Somehow, the public face of one of the high-profile exhibits at the University of Guadalajara’s Museo de las Artes (MUSA) – its title, the piece of art chosen as its frontispiece, and the artwork decorating its entrance – gave me quite a different idea about what to expect than what the show delivered. And the reality was better than my expectations.
What could account for this difference? The title, “Construyendo Puentes en Época de Muros” (Building Bridges in the Epoch of Walls) sounds timely and political and, indeed, the show is. Except that the art and artists span the decades since the term Chicano surfaced in the 1960s, and do not just reflect the current state of affairs, including “the Wall,” at the U.S.-Mexico border. (Incidentally, a sub-subtitle reveals the work is mainly from Los Angeles, the City of Dreams, which eliminated my preconception that it reflected all U.S. Chicanos.)
Likewise, the piece of art used in the show’s publicity – a gaudily painted, cardboard citadel, complete with storefronts and traffic, and approximately as tall as a refrigerator – also did not strike me as representative of the show, which includes painting, sculpture, drawing, photography, mixed media, video, film and electronic and other types of installations. (Of course, with such a variety of art forms, what could be representative?)
The artwork decorating the entrance to the show –paintings done in classic, Mexican-mural style, and neon signs with political statements such as “America es para los dreamers” – likewise suggests a certain focus that the show itself went beyond.
The exhibition’s curators and commentators, whose eloquent explanations appear in Spanish and English in all five salons, do not claim to have the last word on who is important in Chicano art. Still, much of the artwork on display is so dazzling – intellectually, visually, or both – that the viewer comes away with the conviction of having seen something very significant.
I am drawn to the classic art forms, even though, as a painting teacher once said, “It’s been done.” This show was no exception, with paintings, sculptures and mixed media pieces that I found marvelous and original. There are several breathtaking paintings, particularly the large 2014 visionary “Drive In” by John Valadez, who started painting in the 1970s. The acrylic depicts a sleek, orange Chevrolet convertible filled with water as if it were a swimming pool, and poised on a beach under a huge, overarching ocean wave.
Two silhouette sculptures by Ramiro Gomez, whose day job is as a babysitter in Beverly Hills, caught my eye, partly because at first I mistook them for real people. This was remarkable because the figures, almost life-sized, are not really three-dimensional, but painted cut-outs made from cardboard and bronze sheets, and lack much detail. Yet somehow, three manual laborers sitting on ice chests having lunch, and a chubby maintenance worker pushing her wheeled garbage can gave a moving impression of the ubiquitous, nearly invisible, L.A. workers of Mexican origin – members of “the indigenous population already there,” as commentator Chon Noriega put it – in the City of Dreams, where they are not seen in the Hollywood dream factory or Disneyland.
Several small mixed-media pieces by the same young artist also intrigued me. They were pages from a House-Beautiful-type magazine into which simply painted figures of domestic workers had been inserted – a man sitting on the arm of a gorgeous sofa waiting for his check, for example. Gomez, who seems thoroughly Americanized, as are many Mexican-Americans according to one artist, has explained in a video that his mother and father are domestic workers. One suspects these are portraits of his parents.
Another surprise – although it shouldn’t have been – was curator Julian Bermudez’s statement that Chicano art is “one of the main movements of the American creative canon” and “an original school of American art.” Is the centrality of Chicano art ever mentioned by art historians?
“Construyendo Puentes en Época de Muros – Arte Chicano/Mexicano de Los Angeles a Mexico” is open until March 8 at MUSA, Juarez 975 at Enrique Diaz de Leon. Open Tuesday to Sunday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Closed Mondays. (The historical show “Orozco, Rivera, Siqueiros – La exposición pendiente” remains open at MUSA until March 22.)