Category: Chicanarte-Chicano art

The Cold War and the Americas

The just published book, La Guerra Fría y las Américas (The Cold War and the Americas), is an anthology of original essays written as critiques of U.S. Cold War policy in Latin America. My 1988 pencil drawing, Meanwhile… in Guatemala, appears as the cover art for the book.

Published by Mexico’s University of Colima and the University of Michoacán San Nicolas de Hidalgo, and edited by Dr. Avital Bloch of the University of Colima and Dr. María del Rosario Rodríguez of the Michoacan University, the book’s essays focus on how U.S. Cold War era policies shaped the people and nations of Latin America. The twenty-six essays in the Spanish-language book were written by academics from Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, and Bolivia, as well as writers from France, Spain, Canada, Israel, the Czech Republic and the United States.

The essays in the book cover everything from the role of art and culture in the Cold War, to the realpolitik of the national security state. In Gonzalo Romero Sommer’s essay, McCarthyism in Peru: the anticommunist policy of Manuel Odría, 1948-1956, the author focuses on the largely forgotten U.S. backed government of Peruvian President Odría, who seized power in a right-wing military coup. Lori Clune wrote Something died with Ethel and Julius Rosenberg: uneasiness in Latin America during the 1950s. That essay brings to light how the U.S. government meting out the death sentence to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for espionage was adamantly opposed by Pope Pius XII, setting off huge protests against the execution by Catholics all across Latin America.

With the United States now rapidly sliding into a new Cold War with Russia, students of history will benefit from reading La Guerra Fría y las Américas, especially young Americans that did not live through that panic-stricken period of unrestrained militarism and paranoia. I highly recommend this book to teachers. Unfortunately La Guerra Fría y las Américas is not available in an English-language version, nor in U.S. bookstores (or what remains of them). However, you can e-mail Professor Avital Bloch and order the book directly. The cost and shipping for each book is $40.00.

Serigrafía: Chicano Art at the PMCA

 "Boycott Grapes" - Xavier Viramontes. Serigraphic print. 1973.

"Boycott Grapes" - Xavier Viramontes. Serigraphic print. 1973.

The Pasadena Museum of California Art (PMCA) is presenting Serigrafía, an exhibit of thirty silkscreen prints created by twenty-three Chicano/Latino artists from the early 1970s to the present-day.

I am proud to announce that my own work is included in the exhibit. Opening on January 19, and running until April 20, 2014, the exhibit offers prints that are consummate examples of the Chicano Arts Movement as a stronghold of socially conscious art. The exhibit offers hand-made serigraphic prints that tackle social and political issues head-on, demonstrating that social realism in the visual arts is far from being on its last legs.

The PMCA’s press release for Serigrafía describes the exhibit: “Beginning in the late 1960s, graphic art created at and distributed by artist-led collectives, or centros, contributed significantly to the public discourse. Emerging in concert with the civil rights movement and demanding political and social justice for marginalized groups, these prints confront political, economic, social, and cultural issues on both a personal and a global level.”

PRINT magazine published The Enduring Power of Posters to Promote and Provoke, an illustrated interview with Carol A. Wells, Founder and Executive Director of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics, regarding Serigrafía at the PMCA. Serigrafia was first shown at Arte Americas in Fresno, CA (Sept. 8 - Nov. 3, 2013), and in upcoming exhibits will be shown at the San Francisco Public Library (July 20, 2014 - Sept. 7, 2014), and the Vacaville Museum - Nov. 9, 2014 - Jan. 4, 2015.

Serigrafía includes my 1980 silkscreen print, Nuclear War?!… There Goes My Career! That particular serigraph was initially produced as a Los Angeles street poster that expressed unease over the possibility of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. I must first preface remarks regarding my poster by mentioning my involvement in the late 1970s L.A. punk movement, which had enormous impact upon my political and aesthetic viewpoints. It was the apocalyptic vision of punk, the innately confrontational if sometimes humorous attitude of Chicanarte, combined with the fervently radical aesthetics of the French Situationists of the late 1950s and early 1960s, that led to the creation of Nuclear War?!… There Goes My Career!

