Turf Wars

In the late 1960s and through the 1970s, there arose what has come to be called the "art of identity." This genre was -- and is -- art by members of identifiable groups trying to explicate their specific and peculiar struggles for social justice and equality. To call something "art of identity" was not to make any kind of stylistic observation about it, because it was only the narrative content and not a specific style that qualified pieces for this moniker. There was feminist art by women exploring their plight. There was African-American art that did the same thing. And in the western United States, Chicano art made by, for and about Mexican-Americans became a staple on the regional scene.

If the art of identity generally had no stylistic construct, Chicano art did. With rising pride in their Mexican heritage, Chicanos began to delve into their history, in particular the art history of their ancestral homeland. Even the most cursory glance at Mexican art reveals that "Los Tres Grandes" cast a huge shadow over the subject. Los Tres Grandes were the masters of the Mexican mural movement of the early twentieth century: David Álfaro Siqueiros, Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco.

These artists created paintings that depicted the travails of the Mexican people in establishing their own identity during their long history. Chicano art took from Los Tres Grandes iconography that included literal references to the Aztecs -- los indios -- the Spanish conquistadors and the ever-avaricious Anglos, all playing their pre-determined and tightly proscribed roles. Stylistically, Los Tres Grandes and their followers north of the border worked in a social-realist style that had a leftist, "off the man" sensibility.

Fast-forward to the present day. The legacy of art of identity has led to the creation of parallel art universes populated by their own stars and with their own audiences, particularly among women, African-American and Chicano artists. Nearly all of it is walled off from the larger contemporary art world. In a way, it's as though the artists working on identity politics turned down roads that wound up being circles. Because they are deaf to, or unaware of, current events in contemporary art, they can't help but do exactly the same things they've been doing for thirty years.

This is only one of the issues relevant to Chicano art that's addressed in the impressive exhibit Never Leaving Aztlan, on display at the Museo de las Americas. The other topic considered is how some Chicano artists worked their way into the art world at large either by rejecting the "art of identity" concept outright, or by reconciling the identity sensibility to prevailing aesthetic currents. These artists are sometimes referred to as being "post-Chicano" -- a cute term that, though inadequate, is the only one out there that captures the idea.

The Museo show is not the first volley in this war of opposing ideals. In 2005, the Center for Visual Art in LoDo mounted a show called Leaving Aztlan that was meant to highlight how post-Chicano art had superseded Chicano art because of its greater relevancy. Just as it opened, University of Colorado professor George Rivera, long a proponent of Chicano art and its value, proposed an exhibit to rejoin the post-Chicano fest in Leaving Aztlan -- hence the title Never Leaving Aztlan.

Rivera is having serious health problems, and though he presented a list of artists to be included in the show, he handed over the curatorial baton to Patty Ortiz, the Museo's respected director. Ortiz changed Rivera's concept substantially. Whereas Rivera wanted to show that Chicano art was better and more meaningful than post-Chicano art, Ortiz took a more complex approach to answering Leaving Aztlan. She combined the two sensibilities into a single show, including many artists from Rivera's list as well as some names she compiled on her own.

The initial section of Never Leaving Aztlan is dominated by those artists who are still interested in doing Chicano art, but most of the rest of the main gallery is given over to the more contemporary crowd, giving the exhibit a bifurcated quality. The contrast between the two sections is hardly subtle; it's easy to see the fault line as soon as you enter the room. As I told Ortiz, the shift in gears between one side and the other is so striking, it's like getting hit in the face with a pie.

Ortiz says she wanted to reach out to what she refers to as the Chicano/Latino community, whose members are very fond of old-fashioned Chicano art. But she also wanted to survey contemporary art being done by members of that same community. Her balancing act is tremendously successful, and the show has more than enough variety to satisfy a diverse audience.

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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