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No escaping politics at L.A. exhibition of Mexican-American art

LACMA's rare display of art post the Chicano movement stresses themes of illegal immigration and discrimination.

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Most of the 31 artists behind the more than 120 works in the exhibition are several generations removed from this tumultuous start. "They've come a long way, both aesthetically and physically, hailing from as far away as New York and Texas," says Gamboa. In contrast to the self-taught members of Asco, many of this new breed have a master's degree in fine arts from top art schools. Nonetheless, says Mr. Fox, they continue to explore themes of multiple identities, lost histories, and devalued humanity that have infused Chicano art since its inception.

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As you approach what appear to be the potted cacti of Texan artist Margarita Cabrera, it becomes clear that "Agave," "Yucca," "Nopal 2," and "Nopal 3" are fabric constructions sewn together using actual uniforms of US border patrol officers. The work is a powerful reminder of one of the show's important themes, says Fox. A familiar landscape can seem to be one thing when it is actually quite another. A series of 15 chromogenic prints by Ken Gonzalez-Day, "Erased Lynchings," depicts what Fox calls little-known footprints of American history: the mob killings of Mexican-Americans. The prints depict respectably dressed, white, middle-class Americans in coats and ties observing dangling figures whose identities have been digitally erased by the artist. "Here is a phantom reminder," says Fox, adding that the artist has made it his project to remind us of lost histories, another of the show's themes.

A number of the pieces make reference to neighborhoods and physical locations and use video components to bring them into the museum. "Undocumented Interventions," a series of eight water-color drawings based on real photos by Tijuana artist Julio Morales, depict the real-life phenomena of Mexicans using machines to smuggle themselves across the border. A video tours the Tijuana neighborhood where automobiles, trucks, washing machines, etc., are modified to accommodate hidden human bodies behind dashboards, under floorboards, and inside the tub. The artist is exploring the Mexican migrant's ability to adapt and accommodate in order to survive, says Fox.

This exhibition also serves to underline the city's uneasy relationship with Chicano culture, says Oscar Garza, editor of the city's glossy Spanish language magazine, Tu Ciudad. As an example, he says that at the same time it was being planned, local celebrity, Cheech Marin, one of the nation's largest collectors of Chicano art, offered LACMA an exhibition of his collection and was turned down. Mr. Garza notes that the collection has had a successful national tour and will now have a scaled-down appearance at LACMA in June. But, says Garza, "Marin had to fight to get that."

Perhaps, he adds, this appearance of two shows solely devoted to Chicano art, after 25 years of drought, will help to put Chicano art back on the cultural map, where, he adds, in a city with a Latino population of 4.7 million, it certainly belongs.

Alison Tully contributed to this story from Los Angeles.