"Sandinista" – Mark Vallen. Linoleum block & serigraphic print. 1986. Nine color silkscreen print created to commemorate the anniversary of Augusto César Sandino’s death.

"Sandinista" – Mark Vallen © Linoleum block & serigraphic print. 1986. Nine color silkscreen print created to commemorate the anniversary of Augusto César Sandino’s death. This print is not included in the "Serigrafia" exhibit.

As a piece of subversive art the print was an unqualified success at achieving its principal goal, that of helping to build popular support for nuclear disarmament. But in retrospect I feel somewhat ambivalent about the poster.

While it no doubt fulfilled its political objective, the poster’s aesthetic was an aberration in my development as an artist.

In essence I am a figurative realist draftsman, painter, and printmaker, and on a personal level the most fulfilling work I do is in that sphere. Years prior to creating the détourned graphic image I had made a firm commitment to figurative realism, and my body of work from the period bears this out.

That is the reason why this article includes other prints of mine created during the period represented by the show, works not exhibited in Serigrafía.

As I have argued over the years, Chicano art is a well-spring that may help to invigorate the long dormant genre of American social realist painting. While Serigrafía focuses exclusively upon silkscreen prints, it is worth noting that a number of the exhibiting artists are also painters (including this writer), and that Chicano/Latino print circles have long had very close association with the creation of public murals. If Serigrafía has a weakness as an exhibit, it is that it freezes its artists in a moment of time, and does not even hint at broader artistic production outside of poster making.

"No Pasaran" (They Shall Not Pass) – Mark Vallen. Serigraphic print. 17 x  21 inches. 1984. This seven color silkscreen print was created in opposition to the U.S. war against Nicaragua. The title of the print came from a popular slogan in Nicaragua against foreign domination.

"No Pasaran" (They Shall Not Pass) – Mark Vallen © Serigraphic print. 17 x 21 inches. 1984. This seven color silkscreen print was created in opposition to the U.S. war against Nicaragua. The title of the print came from a popular slogan in Nicaragua against foreign domination. This poster is not part of the "Serigrafia" exhibit.

The PMCA is also presenting another important exhibit from January 19, to April 20, 2014, Picturing Mexico: Alfredo Ramos Martínez in California. I have been interested in Martínez for decades, as he is the artist that actually began the modernist school of Mexican social realism that came to hold Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and other notable Mexican artists as unfaltering adherents. Yes, it all began with compañero Martínez. The artist holds special fascination for me as he came to live and work in my hometown of Los Angeles from 1929 to 1946 (where he died at age 73 in 1946). The beautiful and sympathetic portraits of Mexico’s poor and indigenous people that Martínez painted have long been an inspiration to me. The PMCA’s survey of his work is the very first museum exhibit of the works he created in California.

The Opening Reception for Serigrafía is Saturday, January 18, 2014, from 7 to 9 p.m. The exhibit runs from Jan. 19 to April 20, 2014. Museum admission is $7, free for PMCA members. The museum is located at: 490 East Union Street, Pasadena, CA 91101. Web: pmcaonline.org

Also not to be missed, on Sunday, March 2, 2014, at 3 p.m., Carol A. Wells, one of the curators for the exhibit, will present a lecture at the PMCA on the history of Chicano/Latino poster art and the issues they address.

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The posters illustrating this article, Sandinista and No Pasaran, are both available for purchase.

Frida in Dubai-landia

Frida in Dubai-landia. Photo taken by an anonymous diner on the opening night of IZEL.

Frida in Dubai-landia. Photo taken by an anonymous diner on the opening night of IZEL.

A 12 foot by 10 foot painting of Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) currently hangs on the wall of the IZEL “Latin American style” restaurant and nightclub at the luxurious Conrad Hilton in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE). The painting of the celebrated Mexican artist is part of an eight canvas commission given to a contemporary Los Angeles Chicano artist by IZEL. The resulting works are a perfect example of the limitations and failings of contemporary Chicano art, indeed, of any art that is based solely upon identity politics.

