Chicano art on the move: with its roots in political activism, Chicano art documents the evolution of the Mexican-American experience

Chicano art on the move: with its roots in political activism, Chicano art documents the evolution of the Mexican-American experience – Chicano Art

Doug Hanson

For Americans outside the southwestern United States, the word “Chicano” might first bring to mind Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers’ movement of the 1960s and ’70s. But for many Americans of Mexican background, Chicano designates a complex and evolving cultural identity that has been pointedly expressed in art.

“A Chicano is a Mexican-American with attitude,” said art scholar Gary Keller, himself a Chicano. The Chicano identity formed among many Mexican-Americans during the Civil Rights Movement and the United Farm Workers’ campaign on behalf of migrant workers. Prevalent artistic mediums of that period–the mural and the poster–reflected the political character of the times. Since then, Chicano art has grown more varied as the Chicano population has assimilated further into American society.

Chicano art is now on display in “Chicano Visions: American Painters on the Verge,” a traveling exhibition that is two years into its five-year, 15-city tour of the United States. Its 50 pictures by 26 Mexican-American artists are drawn largely from the personal collection of actor/comedian Cheech Marin and his wife Patti. The show opens this January at the Indiana State Museum in Indianapolis. A multi-media exhibit called “Chicano Now” accompanies it.

The “Chicano Visions” exhibit is composed mostly of paintings, by intention. “It’s still true today that unless you do paintings, it’s hard to be recognized as a top-level artist,” said Matin. “And I wanted to show people that these are world-class artists who deserve recognition as such’ The show emphasizes older, established artists and favors a painterly style that peaked in the 1980s and early 1990s.

A Colorful Legacy

Significant influences upon Mexican-American art can be traced in the “Chicano Visions” exhibit. The biggest impact, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, came from the three great Mexican muralists: Diego Rivera, Jose 0rozco and David Siqueiros. Their boldly figurative, narrative and political approach is echoed throughout the show.

Intensely expressionistic color is at home in Chicano art, as is photo-realism–for example, in paintings by John Valadez, Jesse Trevino and Eloy Torrez. American popular culture has left its mark in the cartoon forms of Frank Romero and the B-movie motifs employed by Adan Hernandez. Graffiti has been a sub-genre of Chicano art and surfaces in the acrylics of Chaz Bojorquez. And a folk-art simplicity animates the story-telling evocations of everyday Chicano life in Carmen Lomas Garza’s oil paintings. Among others, the show also includes Gaspar Enriquez, Ester Hernandez, Patssi Valdez, Cesar Martinez, Glugio Nicandro (known as”Gronk”), Leo Limon and the late Carlos Almaraz.

The show omits important artists who aren’t primarily painters, such as veteran printmaker Malaquias Montoya, who makes silkscreens inspired by social-political issues, and sculptors Luis Jimenez and Charlie Carillo, who enjoy growing reputations. Noted conceptual and multi-media artists include Jesse Amado, Yolanda Lopez and Celia Alvarez Munoz. Some Chicano artists like Judith Baca are still mural-based. She has directed the enormous Great Wall of Los Angeles project. Installation artist Amalia Mesa-Bains has drawn on Mexican ofrenda (offering) and home altar traditions, while Monique Prieto is one of many Mexican-American attics who don’t attempt to fit into any prescribed Chicano formula. Her delicate abstractions combine digitally generated images with painting or aquatint.

Many Chicano artists keep a sharp political edge. Vincent Valdez’s “Kill the Pachuco” in the “Chicano Visions” show, is a violent depiction of the 1940s zoot suit riots in Los Angeles. “Art by Chicanos is often very aggressive,” said Daniel Saxon, who has sold Chicano art in Los Angeles for almost 30 years. “And there are many good art collectors who don’t want to live with aggressive art.”

But not all Chicano art is politically charged. More recent work by Patssi Valdez has some of Marc Chagall’s floating, dreamlike quality. And while Gronk accepts the Chicano label, he’s also open to the “American” half of “Mexican-American.” He said, “Sometimes when people look at my paintings and say, ‘Gee, they’re so Mexican, they’re so colorful; I will tell them: ‘Wrong. That’s MGM musicals. That’s what I was brought up with. That’s ‘Damn Yankees'”

Chicano art profits from the tension of being between worlds. “Some Chicanos use art to go back to their roots, and some of ‘them use it to move on from their roots” said Patrica Correia, who deals in Chicano art at Patricia Correia Gallery in Santa Monica, Calif.

Been There, Didn’t Do That

“Chicano Visions” is not the first traveling exhibit of Mexican-American artists. “Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation, 19651985” (known as CARA) ended its-run in 1993 after touring 10 cities. Many hoped its impact would resemble that of the blockbuster exhibition, “Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries,” which traveled a few years earlier. “The ‘Splendors’ show really put Mexican art on the map” said Kristen Hammer, Latino art specialist at Sotheby’s. “The same didn’t happen for Mexican-American art after the CARA show.”

