Art News

CHAC Ignites Conversation Between Generations of Chicano Artists

Alfredo Cardenas
Sculpture by Alfredo Cardenas, whose work will be on display in Storytelling in Sculpture, part of a series of exhibitions called Generations.
More than forty years ago, Chicano and Latino artists in the Denver area recognized the importance of establishing a community presence in the face of an overwhelmingly white-dominated art world. In 1978, a group of them came together, founded the Chicano Humanities and Arts Council and opened a long-running gallery space on Santa Fe Drive, where these artists could support and spotlight each other's work.

Amidst the rapid development of the blocks comprising the Art District on Santa Fe, CHAC was forced to shutter in 2018 and move to a space further south on Santa Fe. And now it's on the move again, looking for a new brick-and-mortar gallery and in the meantime offering its programming at venues around town.

The profound legacy of CHAC’s work is carried on in the distinctive portfolios and careers of younger generations of artists, who borrow motifs from their elders' works — and just as often depart from those styles to birth hybrid creations. Wanting to pay tribute to the Chicano/Latino elders who paved the way for younger artists today, Alicia Cardenas —who is also the owner of Sol Tribe, a tattoo art shop — petitioned the leadership at CHAC to guest-curate a series of shows. They agreed, and the three-part Generations: An Intergenerational Art Show, co-sponsored by CHAC and Transforming Creatives, opens Tuesday, July 6, and will continue through the end of September at RiNo Art District co-working space Converge Denver. An opening reception will be held Friday, July 9, from 6 to 8:30 p.m.

Each month, the exhibit will spotlight two artists working in similar mediums, one older and one younger. In July, the Generations exhibit showcases ceramicist and sculptor Cal Duran and sculptor Alfredo Cardenas (Alicia's father) for Storytelling in Sculpture, a show that explores the relationship between narrative and form.

Duran, who grew up in Colorado and employs ancient processes in his work, sees art as a way to access his "indigenous ancestors...where an emotional spinning vortex of artisans, craft-makers, mud-dwellers, star-makers, dream-weavers and earth-brothers and sisters paved the way” for his creative energy, according to his artist's statement. Born in 1942 in Denver, Alfredo Cardenas welds sheet metal into sculptures, drawing inspiration from pre-Columbian Mexican and Aztec art.

A sculpture by Denver artist Cal Duran. - CAL DURAN
A sculpture by Denver artist Cal Duran.
Cal Duran
In August, the second exhibit in the series will take on the rich history of Denver muralism and how today's artists are carrying on that legacy. The Art District on Santa Fe, CHAC’s previous home, harbors around thirty historic Chicano murals, a testament to the artistic footprint of the mural movement of the 1960s and '70s, when Denver was building its reputation as a major center of Chicano muralism and artistic expression. The show will including work by Jher Clark, a longtime figure in Denver’s underground art scene and an acclaimed tattoo artist, and Emmanuel Martinez, a pioneering Colorado muralist and civil rights activist.

Finally, in September, Alicia Cardenas’s own paintings will be shown side by side with those of meta-realist and neo-pre-Columbian artist Stevon Lucero. Cardenas says that Lucero, one of CHAC founders's, has had a huge influence on her work.

Lucero, who has been painting for 56 years, is currently working on over twenty pieces simultaneously; he expects that some will appear in that show. “The work I’m doing now is more metaphysical stuff — it’s stronger in terms of its intellectual, spiritual content. It’s telling the viewer, if you want a pretty picture, go elsewhere; if you want to see something that is trying to make you think, that’s what I meant,” Lucero says. The primary concern of his paintings, he explains is the “inner spirit,” and he thinks of each as a “spiritual visual metaphor.”

In addition to mounting the exhibit, organizers will record interviews with artists and upload the conversations on Converge’s website. Cardenas sees these interviews as an opportunity to build an oral tradition and oral history, ”something that has not been valued by this culture very much but is very important to Indigenous people,” she says.

“After COVID, we lost a lot of people. We lost elders in the Navajo Nation…in Italy…across the country. And when we lose our elders, we lose oral history. We lose the songs and we lose the stories, because these things aren’t being written down and because this culture doesn’t value elders,” she continues. Interviewing these artists presents an opportunity to rectify the archival silence.

Her passion for cultivating intergenerational dialogue among Chicano artists stems in part from her feeling that elders in her community are being unfairly cast aside.

“This is something common in our culture right now, where we kind of throw out our elders and don’t give them the space and time they deserve because they’re not on Instagram,” Cardenas says. “It breaks my heart every day that there are artists out there who are not participating in Instagram or social media that are not ‘relevant,’ and my mission and core value is that the fact that I can sell a painting and make money off of it — or I can exhibit a painting right now — is because of the work that my dad’s generation did."

Lucero, a member of that generation, says he's disappointed that Chicano artists are still shafted by collectors and buyers in favor of work created by white artists. And as CHAC searches for a new home, he has a message for Denver regarding the Chicano community's art:

“Tell people to support it," he says. “You pay the plumber, you pay the electrician, you pay your car mechanic, and you pay him big bucks — but you won’t buy a piece of art."

Generations: An Intergenerational Art Show, co-sponsored by CHAC and Transforming Creatives, runs July 6 to September 30 at Converge Denver, 3327 Brighton Boulevard. The opening reception takes place from 6 to 8:30 p.m., on July 9,  at the same location. The Chicano Arts and Humanities Council will also host classes in the coming months to raise fund for its future; for more information, visit CHAC online.