Brian Bendix, the founder of IZEL and CEO of Stambac International (a global corporation that specializes in franchising, managing, and consulting high-end restaurants), said that IZEL is “where escapism is not just allowed, but is a prerequisite.” Mr. Bendix went on to say that his “Latin-inspired” nightclub will offer “the absolute best of Latin Artistry across food, cocktails, cigars and entertainment. IZEL’s launch in Dubai will be setting a precedent for the city’s vibrant nightlife scene.” Setting a precedent for nightlife in an oil Sheikh’s dream city says a great deal, especially since the megalopolis is well known for all manner of extremes.

In the words of IZEL’s owners, the nightclub presents “the ultimate, authentic Latin American experience in Dubai!” The Facebook page for the elite restaurant proclaims that “IZEL oozes all the passion, style and charm that Latin America is known for.” I would say that the ostentatious establishment certainly oozes something, but it is most certainly not “the fire of Modern Latin America today” as claimed.

Poor Frida. When she came to the U.S. in 1930 with her husband, the famous revolutionary artist Diego Rivera, she became homesick for Mexico and complained to Diego about the materialism and soullessness of “Gringolandia,” her cutting epithet for El Norte. Now her portrait, adorned with 24 carat gold leaf like a Catholic religious icon, hangs in a restaurant frequented by oligarchs.

Kahlo’s last public act was to protest the 1954 U.S.-orchestrated military coup against the democratically elected government of Guatemala. At her public funeral in 1954 where she lay in state at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, her coffin was draped with the red flag of the Mexican Communist Party. Kahlo would be mortified to know that a ritzy nightclub in a U.S.- backed oil Sheikhdom displays her portrait to provide amusement for an affluent, cigar-smoking, champagne swilling clientele. If alive today, I am sure she would contemptuously refer to the Emirate of Dubai as “Dubai-landia,” or perhaps something worse, and for good reason.

Founded on Dec. 2, 1971, the UAE is a federation of seven oil rich sheikhdoms located on the southeast end of the Arabian Peninsula in the Persian Gulf. Member principalities include Abu Dhabi (the largest), Dubai (the second largest), Sharjah, Ajman, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, and Umm al-Quwain. Dynastic “royal” families rule the emirates, where human rights abuses, the restraint of free speech, and repression against those who call for democracy, is commonplace.

Sheikh Mohammed of Dubai (or Sheikh Mo as he is called by supporters and detractors alike), along with the other potentates of the UAE, sit upon 10% of the world’s oil wealth. According to Forbes, Mo possesses personal wealth “in excess of $4 billion,” but he has also transformed Dubai into a major financial center for global capitalism, and a leading destination for world tourism. Mo is the Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE. The ruler of the neighboring emirate of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, is President of the UAE, and according to Forbes is said to have personal wealth of “roughly $15 billion.”

Along with the painting of Kahlo, the other canvases hung in the IZEL nightclub offer sexually objectified visions of Latinas; one is a glamorous depiction of a Soldadera, those armed women who fought in the 1910 Mexican Revolution. The alluring figure in the IZEL painting wears lipstick, a low-cut blouse, gold hoop earrings, a sombrero, and clutches a pair of gold-plated single-action revolvers - just like all impoverished Mexican peasant women did in 1910.

The other paintings at IZEL are clichés of beautiful “hot blooded” and “exotic” Latinas, lips parted, and striking provocative poses… but not too stimulating, as nudity and public affection is banned in Dubai, even a peck on the cheek can land one in prison for violating the Emirate’s severe “decency” laws. But the Sheikhs of Dubai are “open-minded” rulers, and they make allowances for dance-clubs and drinking copious amounts of alcohol, provided it is all done by “Non-Muslims” in a “licensed area” and the authorities get their share of the profits. Since the laws of the UAE forbid blasphemy and nudity in art, one wonders if the artist commissioned to create the paintings for IZEL had to agree not to violate the country’s strict moral guidelines.

What bothers me so much about the paintings at IZEL, is that Chicano art once represented and spoke for the dispossessed and downtrodden. Having grown out of the Mexican American Civil Rights movement, Chicano art held the struggle for justice and human dignity as a main tenet.

During its heyday in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the socially conscious genre defended exploited Mexican, Mexican-American, and Filipino farm workers laboring at backbreaking work in California’s agricultural fields. It railed against imperialism and war, it denounced corrupt politicians and brutal police, it honored the Mexican Revolution and its heroes, and it celebrated the indigenous people that resisted the forces of genocide and colonialism. There are still faint echoes of this ethic in today’s Chicano art, but the legacy is betrayed by the paintings currently hanging in IZEL.

