LINGUISTICALLY, SUBJECTIVELY, and territorially, borders are where identities are formed and differences policed, and the current midcareer survey of Enrique Chagoya titled "Borderlandia" reflects the Mexican-born, California-based artist's ongoing exploration of concepts of identity and difference. The exhibition at the Berkeley Art Museum, which was organized by Patricia Hickson of the Des Moines Art Center in Iowa and will travel to the Palm Springs Art Museum in California this fall, demonstrates that in all the various media in which Chagoya has worked over the past twenty-five years--from large-format charcoal drawings to paintings, codices to editioned prints--the artist has consistently explored the formal and cultural oppositions through which identity and meaning are articulated. By flying under the banner of the hybrid term "Borderlandia," this exhibition argues that Chagoya is as much interested in how such oppositions complicate as separate, creating new syntheses that ultimately prove more dialectical than binary.
A large drawing from 1989 titled Thesis/Antithesis reveals how deeply embedded such dialectical formulations are in Chagoya's practice. Typical of the earliest works included in the show in medium and style, this oversize drawing is rendered in black charcoal and red pastel on an eighty-inch-square piece of white paper. The titular words run along the left and right margins of the sheet, framing an arresting image of a pair of shiny leather wingtips standing on top of two inverted bare feet sinking in a sea of blood. The image's palette recalls both the visual language of revolutionary Russian agitprop and Aztec symbology, in the latter of which (the wall text explicated) the combination of red and black represents duality and the interdependence of opposites. While the message of the image is unambiguous--the profits and advantages of well-heeled North American businessmen come at the expense of the faceless exploited south of the border--the form of the drawing opens a host of associations that complicate its political meaning. Indeed, just as this palette, which dominates Chagoya's work as a whole, can be said to refer neither exclusively to the artistic avant-garde nor to pre-Columbian culture but rather simultaneously to both, so the narrative of the image speaks to symbiosis: As the black outline of the bare feet meets the red trim of the leather shoes at the image's center, the parties impart a bit of themselves to each other, and the identity of each is formed or marked by its relation to the other.
Throughout the 1980s and '90s, when the debates around identity politics in the United States intensified, Chagoya developed an ever more incisive repertoire of formal devices to signal these issues. He did this primarily by infusing traditional art forms with surprising, subversive content. Chagoya began making amate codices: drawings composed on paper made of fig bark, which in both form and material references Mesoamerican books. …