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.

Courtesy of Patssi Valdez/Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Little Girl With Yellow Dress, 1995 by Patssi Valdez
Courtesy of Leo Limon/Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Un Poquito Sol, 1991 by Leo Limon
Courtesy of Gilbert 'Magu' Lujan/Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Blue Dog, 1990 by Gilbert Lujan

Chicano art – indeed, the moniker Chicano to denote Mexican-Americans – was born more than three decades ago, amid the turmoil and social unrest of America's 1960s civil rights movements. Surprisingly, for a city whose demographic makeup now consists of a majority minority, it has been nearly that long since Los Angeles hosted a major art show devoted to the work of Chicano artists.

This past week, a new exhibition that examines a younger generation of Mexican-American artists. "Chicano Art: Phantom Sightings, Art after the Chicano Movement," opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Organizers and artists alike see the show as an opportunity to bring what they see as a marginalized class of Americans into a national spotlight (the show tours to Mexico City, Guadalajara, Houston, and New York) at a moment when both presidential and immigration politics have put the country's relationship with its southern neighbor front-and-center on the national stage.

"When we were conceptualizing the show, the social and political moments were a bit more in the distance," says Rita Gonzalez, LACMA assistant curator for special exhibitions. "But as we started to install the show, things like the Barack Obama speech [about race] happened as well as the debate over the triple-border fence."

All these things, she says, are giving the show a new urgency and casting an important national spotlight on the subtext of the show. "We hope to make this culture a bit more discernible or less phantom," says Howard Fox, LACMA curator of contemporary art, "by asking people to question what they think they know about this group."

The show opens with a nod to the artists who birthed the Chicano art movement, a radical group of young Mexican-American guerrilla street artists known as Asco (Spanish for "nausea"). The collective put itself on the city's cultural map in 1972 after being told by the LACMA curators of the day that the reason Chicano art was not on display inside the museum was that Chicano creativity "wasn't art."

Those were fighting words to the young Harry Gamboa, who, along with his youthful cohorts, decided to take Chicano art to LACMA. They spray-painted the front of the museum in the style of graffiti taggers of the day.

Photos of their handiwork open the show. Mr. Gamboa, the spiritual godfather of Chicano art, offers contextual perspective about the exhibition that follows. "I found that Chicanos were put in a bad light, never identified as human beings," says the artist, who grew up on the mean streets of east Los Angeles. "They are always identified as a single group, and not covalued as any other group in America is."

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.

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.

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