The best review of the IZEL nightclub has so far come from the UAE’s leading English-language newspaper, Gulf News, which is owned by Al Nisr Publishing LLC (itself owned by three Emiratis well connected to the government). The paper’s website reported on IZEL’s opening under the headline…. “Latin American culture on a plate.” Indeed.

Rudi Jagersbarcher, Area President for Hilton Worldwide, said the Conrad Hilton Dubai caters “to the needs of the ever increasing number of global, affluent travelers.” The affluent travelers that Jagersbarcher mentioned are in reality the parasitic vultures, casino capitalists, terrorist-connected money launderers, military contractors, and foreign intelligence agents that have turned the region into a cauldron. To that mix you can add the bimbos, sycophants, and musclemen such people always have in tow, not to mention the international social set of 1 percenters that travel for pleasure. Of course the jet-setting nouveau riche of the UAE are part of the crowd; the Financial Times of London reported that in 2013 there were 54,000 millionaire Emiratis, and by 2017 that number should rise to 69,000.

It is an understatement to say that Dubai is a destination for affluent travelers. The recklessly extravagant place has outstripped Las Vegas by light-years when it comes to conspicuous consumption. Every year from January 2nd to February 2nd, the Emirate holds the Dubai Shopping Festival (DSF), an orgy of consumerism where gold, luxury cars, and diamond rings are given away to happy shoppers as promotion. The theme of this year’s DSF is “Shop At Your Best.” But Dubai also wears the mantle of political reaction reflecting the extreme conservatism of the Western-backed oil Sheikhs of the UAE.

“Shop At Your Best.” Official image promoting the 2014 Dubai Shopping Festival.

“Shop At Your Best.” Official image promoting the 2014 Dubai Shopping Festival.

In 1996 the American writer and social critic, Mike Davis, wrote Fear And Money In Dubai, an essay on the role Dubai and the UAE plays in global politics. Describing the bizarre architecture of Dubai as “Speer meets Disney on the shores of Araby,” Davis goes on to say that the emirates have “achieved what American reactionaries only dream of - an oasis of free enterprise without income taxes, trade unions or opposition parties.” Davis shines a light on Dubai as “the financial hub for Islamic militant groups, especially al-Qaeda and the Taliban,” tersely noting that “Dubai is one of the few cities in the region to have entirely avoided car-bombings and attacks on Western tourists: eloquent testament, one might suppose, to the city-state’s continuing role as a money laundry and upscale hideout (….) Dubai’s burgeoning black economy is its insurance policy against the car-bombers and airplane hijackers.” A real understanding of Dubai begins with a reading of Mike Davis’ article.

Dubai’s Dirty Little Secret was a 20/20 investigative report aired by ABC in the U.S. on Nov. 11, 2006. While the report documented the obscene wealth of Dubai’s ruling class, the “dirty little secret” reported on is Dubai’s treatment of its foreign workers, the overwhelming majority of which come from India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka; though some 40,000 Kenyans now work in Dubai as well.

An impoverished foreign worker sleeps at a construction site in Dubai, UAE. Photo: Reuters/Ahmed Jadallah/File photo from Nov. 13, 2006.

An impoverished foreign worker sleeps at a construction site in Dubai, UAE. Photo: Reuters/Ahmed Jadallah/File photo from Nov. 13, 2006.

According to the 2006 ABC report, immigrant workers build the luxury hotels, shopping malls, tourist attractions, and everything else “for less than a dollar an hour.” The report revealed that more than “500,000 foreign workers live in virtual enslavement” in Dubai (that number has increased, the last official UAE count in 2010 put the number at 3.8 million foreign workers).

ABC reported that the workers are often cheated out of their pay, suffer routine abuse, and labor in dangerous working conditions. The report noted that hundreds of workers fall to their deaths each year while constructing high-rise buildings, and that “under the law in Dubai and the entire United Arab Emirates, there are no unions allowed, strikes are illegal, strikers can be fired and sent home.” I would add that immigrant workers enjoy no political rights whatsoever, and by law they are barred from ever becoming citizens of the UAE.

