artist and your collaboration with Los Phantazmas.

Tony Diego: I'm predominantly a painter. I use layers of paint and a lot of texture. I go back and forth between non-objective work and work with social significance or relevance using images. That's basically it. I also, for fifteen-plus years, have worked with youth programs, using art as a communication tool. A lot of the work that I do and a lot of what influences that work is using images that youth can relate to and that they can identify with. I use those images as a teaching tool. That definitely crosses over between my own personal work and the work that I do with the youth programs that I've been working with.

Talk about the politics that fuel what you're doing.

My personal focus obviously has an historical bent to it, understanding history from a personal perspective and using it as a reference for where we are in the present, where we are currently, where we are as people, where we are as a society, where we are as people of color and people of culture. Again, it's really hard for me to separate the two, between working with youth and my personal work, because they're so integrated. What I would say is that what I focus on is the future: Where have we been? Where are we? Where can we go?

A lot of my work goes back and forth between making a social statement on what's happening currently and putting out there an idea of artists looking at a social issue and bringing it to the forefront. To me, there is also the next step of saying, "Okay, but where can we go from here?" What does it look like if we were to achieve the things that we're fighting for, bringing attention to or trying to resolve or change?

Talk about how Los Phantazmas fits within this educational paradigm that you work in?

It's amazing, because just having this small collective and the few times that we are able to sit down as a group and actually go over what our thought processes are and what we feel are important issues and what our individual perspectives are on those, that allows us the opportunity to grow. It allows us the opportunity to see things from a different perspective. There are only four of us right now, and we are very similar, but at the same time, we are very different in our approaches, in our lives, how we've come about, how we've gotten where we are.

The collective allows us to sit down and have discussions about where we are or how we see things, how our art has evolved and how we have evolved as people and what we think is important. It also allows us the opportunity to talk about what we feel is our reason for existing: Why are we together? Why are we a collective? Why are we showing together as a group? Why is that important to us?

Talk about what that collaborative process looks like for you. How are you making art together? What comes up? What are the tensions?

It's usually somebody saying this is important, and I would like to continue this. Other than the current show we're in right now, we haven't shown together in over ten years as an entire group. The group has changed a little bit over that time. Part of the reason for that is that I moved out of the area for ten years, and once I came back, we started talking again. It was Josiah Lopez who said, "I would like us to show together again. I'd like us to rekindle this." So the thought was put out there, and immediately, the other members grabbed onto it and said, "Yes, this is important. Let's do this."

So, basically, if we feel as individuals that this collective is important, it has something to say, it has a place within the community, it just continues.

Read on for more from Tony Diego.

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Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris

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