“He is chastised… [for] not being a real ‘Mexican.’ He is a Coconut.”
Holey tube socks ‘Boutman! That’s some funny shtuff!
I am a tad bit familiar with the Hispanic/Latino/Chicano/Tejano/Mexican/Wetback/American discussions in art and society in general. So the press release for this show had me laughing and sighing. It’s funny ’cause its true! The continual influx of transcontinental-American immigrants and the influence of colonial Spanish hierarchies has kept the waters stirring, unlike Irish and Italian immigrants that have an ocean between them and the motherland and have essentially stopped their flow (and in the case of the Irish, have even reversed it a little). With this perpetual movement, there is a vast difference in perspective between someone whose family has lived in the American southwest since before it was American, someone who’s family emigrated three, four generations ago and settled in the northeast, someone who was born and raised in the midwest and someone who’s recently enslaved to migrant farmwork in the Florida peninsula.
To paraphrase and condense what I understand about it, the Chicano movement attempted to unify Mexican people under the Aztec/Chicano umbrella. With so many differences between the migrant farmers and the white collar workers the rights movement slowly dissolved. As I was born on the backend of the movement, the elders and more hardcore members tend to annoy me with their rhetoric. I still believe Hispanic is the more accurate term. I’ve always thought lowrider imagery was cliche, but was impressed by the techniques demonstrated by more skillful artists. With the propoganda images of the Chicano movement and the Aztec gods with their voluptuous maidens from the cholos, the UCLA organized exhibit, CARA, is full of old news. That curator, Arturo Palacios, is stating there is and has already been a graduation of Chicano imagery is daunting. I was still worried to find calaveras or references to Catholicism as previous exhibits featuring younger artists still maintained those training wheels provided by the Chicano movement. What I found was still familiar, but not in the expected presentations.
On the front porch of the gallery, you might find a golden egg slightly hidden within a nest composed of hay (I’m thinking it was recycled from way back when Ali Fitzgerald had her show). Walking into the gallery, you notice a black mass in the corner. It is Josh Rios’ installation consisting of ink drawings, black clay? sculptures and a wall drawing. The group of ink drawings feature chain link fencing. They sit lined up next to each other on some shelving. The sexually active figures lay on the edges just in front of the drawings. Surrounding this setup are large black clouds sending down bolts of black lightning and pushing up demon claws from the underworld. On the edges you find text, both the title of the installation, “This Would Be Hilarious If It Weren’t For All The Dead Bodies,” and other ominous, twistedly hilarious commentary. Next to this installation was a sculpture, “Dangerous Sculpture.” A black cord is plugged into the electrical socket, runs up the wall, hangs on a nail and offers you the exposed innards of a lightbulb. Written chaotically on the wall are warnings of imminent death, teasing and tempting you to touch the naked wiring.
In the other corner is an installation/conglomeration of drawings and a clubhouse by Sam de la Rosa. The poorly constructed clubhouse had a sign that invited the audience to mark up its facades. Through the slat on the front side, you could see some of the drawings hanging within. Around the back, a black curtain draped the entrance. Inside, you could feel the vibration of the audio as you look around at the blacklight glowing drawings. Cartoons, text, notebook doodles, graffiti, all are featured on Mr. de la Rosa’s work. Magazine cutouts, highlighters and crayons enliven the images with color. Like real graffiti, the works hanging on the gallery walls are clustered together. They include collage and the text is shoved in whereever it will fit. The text on one piece directly relates to the text on the adjacent piece. Even the wall contains scribbling and drawing. Then there is a group of photographs showing different houses. Each one had its windows and doors blacked out to form skull eyes and nose on its facade. Altogether, the works looked like notebook rants/ poster art/ graffiti. Kinda slapdash.
On the last wall, in front of a large band of pink paint, were four drawings similar to Mr. de la Rosa’s work. Rell Ohlson also composed her imagery in a notebook doodley kind of way. They made me think of those Microsoft print ads. Since they were drawn and not collaged, they were much cleaner in presentation. The subject matter was more… girly. Where Mr. de la Rosa had Ninja Turtles and what looked like mirrored Nike swooshes, Ms. Ohlson (not Mary Kate or Ashley) had drawn furry creatures in fantastical landscapes highlighted in very colorful blasts of ink. They are more attractive, but still felt thrown together. Not in a bad way, but more of a nonsensical conglomeration of images.
In the other room you find more work by Josh Rios. Ink drawings of furry demon heads with forked tongues speaking consenting yet corrupting words. “You are free to have” The white ink on mirrored Mylar doesn’t allow for a clear reflection of oneself. But it does mistify/mystify the creature that is drawn. In the restroom was a black tv covered in a black ski mask. The video playing shows the eyes and lips of Mr. Rios continually mouthing the words “I’m Watching You” (Its a good thing I pissed with my back to the tv).