Dubai’s Dirty Little Secret also showed that foreign workers are made to live in squalid labor camps where they live under appalling conditions outside of the city. The report noted that sometimes up to twelve workers will live in the same room, “rooms smaller than the horse stalls in the Sheikh’s Royal Stables.” While ABC’s report did not go nearly far enough, one cannot watch it without feeling contempt for Dubai’s elites and their oppression of foreign workers.

In April of 2008, after ABC aired Dubai’s Dirty Little Secret, some 800 Afghan, Bengali, Indian, and Pakistani workers went on strike at a high-rise construction site in Sharjah, the third largest emirate in the UAE. The strike took place because workers were being forced to sleep at the construction site as housing promised to them was never made available. The workers blockaded the streets around the site and the police were sent in; a running battle between workers and riot police ensued, with the police arresting 625 workers.

Guest workers from Uttar Pradesh, India, crammed into their sleeping quarters in Dubai, UAE. The photo comes from the January 2014 National Geographic article, "The Lives Of Guest Workers." Photo by Jonas Bendiksen.

Guest workers from Uttar Pradesh, India, crammed into their sleeping quarters in Dubai, UAE. The photo comes from the January 2014 National Geographic article, "The Lives Of Guest Workers." Photo by Jonas Bendiksen.

National Geographic, that bastion of subversive thought, published an article in its January 2014 edition titled, The Lives Of Guest Workers. The article focused on Dubai’s foreign workers, particularly those from the Philippines. As with the ABC report of 2006, the National Geographic story leaves out the facts regarding the complex web of geo-political interests that make the UAE an important ally for Western imperialism, nevertheless, the article paints an abysmal picture of Dubai’s royals and their international oligarchical supporters, as well as the plight of foreign workers in Dubai.

Slaves of Dubai is a short 15 minute documentary on the subject of Dubai’s foreign workers that was created for VICE Media Inc. by journalist and reporter, Ben Anderson. Mr. Anderson, who has worked for a plethora of large media outlets (BBC, the Guardian, The Times of London, the Discovery Channel, New York Times), has filmed multiple documentaries about the war in Afghanistan (Taking on the Taliban, Obama’s War, The Battle for Bomb Alley), so he is familiar with filming challenging stories under exceedingly difficult circumstances. But even Anderson was shocked by the inhuman conditions that workers in Dubai suffer through. Much of his documentary was filmed in secret, and it captured the most appalling and nauseating conditions. Pulling no punches, Anderson said that “it’s not an exaggeration” to refer to the workers as slaves.

slaves_of_dubai

"Slaves of Dubai" - A screen shot from Ben Anderson's documentary film showing Bangladeshi workers held as indentured workers in Dubai.

Mr. Anderson interviewed workers from Bangladesh that labored in Dubai’s construction industry, poor men who went into debt to pay the $2,000 in fees allowing them to work in Dubai. They were told by company recruiters that once they worked off their debts in a year, they could begin sending money home.

Instead they found themselves working for less than what they were promised, some were not paid for up to five months - all went deeper into debt. Their passports were seized, making it impossible for them to leave the country. Even if they had documents, they were too poor to arrange transportation out of the country. Their only option was to live in the squalid worker’s camp and labor at the jobs provided by the unscrupulous and crooked bosses that had hired them. In effect they became modern day indentured servants.

In her 2011 article for the Guardian, Dubai’s skyscrapers, stained by the blood of migrant workers, reporter Nesrine Malik described Dubai as; “a place where the worst of western capitalism and the worst of Gulf Arab racism meet in a horrible vortex. The most pervasive feeling is of a lack of compassion, where the commoditization of everything and the disdain for certain nationalities thickens the skin to the tragic plight of fellow human beings.”

It goes without saying that IZEL was built by the exploited foreign workforce told of by ABC, National Geographic, Ben Anderson, and Nesrine Malik. One must wonder how many foreign construction workers fell, or jumped to their deaths while building the damnable 51-story Conrad Hilton Dubai (annually, hundred of foreign workers in the emirate take their own lives out of desperation). And that is the rub; Chicano artists and their circles have long advocated and upheld the rights of Latino immigrant workers in the United States. Is there is no concern over the plight of the wretched immigrant workers in Dubai?

