Chicano Art on the Move: With Its Roots in Political Activism, Chicano Art Documents the Evolution of the Mexican-American Experience

Article excerpt

For Americans outside the southwestern United States, the word "Chicano" might first bring to mind Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers' movement of the 1960s and '70s. But for many Americans of Mexican background, Chicano designates a complex and evolving cultural identity that has been pointedly expressed in art.

"A Chicano is a Mexican-American with attitude," said art scholar Gary Keller, himself a Chicano. The Chicano identity formed among many Mexican-Americans during the Civil Rights Movement and the United Farm Workers' campaign on behalf of migrant workers. Prevalent artistic mediums of that period--the mural and the poster--reflected the political character of the times. Since then, Chicano art has grown more varied as the Chicano population has assimilated further into American society.

Chicano art is now on display in "Chicano Visions: American Painters on the Verge," a traveling exhibition that is two years into its five-year, 15-city tour of the United States. Its 50 pictures by 26 Mexican-American artists are drawn largely from the personal collection of actor/comedian Cheech Marin and his wife Patti. The show opens this January at the Indiana State Museum in Indianapolis. A multi-media exhibit called "Chicano Now" accompanies it.

The "Chicano Visions" exhibit is composed mostly of paintings, by intention. "It's still true today that unless you do paintings, it's hard to be recognized as a top-level artist," said Matin. "And I wanted to show people that these are world-class artists who deserve recognition as such' The show emphasizes older, established artists and favors a painterly style that peaked in the 1980s and early 1990s.

A Colorful Legacy

Significant influences upon Mexican-American art can be traced in the "Chicano Visions" exhibit. The biggest impact, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, came from the three great Mexican muralists: Diego Rivera, Jose 0rozco and David Siqueiros. Their boldly figurative, narrative and political approach is echoed throughout the show.

Intensely expressionistic color is at home in Chicano art, as is photo-realism--for example, in paintings by John Valadez, Jesse Trevino and Eloy Torrez. American popular culture has left its mark in the cartoon forms of Frank Romero and the B-movie motifs employed by Adan Hernandez. Graffiti has been a sub-genre of Chicano art and surfaces in the acrylics of Chaz Bojorquez. And a folk-art simplicity animates the story-telling evocations of everyday Chicano life in Carmen Lomas Garza's oil paintings. Among others, the show also includes Gaspar Enriquez, Ester Hernandez, Patssi Valdez, Cesar Martinez, Glugio Nicandro (known as"Gronk"), Leo Limon and the late Carlos Almaraz.

The show omits important artists who aren't primarily painters, such as veteran printmaker Malaquias Montoya, who makes silkscreens inspired by social-political issues, and sculptors Luis Jimenez and Charlie Carillo, who enjoy growing reputations. Noted conceptual and multi-media artists include Jesse Amado, Yolanda Lopez and Celia Alvarez Munoz. Some Chicano artists like Judith Baca are still mural-based. She has directed the enormous Great Wall of Los Angeles project. Installation artist Amalia Mesa-Bains has drawn on Mexican ofrenda (offering) and home altar traditions, while Monique Prieto is one of many Mexican-American attics who don't attempt to fit into any prescribed Chicano formula. Her delicate abstractions combine digitally generated images with painting or aquatint.

Many Chicano artists keep a sharp political edge. Vincent Valdez's "Kill the Pachuco" in the "Chicano Visions" show, is a violent depiction of the 1940s zoot suit riots in Los Angeles. "Art by Chicanos is often very aggressive," said Daniel Saxon, who has sold Chicano art in Los Angeles for almost 30 years. "And there are many good art collectors who don't want to live with aggressive art."

But not all Chicano art is politically charged. …