Projected on the wall in the kitchen area was the video documentation of Bunnyphonic’s performance. I admit that I am impatient with performance and am glad that I experienced this through the more tolerable video. Watching Michelle Gonzalez-Valdez wearing a pink dress and donning the head of a chicken pinata was bearable. But the droning and wailing of the accordion tested me and I chuckled when the audience preemptively applauded the end. Twice. Its difficult trying to recount and digest the performance when limited by what the camera captured. I just don’t know what was happening musically or kinetically.
Trying to think of a narrow idea that could embrace the four artists is difficult. But I think I finally grasped an idea that could fit. I want to say that these artists were working with private thoughts or intimate concerns made public. There was no typical Latino imagery to unify them. These artists had moved beyond that option, as the curator stated. Although Latino is the appropriate term to use nowadays, I’d have to say that this show was post-Chicano. Chicano is the ideal that formed the exhibit of CARA and that is what the curator was countering, or comparing. Latino describes a wide net over anyone born or descending from Mexico, to the southern most tip of Chile, that resides in the United States (and possibly Canada, I don’t know, I haven’t been since I was 6 months). Chicanismo, as I understand it, claimed the indigenous traits of the Aztec in order to adopt Mexican nationals, Mexican immigrants, and Mexican-Americans in the pursuit of their political goals. Being that Texas’ minority population can easily be described as “Mexican” and the elements I saw in the works were familiar to this Mexican, I’ma say the show was ’bout Chicanos, or the lack of.
So thinking of this as a Chicano art exhibit, it is very obvious that the imagery has abandoned the matrons; Frida and La Virgen, the patrons; skeletons, Aztec warriors and the farmworker, the daily representation; the slick cars and the slicker hair of Pachucos, the community and the political propaganda. Or did it?
Sam de la Rosa borrows the most in his works. The photos and the clubhouse itself have memento moris applied to their facades. The wall was covered with condemnation toward Israeli/ US war policies. The portrait of a woman, recalls Whistler’s Mother and as she is a woman of color, the jump isn’t too far to call her the artist’s mother. Yet all around, the works were collages. The photo could have been found material, but the focus was so intense that I made the connection to the Virgin. Ninja Turtles, Bart Simpson, rock-n-roll icons. They aren’t exactly indigenous warriors, but they can be described as American icons. Mythical figures of strength and rebellion that the artist can draw pride from. The use of rock and street art aesthetic could be linked with the silkscreen and lowrider aesthetic from back in the day.
Both Rell Ohlson and Bunnyphonic added to the dazzling colors with their bright drawings and costume, respectively. Ms. Ohlson’s work perpetuates the layering of elements found across “urban” magazine advertisements. This dominant media use of subcultures parallels the dominant use of “propaganda posters” for Chicano politics. Call me a bad Mexican or even a Coconut, but I haven’t experienced any Chicano performances, so Bunnyphonic doesn’t have an exact comparison. Instead, I see Ms. Valdez joining Josh Rios in presenting melancholic topics with a level of hilarity.
The wailing of Ms. Valdez’s accordion was droopy. The ridiculous donning of a pinata chicken was just plain absurd. It made me think of the blunt, black humor that permeates my family and other Mexican families I know. It’s like calling one of your heavy set cousins, Gordo or Panson. With a gut like his, you can’t ignore it and you can’t nickname him Adonis. Mr. Rios further complicates this humor with the ever-present eye of mother. Just ask Principal Skinner. The denouncements expressed by the demons in his work and the vigilant video in the restroom, echo the awkwardness of puberty and/or moving out of your parents’ house while trying to do the right thing. Except, there were no angels on the other shoulder. Just the temptation and the damnation.
So how does this work go from private to public? Thinking of the Chicano movement, the art surrounding it was a rallying point. For political purposes, the posters delivered messages and communicated their urgency. In terms of identity, the paintings, etc. depicted everyday life and validated the community’s existence in the United States. The art was public work, murals & iconographic objects, created to be claimed individually by the members of the community. The four coconuts do the opposite. The artists take their personal interests and apply them into larger concerns. Concerns outside of the Chicano or Latino perspective.
By claiming that there was an absence of identity politics, one was made hyper-aware of the artists’ identity. Even after this historical, political review, the curator’s comments are accurate. You can find traces of cultural heritage, but the works engage in the contemporary art discussions without relying on where they come from. They can thank the previous generation for that. The concern now is where the political groups will rally if the Latino populace is further varied by place of origin, place of settlement and level of integration. We’re not all in the southwest anymore.
A show like this still has baggage. The focus of the art helps alleviate some it. Difficult, but ultimatley successful. This show was GOOD.
I’ll tell you ’bout what I sees.