There is more to Dubai’s politics than the heartless treatment given foreign workers. The UAE and the United States are allies, and as “partners” they have been maneuvering to dominate the region, both for its strategic geo-political importance and its vast oil and natural gas wealth. Detailing how this has been done is beyond the scope of this essay, but a few things are worth mentioning.

The New York Times reported that in 2011 the Obama administration encouraged the UAE and Qatar to ship weapons to the Libyan “rebels,” then fighting the government of Muammar Gaddafi. NATO forces blockading Libya had to be alerted by the U.S. not to interdict shipments. It soon became apparent that the arms shipments were going to extremist Islamic militias, some affiliated with al-Qaeda. When the U.S.-NATO war against Libya began on March 19, the UAE Air Force sent twelve of its jet fighters to participate in military operations. The war resulted in the overthrow and assassination of Gaddafi, and a fractured Libya under the heel of extremist Islamic militias. Not surprisingly, the UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the U.S. are now working together to ship arms to the “rebels” in Syria, some of which are affiliated with al-Qaeda.

In 2011 when the people of Bahrain took to the streets during the “Arab Spring,” demanding democracy and an end to the monarchy of the royal al-Khalifa family, the UAE and Saudi Arabia sent 1,500 troops to assist the Bahrain king’s security forces in drowning the uprising in blood. 93 unarmed Bahraini civilians were killed, some 3,000 were wounded, and thousands more were arrested, tortured, and exiled. By authority of Bahrain’s royals, the island Kingdom was, and remains, home to the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command and the U.S. Fifth Fleet, whose ships patrol the Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea, Red Sea, and parts of the Indian Ocean.

Mindful of the democracy movement in Bahrain and how it nearly toppled that country’s monarchy, the UAE expanded its already existing “cybercrime” laws in 2012, outlawing any online criticism of the government as well as outlawing the use of the internet to organize protests for reform. Hundreds have so far been arrested for infractions of the law both real and imagined.

Is it not ironic that club IZEL, “where escapism is a prerequisite,” is promoted by state owned media outlets like The National (ran by Abu Dhabi Media, which is owned by the government of Abu Dhabi), while citizens of UAE that dare use the internet to promote reform and democracy are thrown in jail? Human Rights Watch, the Emirates Centre For Human Rights, and Amnesty International, have all have documented such abuses occurring in Dubai.

Numerous published reports from late 2013 indicate that President Obama will be selling $10.8 billion in sophisticated weapons to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The Saudis are the world’s biggest buyer of U.S. arms, with the UAE being the forth largest buyer.

U.S. weapons in the deal include 26 advanced F-16 Fighting Falcon jet fighters, an unspecified number of BellBoeing V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor transport aircraft, an unknown number of AGM-88E Advanced Anti-Radiation Guided Missiles (AARGM), some 2,173 Standoff Land Attack Extended Range missiles (SLAM-ER), and Joint Standoff Weapons (JSOW) cruise missiles. The sale also includes 6,000 GBU-39B “bunker buster” bombs.

In July 2012 the Swiss government halted all of its arms exports to the UAE after it was discovered that a Swiss-made hand grenade supplied to the UAE in 2003 was shown to be in the arsenal of rebels currently fighting the Syrian government. The Swiss arms shipment had been conducted under agreement that war materials were not to be re-exported. The shipment had included 225,162 grenades. After an investigation into the matter, the UAE admitted sending quantities of the grenades to Jordan to assist the Kingdom in “fighting terrorism.” Once in Jordanian hands the weapons were eventually sent to the Syrian rebels. Upon receiving this explanation from the UAE, the Swiss lifted their temporary arms embargo against the UAE.

Once again, it is hard to imagine Frida Kahlo putting up with any of the above, though there is so much more I could write about.  It should also be apparent how incongruous it is for Kahlo’s portrait to be hanging in club IZEL.

