New York

“Art of the Other Mexico”

El Museo del Barrio

Dedicated to César Chávez, “Art of the Other Mexico: Sources and Meanings” examined the complexities of bicultural identity through 70 new and recent works by 20 artists. The common denominator here was a focus on the rich traditions of Mexican visual culture: contemporary Chicano experience was explored through the recuperation of Mexican folk, religious, and urban traditions. While in the late ’60s this strategy of cultural reclamation was viewed as a direct form of resistance to the dominant Anglo culture, today such fervid political agendas have been replaced by the more amorphous goals of identity politics. Informed more by the desire to explore the dual nature of Chicano identity than to effect political change, curators René H. Arceo-Frutos, Juana Guzmán, and Amalia Mesa-Bains attempted to reveal the virtual Mexico alive in the hearts, minds, and work of American artists of Mexican descent.

The curators keyed the diverse examples of painting, sculpture, and installation- based work to three overlapping themes: land, family, and the afterlife. Depicting the high points of ordinary lives, Carmen Lomas Garza’s small narrative paintings, such as Razor Blade Do/Las Pachucas, 1993, are rendered in an effective, if decidedly studied, naive style. A similar representational simplicity marked Santa Contreras Barraza’s series of highly personalized ex-votos painted on elaborately worked metal frames. Employing the grinning skeletons associated with the festival of Dia de los Muertos (Day of the dead), both Nicolás de Jesús and Carlos Alfredo Cortéz put a tragicomic spin on everyday reality. Reinventions of the traditional altar ranged from Peter Rodríguez’s heavily ironic ode to cacti and pimentos, to Patricia Rodriguez’s comparatively intimate, alchemical retablos honoring this world and the next, to Marcos Raya’s brilliant psychosexual altar/installation in which he casts Frida Kahlo as his patron saint.

Other artists were concerned less with exploring memory and the language of tradition than with expressing social consciousness and the hard reality of urban life in America. Luis Jimenez, Jr.’s monumental fiberglass sculpture Crossing the Rio Bravo/Cruzando el Rio Bravo, 1989, depicting a man carrying a female companion and her baby across a river, was a tribute to the hardships endured by Mexicans seeking a better life in the North, while Adan Hernández’s comix-style cityscapes offered a poignant view of inner-city disenfranchisement. The show-stealing Pancho Trinity, 1993, by Judith Baca was comprised of three mixed-media sculptures, each bearing vividly painted scenes in the artist’s trademark mural style that explicitly engaged the show’s three themes with a compelling mix of humor, poetry, and grit.

Yet despite the show’s collective reclamation, through subtle reference or outright appropriation, of grassroots art genres (both folk and popular), these vernacular forms themselves were not presented. This omission only served to strengthen the very same high/low distinction that has worked to deny Chicano artists access to the mainstream for years. Even more surprisingly, “rasquachismo,” a style that uses kitsch as a tool of social defiance, was given no more than lip service in the form of Ruben Trejo’s jockstrap sculptures and their relatively polite brand of humor. Conspicuously absent were the flashy antics of the king of bad taste himself, Guillermo Gomez-Peña, without whom any discussion of Chicano “border” identity seems incomplete. Ultimately, the curators’ construction of an “alternative chronicle” that favored past over present and that rejected full-blown rasquachismo reflected—but did nothing to bridge—the long-standing schism between an earlier ideal of Anglo-free cultural production and the radical strategy of maverick, trickster artists who problematize negative stereotypes of Chicanos by playing with the detritus of American popular culture. While “Art of the Other Mexico” succeeded in conveying some of the depth and power of Chicano culture, ultimately the story this exhibition told was missing several crucial chapters.

Jenifer P. Borum