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.

How do you navigate the economy of life as an artist?

I personally have never had to or ever been able to make a living solely from art, other than what I do professionally, and that is working with youth and using art as a tool. I kind of consider the two as kind of the same. I see creating art with young people and allowing them to grow from that process as utilizing my artistic talent and utilizing what I do as an artist. It's utilizing what I've learned and the tools that I grew up with as well. In that sense, financially, art has supported me. With my personal work, because I don't rely on it for my income, I can paint what inspires me rather than focusing on an audience or focusing on trends or focusing on what might sell. I can paint what and how I want.

It is difficult. To me, the hardest thing for a working artist is the business aspect of it, all of the recording you have to do of all the shows, all the things you have to put together, all the references that you need. I think for me, it's very difficult just to get your name mentioned and to have people have some sort of knowledge of who you are and what you've done.

Our group looks at what it is to be Chicano. What does it mean to us individually, and what does it mean to us as a collective? Part of that is the indigenous side of us.

If we go back, historically, artists were respected and artists had a purpose in most of our societies. Artists were trained and artists learned and they had a position within the community. That's changed. Now, the way I see it, in modern society, it's take it or leave it. We don't really need it. It's kind of an extra, although studies show that if we look into it a little deeper that without art, without music, without the creative part of who we are as humans, we're not balanced. But how do you get somebody to pay you for that?

I think we've created the monster ourselves with institutions and putting art in an elitist kind of spectrum. I think we all have a part in creating that. Can you unpack that?

What I'm thinking is that we've institutionalized art, just like we've institutionalized a lot of things. For example, Dia de los Muertos is a ceremony that is a sacred, spiritual ceremony that is in real life. It talks about life and death and the duality between the two. What we've done is that we've taken Dia de los Muertos and put it in art galleries. So we've taken out the original thought of that ceremony and put it in art galleries. Then you have to go into closed doors to see it. It's kind of a metaphor for art.

We've taken it from a place where artists had a place. Artists would create something. Artists would document history. Artists would take what would normally be just a philosophy or an idea or a theology and they would put it down so that it could be recorded, so that it could be visualized and so that it could be seen by people. Now, to me, in some ways, it's become an entire institution: Who are you? What are your credentials? Where have you shown? What kind of write-ups have you gotten?

Some artists have a way of flocking to that and saying, "We have to. We have to have a way of normalizing it so that everybody has a standard that they can go from. Otherwise, how do we know? How do we know what's good art? If somebody who has credentials says it's good art, how do we know it's good art?"

What are your thoughts on the institutionalization of Chicano and indigenous cultural production, and what it means for institutions to be curating around these themes?

The thing is that by its very nature, people have to label things. I think I'll just talk about human nature. We label things. "Oh, this is Chicano art. Oh, do you know what that is? Do you want to go see that? What is this gallery? Oh, this is modern and contemporary. Oh, I'd like to see that."

I think human nature is to put things in categories and we understand from that perspective. To be honest, it's something I struggle with all the time. I have not really ever considered myself a Chicano artist. In some ways I've resisted that, only because I didn't want to be labeled, to be put in a corner. One of the reasons for that is that we can become caught up in it. We can get focused on that, and that's all we focus on. To me, that just narrows things down. When organizations or institutions come from a perspective of, "This is what we are. This is what we do," in some ways I guess it's good because people can understand. But then it also sets limits.

I think the big thing right now is appropriation, what are called "Culture Vultures." They're the people who come out and whatever the latest trend is, they jump on it and try to make it their own for a minute, just so they can get some sort of advantage from it. What I respect are the people, whether I agree with them or not, the people that are consistent and have been consistent and do the hard work so that people like myself can follow in their footsteps and continue to move things forward.

Declarations: An Examination of Chicano Identity, Culture and Historyruns through May 31 at Sangre de Cristo Arts Center. For more information, go to Follow me on Twitter: @kyle_a_harris

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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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