Enrique Chagoya

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. In works such as Tales from the Conquest/Codex, 1992, and The Organic Cannibal, 1996, Chagoya juxtaposes tawdry imagery taken from US pop culture with that of Mesoamerica, drawing parallels between the cultural genocide of the Spanish conquest in the sixteenth century—which notoriously included the burning of Aztec codices—and the post–cold war spread of global capitalism. Perhaps no image so succinctly encapsulates this strategy as a vignette in The Adventures of the Enlightened Cannibal, 2002, in which an appropriated print depicting indigenous peoples murdering a conquistador has been modified to replace the victim’s head with that of Mickey Mouse. Here, the iconic epitome of corporate cultural proliferation gets a bucket of molten gold down the throat, as the artist wittily critiques the timeless quest for treasure predicated on exploitation.

The exhibition features nine such books, which show Chagoya at his best. With a collagist’s sensibility, the artist here addresses the collision of cultures, on both iconographic and structural levels. Via both the stories of conquest that these books show and the visual means in which he tells them, Chagoya addresses questions of who gets a voice in writing history and forming identity. The codices are free-floating cross-cultural stews with political spice, and when a phrase such as “the apotheosis of the signifier” appears in handwritten text across a drawing, we understand that the artist is talking about the branding of peoples as well as of products.

As much as “Borderlandia” signals Chagoya’s interest in borders, it also reveals his acknowledgment that those territories delineated are always “already occupied”: Geographies have indigenous populations, just as words and symbols are colored by their prior uses. But beyond politics and semiotics, Chagoya’s engagement is primarily artistic, and, especially in his prints, he recognizes that art, too, is “already occupied.” Whether by updating Francisco Goya’s print cycles in his etchings, reimagining Philip Guston’s “Poor Richard” (i.e., Nixon) as the story of “Poor George” (as in Bush) in drawings, or generally nodding to the style of Mexican satirist José Guadalupe Posada, Chagoya not only pays homage to a distinguished history of engaged topical art but enacts his own kind of artistic cannibalism. Borders of all kinds must be constantly negotiated, and such exercises ultimately boil down to seizures of power.

“Enrique Chagoya: Borderlandia” is on view at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum, through May 18; the exhibition then travels to the Palm Springs Art Museum, CA, Sept. 12–Dec. 7.

Jordan Kantor is an artist and associate professor of painting and humanities at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco.