Chicano. (Learning from Exhibitions)

By Johnson, Mark M. | Arts & Activities, May 2002 | Go to article overview

Chicano. (Learning from Exhibitions)


Johnson, Mark M., Arts & Activities


America is often likened to a "melting pot" or a "salad" when describing its rich mixture of diverse people, cultures, histories and traditions. A key ingredient in this blend of ethnicities and backgrounds is the heritage and contributions of the Chicano people. The history of the people of Mexican ancestry in the United States can actually be traced back thousands of years and includes European, American Indian and African influences. For many Chicanos, their ancestral roots on American soil predate the arrival of the Mayflower.

The Chicano Movement has been fermenting since the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848 when the current U.S.-Mexican border was established and, instantly, thousands of Mexicans living north of this line automatically became U.S. citizens. While acclimating to a new country and numerous new ideas and influences, Mexican-Americans naturally maintained important bonds to their ancestral past.

The result, as was common with other ethnic groups, was a fusion of beliefs and traditions evolving into the Chicano culture. Like any culture, however, no single label or definition can adequately describe the diversity and dynamic of this large and complex group of people scattered across the United States.

During the 20th century, the emergence of Chicano expression in many art forms also took place in the visual arts, especially in the media of painting, drawing, sculpture and printmaking. Chicanos and their art have sustained a strong cultural presence in the Southwest and in this region, in particular, they have exerted a significant influence on our nation's art, music, language, food, fashion and lifestyle. While many aspects of Chicano culture have not been widely included or been given validation by mainstream arts institutions, this failure is being corrected not only in areas with large Mexican-American populations, but across the country.

During the next five years a pair of exhibits collectively entitled "CHICANO" will be presented in 15 cities across the United States. "Chicano Visions: American Painters on the Verge" is the widest ranging and most comprehensive display ever mounted on the subject. Actor Cheech Marin, who is credited as the visionary behind this groundbreaking exhibit, also loaned his own personal Chicano art collection, one of the largest in the world. "Chicano Now: American Expressions" is a multimedia exhibit which will involve the visitor through video, art, audio and interactive displays. "We're bringing our interpretation of the Chicano experience to the American public," says Marin. "I want all Americans to understand that Chicano culture plays a big part in the patchwork quilt that is Americana. The contributions of Chicanos have been so enormous, but they tend to be overlooked."

According to exhibit organizers, easel paintings of oil or acrylic on canvas form the bulk of the display. Images of urban life and the Chicano experience are recurring elements throughout the exhibit, which includes pieces by artists Carlos Almaraz, Frank Romero, GRONK, John Valadez and Patssi Valdez, among others. Like the culture itself, Chicano art can be traditional and avant-garde, spiritual and profane, religious and popular, sophisticated and naive. While its content and style may be considered Chicano, its meaning and appeal is universal.

Images derived from television and the movies play an important role in the paintings of Melesio Casas, particularly in a series of large oil paintings entitled "Humanscapes." The artist admits, "I can't deal without propaganda ... We are bombarded by this constantly on TV." Casas was born in El Paso, Texas, and attended public schools, eventually receiving a Master of Arts degree from the University of the Americas in Mexico City. …

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