Berkeley Art Museum, Berkeley California
February 13- May 18, 2008
Art with an overt political message is a tough trick to pull off. Even if we agree with the artist, politics can seem too reductive a subject, too broad (“Peace!”) or too narrow (“No telecom immunity!”), and too likely to collapse the work into a declaration rather than a question, an argument rather than a seduction.
Political art that works, along with some that doesn’t, is on display in Borderlandia, Enriqué Chagoya’s mid-career retrospective at the Berkeley Art Museum. His paintings, drawings, prints, and artist’s books pulsate with a powerful mix of outrage, humor, terrific craft, and great visual imagination.
Chagoya was born and raised in Mexico City but has spent most of his adult life in the Bay Area. By both background and temperament, he finds himself straddling borders. Nativist anxiety about “illegal aliens” has naturally captured his attention. So have the ways cultures mix and collide in the U.S., and our willful ignorance about our own past and everyone else’s.
He explores these peculiarities through a kind of intellectual collage he calls “reverse anthropology,” juxtaposing American images of the Other (particularly in its south-of-the-border incarnation) with imaginings of how the Other might view modern Americans. A 1994 painting called “Crossing I” shows a Pilgrim ripping open his staid black suit to reveal he’s actually Superman, provoked into action by the sight of Tlaloc, the Aztec god of rain and fertility, whose fangs and feathers are fearsome indeed. We can understand why the Pilgrim is saying, “I don’t know what hole you crawled out of or where you came from—but I’m sending you back!”, yet to Aztec eyes Superman would doubtless appear monstrous, too. And of course it’s the Pilgrim, not Tlaloc, who’s the intruder.
What makes all this more than a simple gag is the pure pleasure the picture offers. Superman is rendered in early-Lichtenstein Pop style, while Tlaloc looks like he’s stepped out of an early codex. Moreover, the painting is a faux-palimpsest on fig bark paper, the kind used in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, with the illusion of earlier images bleeding through. The picture appears simultaneously ancient and contemporary, sophisticated and folkloric, silly and profound.
Some of Chagoya’s works are straightforward political cartoons. One drawing depicts the Bush Administration as the Seven Dwarves (the president as Dopey, Condoleezza Rice as a scowling Snow White). In another, California’s movie-star governor dances a “girlie-man” ballet with Jesus and Mohammed. Many of these pictures raise a smile but don’t seem likely to outlast their subject matter.
Works with richer imagery have more impact. A 2003 “Road Map” of the United States shows a vast America dotted with haloed soldiers, tanks, and oil wells, with the rest of the world shrunken to tiny appendages, as two mutant aliens gaze in wonder. A lovely painting that mimics a Spanish colonial rendering shows former California governor Pete Wilson, who championed anti-immigrant measures, being cooked and eaten by a crowd of indigenes, evoking the many ways dominant cultures devour the conquered. Meanwhile, a Warholian set of life-size “Cannibull’s Soup” cans offers a full range of flavors, including “Cream of Dealer” and “Critic’s Tongue.”
“When Paradise Arrived,” one of the earliest pieces in Borderlandia, is a large 1988 charcoal drawing inspired by a California referendum two years earlier mandating English as the state’s “common language.” A giant three-fingered Mickey-Mouse-style hand is about to flick away a little girl surrounded by a spiky nimbus reminiscent of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Her face is solemn, her hands arranged in a Christ-like gesture framing the glowing red heart visible within her chest. She seems resigned to what is about to happen to her, but radiant with faith that ultimately her brutal but clownish adversary will never be able to eliminate her. And Chagoya’s deliciously fluid line, syncopated composition, and artful handprints and smears make the image too lovely to be merely topical.
Chagoya’s father worked in Mexico’s Central Bank, and young Enriqué was fascinated by the bank’s collection of forgeries. He’s turned that larcenous interest to good account in a series of neatly executed recreations of Goya’s Disasters of War etchings, with contemporary Americans transported into Goya’s scenes of horror and cruelty. So a gruesome picture of mutilated corpses now has a cheery Mickey Mouse saluting the carnage, while an evil cleric conspiring against the people has turned into Ronald Reagan.
Less successful is an homage to Philip Guston’s “Poor Richard” drawings, with our current president standing in for Richard Nixon. Although Chagoya does a good job of capturing Guston’s line, his dexterity just serves to remind us how little Bush has of the sweaty vulnerability that made Guston’s Nixon pathetic as well as terrifying. Compared to Guston’s originals, which captured something real about the man and the era, “Poor George” seems merely a talented performance.
He puts his amazing facility to better use in his accordion-folded codices, which are modeled on the few remaining examples of pre-Colombian texts that escaped wholesale cultural destruction by the New World’s European conquerors. These beautifully crafted objects combine images and words from ancient and colonial sources, popular American culture, and high art to tell imagined histories that spill out with a dreamlike absence of linearity.
My favorite group in the show is a series of paintings that Chagoya did in the late 1990s on pages from a 19th-century Mexican history of European art. Applying layers of symbols both pop and arcane, he has re-visioned the art-book’s etchings to create a kind of counter-history: a young girl kneeling in the forest and praying to a gigantic Mesoamerican god; a Joshua Reynolds belle transformed into a skull-faced Aztec deity. These little works are visually delicious as well as politically pointed, full of ambivalence and irrationality and naked joy about art and the art-making process. At his best, Chagoya allows politics to fuel his fantasy but not to limit it.
Tessa DeCarlo claims to have a few illusions remaining.