Let me be frank in my appraisal of contemporary Chicano art. It is far from its origins, and that in part is what this article is about. The roots are still viable, though the foliage is looking peculiar and in need of pruning. The greater part of Chicano art is mired in tired clichés, as if portraits of “exotic” Latinas wearing traditional clothes and posing with antique pistolas says anything meaningful about our past, present, or future. The school has largely reduced itself to painting those scenes of lush tropical jungles filled with colorful birds and happy peasants that David Alfaro Siqueiros detested and refused to paint. Something more is required today, and that is also a reason for this article.

Art and identify politics make an ill fit, at least for me. I seek a more universal language. My attraction to Chicano art as a stronghold of realism still holds. However, realism is not just a way of accurately depicting objects, people, and events. It is a deep exploration of the human condition. It gets at what it is to be human. It strives for the truth. The great African-American singer and actor, Paul Robeson, said something pertinent to the issue at hand, “the artist must elect to fight for freedom or for slavery.” That philosophy is central to this essay.

I have been attracted to Chicano art since the late 1960s, not only for its roots in boldly addressing social and political issues, but because the school is one of the few remaining circles in contemporary art where figurative realism continues to carry weight. Historically Chicano art has synthesized community need with political activism, fusing the dreams and aspirations of a people to the transformational power of art. As an artist, it is that vision that I remain unalterably loyal to. The paintings at IZEL represent something that I find grotesque and unacceptable, not just the commodification and “mainstreaming” of Chicano art, but the stripping away of its core values and historic importance while reducing it to the safe and decorative.

Exhibit: Indigenous Roots

I will be premiering two new paintings at the exhibit, Indigenous Roots, to be held December 14, 2013 to January 25, 2014, at Avenue 50 Studio in Highland Park, Los Angeles, CA. Curator Raoul de la Sota said of the exhibit: “I have invited 13 artists to discuss and interpret visually in their work the ethnic, cultural and racial history that has influenced their work as artists perhaps living physically distant from their homeland but closely tied by their heartstrings to its past.”

"L.A. Subway" - Mark Vallen, 2013 ©. Oil on masonite.

"L.A. Subway" - Mark Vallen, 2013 ©. Oil on masonite.

One of the oil paintings I will be showing I have titled, L.A. Subway. As with the portrait of this Latina I encountered on a Los Angeles Metro Rail subway train, it is the lot of the 99% to daily trudge to and from work.

Perhaps she is a nurse or care worker, one of millions in a service industry that does not receive the rewards or appreciation they deserve. My father, an immigrant from Mexico, labored in L.A.’s upscale restaurants, mostly working two shifts a day for his entire professional career. While I celebrate my ethnic heritage, being of the working class has also shaped my life and art.

I have two distinct sets of memories from my childhood. One collection of reminiscences has to do with my father making monthly trips from L.A. to San Diego to visit his mother and extended family, most of which were born in Guaymas, Sonora, Mexico.

My strongest recollections are of my father’s mother, who came to San Diego as a young woman and found work at the original Chicken of the Sea canning plant. I remember her as the greatest cook in the world, and as a child I spent hours with her in the kitchen as she cooked tamales, menudo, and the most amazing hand made flour tortillas from scratch.

The other group of memories have to do with my father being a working man. He labored in L.A.’s restaurant industry, working his way up from bus boy to maître d’ in some of the city’s most elite private clubs. He inadvertently taught me about class as I watched him endure exhausting work and long hours while serving wealthy patrons. From my experience, ethnic and cultural identity intertwine with working class sensibility and outlook. These points of view have always informed my art.

The second oil painting I have in the exhibit is titled, Urban Landscape: She disappeared in a cloud of graffiti (seen directly below).

"Urban Landscape: She disappeared in a cloud of graffiti." - Mark Vallen 2013 ©. <br>Oil on canvas. 30" x 50" inches.

"Urban Landscape: She disappeared in a cloud of graffiti." - Mark Vallen 2013 ©. Oil on canvas. 30" x 50" inches. "Struggling to survive in a hostile urban environment."

While Urban Landscape was inspired by observing the streets of Los Angeles, the canvas depicts a reality now present in virtually every large American city; working class youth struggling to survive in a hostile urban environment during very difficult economic times. The subject of my painting is a young Latina, but she could just as easily be of any racial background; she holds a book, perhaps the only weapon that can free her from a life of ignorance, poverty, and want.