Some of the problem has to do with categories. “When most art professors or curators talk about American art, they’re not thinking of Chicano art” said Hammer. “And professors of Latin American art are also talking about something completely different. There’s no auction category for it either, so Chicano art too often falls through the cracks.”

There is a category for Mexican-American aft in Art Index, a guide to periodical literature on the visual arts; but it contains almost no references. Many visual arts publications are based on the East Coast, where Puerto Rican and Cuban artists are better known than Chicano artists, who live and exhibit mostly in California, Arizona, New Mexico, southern Colorado and Texas.

Some Chicano artists have gained visibility outside the Southwest. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Art in Washington includes works in its permanent collection by Carlos Almaraz, Chaz Bojorquez, Ester Hernandez, Carmen Lomas Garza, Luis Jimenez, Frank Romero, John Valadez, Patssi Valdez, Jesse Trevinio, and Leo Limon. Garza and Alma Mesa-Bains are represented by Bernice Steinbaum Gallery in Miami, and Garza has had solo shows at the Hirshhorn and the Whitney. New York’s Gagosian Gallery carries Salomon Huerta, although he doesn’t bill himself as Chicano or entertain overtly Chicano themes; and Gronk has had solo gallery shows in Paris and Chicago and also in Madison, Wisc., through his association with Tandem Press in that city.

Buyers and Prices

What prices can Chicano art command? “Anywhere from $5,000 to $100,000,” said Correia, who represents Romero, Bojorquez and Patssi Valdez. Saxon, at Daniel Saxon Associates in West Hollywood, Calif., has represented Almaraz and Gronk and currently features glass-based artists Einar and Jamax de la Torte.

Besides Matin, collectors have included actors Nicholas Cage and Dennis Hopper, director Oliver Stone and musician Carlos Santana. Entravision, a Spanish-language media company, has been a collector; so has Texas-based Clear Channel Communications, a sponsor of the Chicano Visions exhibition. Correia said that Sprint and Safeco Insurance have been clients, too.

Some Chicano artists and activist scholars warn against too much involvement in the private or corporate sector. Artists such as Garza are torn between the attraction of the national marketplace and a desire to remain accessible to their communities. I paint for a Chicano audience, she said. “When they see familiarity and see themselves in the artwork, it makes them feel proud.” Her original oil paintings sell for over $40,000; but to keep her art in the range of more Chicano clients, Garza makes lithographs inspired by her paintings and has licensed two of her works for posters. Similarly, Patssi Valdez signed with Santa Fe, N.M., print publisher Munson Graphics.

Prices also are more modest at a community-based print studio such as Self-Help Graphics and Art in Los Angeles. “Many of our serigraphs go from $200 to $350” said Self-Help curator Christina Ochoa. “Rarer prints by more established artists might go for $1,000 to $1,200.”

Chicano artists gravitate toward these kinds of nonprofit, community cultural centers. “That’s how Chicano art forms;’ said Marin. “Chicano art would not be in existence were it not for places like Self-Help Graphics and the Plaza de la Raza in Los Angeles or the Guadalupe Center in San Antonio. That’s where artists have been able to exchange ideas and be influenced by each other as well as by world art trends.”

This community orientation has skewed the price-setting mechanism for Chicano art. While a few artists have penetrated the high-end art market, most Chicano art is still in a situation described by longtime collector Gilberto Cardenas, director of the inter-University Program for Latino Research: “The market has been centered on the Chicano community, which has had access to the work at very affordable prices, so there’s been a quasi-monopolistic closure on the market. As the larger market takes an interest, people who acquire Chicano art will get something of value before it gets fully recognized and evaluated higher.”

Not everyone believes this will require a market driven by non-Mexican-American buyers. Gary Keller, co-author of “Contemporary Chicana and Chicano Art: Artists, Works, Culture and Education,” feels that Chicano art is poised to take off into the $50,000 to $100,000 range soon because “the Chicano/Latino middle class is surging in numbers and buying power.”

Chicano art is an ongoing reconciliation of many opposites: community vs. marketplace, Mexican traditions vs. American popular culture, political activism vs. increasing participation in the American establishment, and art forms inspired by indigenous pre-Columbian peoples vs. styles derived from the canon of western art. Mexican-American artists have achieved regional recognition, but none have approached the fame of someone like Mexico’s Frida Kahlo. Time will tell whether they are now on the verge of much wider renown, as the sub-title of the “Chicano Visions” exhibit hopefully implies.

“But no matter what, it’s still important that Chicano art he collected as Chicano art;’ said Garza, “because of what it has represented: an entire movement of a people in the United States. It is a U.S. phenomenon. It’s part of our history”


*Chicano Visions: American Painters on the Verge,

* Daniel Saxon Associates, (310) 657-6033

* Galeria de la Raza, San Francisco,

* Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center,

* Latina/o Art Community, www/

* Patricia Correia Gallery,

* Plaza de la Raza, Los Angeles, (323) 223-2475

* Self-Help Graphics,

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