San Francisco

Enrique Chagoya

Like an offering to the gods of crosscultural communication, Enrique Chagoya’s first museum show in his adopted hometown, entitled “Borders of the Spirit,” presented a thoughtful and often bitingly humorous cross section of work from the past decade. Chagoya’s paintings, drawings, and sculpture explore what happens when two (or sometimes three) worlds bump up against each other, by setting American pop-culture icons—Superman, Mickey Mouse, Olive Oyl—into a matrix of the rich, highly diverse visual traditions of Chagoya’s native Mexico. By juxtaposing Aztec gods and DC Comics superheroes, Mickey’s three-fingered glove and the Mexican-Catholic image of a bleeding hand, Chagoya comments not only on the clash of cultures, but on the Newest World—the multiracial, multicultural society that, whether we like it or not, will predominate in the coming decades.

Most of the works shown date from 1994, although a small selection of earlier pieces gave viewers a sense of how Chagoya’s work has developed. The real centerpiece of the exhibition, however, was a group of large paintings on amate, a handmade paper from Mexico. Into these beautifully executed appropriations of images from different codices—ancient Mesoamerican documentary paintings of religious and cultural life—Chagoya introduces other layers of information, bringing the viewer face to face with everything from cultural imperialism to xenophobia. (Ironically, many codices survived through the centuries because they were collected by Europeans as New World curiosities.) In The Governor’s Nightmare, 1994, a group of Native Americans crouch on the ground, avidly consuming various body parts from a recent, very bloody, human sacrifice. The victim’s gore-embellished head bears a suspicious resemblance to California’s present governor Pete Wilson, known for his rabid anti-immigration stance. On a pyramid to the right, a savage-looking, blue-skinned god holds a giant salt shaker over an alarmed Mickey Mouse, trussed up and garnished with chili peppers. This mordant exaggeration of Wilson’s alarmist propaganda—that “real American culture” will be swallowed up by the “savage hordes” from across the border—foregrounds the profoundly racist fears that motivate it.

The ghost images of pentimenti rise faintly to the warm, rough-looking surface of these paintings, suggesting suppressed voices or lost, unspoken thoughts. These brushed-over traces are also reminders that Chagoya’s enterprise is not purely one of appropriation, but rather one of juxtaposition and interpretation: rereading the text of the present through the stained palimpsest of many different versions of history. Although many artists affect alienation, Chagoya’s point of view is available only to those who actually leave home. Since moving to the United States in 1977, his opportunity to examine the history and culture of his native Mexico form a distance—as well as to see his new home through the eyes of a stranger—has resulted in a body of work whose emotional tone is remarkably complex: a mixture of sadness and beauty, rage and laughter. What Chagoya keeps reminding us, with a fierce, graphic insistence, is that, in the world we’ve made and/or inherited, the spirit has no borders—since all of us are immigrants, in one way or another.

Maria Porges