 Detail, "Urban Landscape: She disappeared in a cloud of graffiti." - Mark Vallen 2013 ©

Detail, "Urban Landscape: She disappeared in a cloud of graffiti." - Mark Vallen 2013 ©

I am very satisfied with Urban Landscape, and consider it to be my strongest social realist painting to date. The canvas, which took more than a year to complete, represents something of a turning point for me, as I was more interested in achieving paint textures than ever before. The juxtaposition of a painterly “abstract” background, a fair representation of actual city walls these days, with the precision realism of the foreground figure, I found to be a particularly pleasing accomplishment.

Our cities are decaying, basic social services and school budgets are being cut to the bone, unemployment is rampant, and crime is ever present. As a rule the artless scrawls of wannabe or real gangsters that deface city walls denote communities in decline - it has little to do with art and everything to do with collapse. This is something to be opposed, not celebrated and romanticized. Urban Landscape stands as a counterpoint to today’s trendy nonsense concerning graffiti and the attempts by hipster aesthetes to commodify it.

Indigenous Roots opens on December 14, 2013 and runs until January 25, 2014.

An Opening Reception with the artists will be held on Dec. 14th, from 7 to 10 pm.

The group show also includes artists: Armando Baeza, Patricia Boyd, Yrneh Brown, Lawrence Garcia, Raul Herrera, Andres Montoya, Ferril Nawir, Djibril N’Doye, CCH Pounder, Cindy Suriyani, Lamonte Westmoreland, and Katsu Yokoyama.

Avenue 50 Studio is located at 131 North Avenue 50, Highland Park, CA 90042. (Map: www.avenue50studio.org). Gallery Hours: Tue-Thurs, 10am-4pm. Sat-Sun, 10am-4pm.

Detail, "Urban Landscape" - Mark Vallen 2013 ©. Going abstract while playing in the ruins of tomorrow, today.

Detail, "Urban Landscape" - Mark Vallen 2013 ©. Going abstract while playing in the ruins of tomorrow, today.

One last note. In titling my painting I could not help but pay homage to a forgotten, or is that unknown, historical aspect of the megalopolis that is Los Angeles. “She disappeared in a cloud of graffiti” paraphrases Electrify Me, a song by the Chicano punk band The Plugz. Founded in L.A. in 1977, I attended the band’s early riotous concerts; their verse about graffiti stuck with me, as it exemplified the dark and foreboding underbelly of the modern concrete jungle.

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UPDATE 12/31/2013: On Jan. 5, 2014 at 2:00 pm, there will be a panel discussion with the artists from the Indigenous Roots show. Moderated by the exhibit’s curator Raoul De la Sota, the round table dialogue will explore ideas pertaining to art and culture that are at odds with the mainstream art world. Join this painter and fellow artists Ferril Nawir, CCH Pounder, Raul Herrera, Andres Montoya, Yrneh Brown, Lawrence Garcia, Cindy Suriani, Armando Baeza, and Katsu Yokoyama, for the lively conversation.

The New World Border Exhibit

The New World Border traveling exhibit was originally organized in 2011 by three artists from the San Francisco Bay area of Northern California, Francisco Dominquez, Art Hazelwood, and Doug Minkler. The exhibit is comprised of prints created by thirty artists from around the U.S. who are opposed to the construction of a giant “security” wall along the U.S./Mexico border. The collection of linoleum cuts, silk-screens, monoprints, offset and digital prints has so far been exhibited in 9 states across the U.S. in sixteen different venues.

The exhibit premiered at the La Peña Cultural Center in Berkeley, California, where it ran from March 3rd to April 30, 2011, and it concluded a run at its sixteenth venue, La Casa del Túnel: Art Center in Tijuana, México, for the month of September, 2013.

"No Border Wall" - Mokhtar Paki. Digital print, 2011.

"No Border Wall" - Mokhtar Paki. Digital print, 2011.

Included in the exhibit is Mokhtar Paki’s digital graphic, No Border Wall, an anthropomorphic depiction of the barrier that scars the boundary between the U.S. and Mexico. The artist portrayed the wall as having been transformed into a goliath police force automaton.

Created from inanimate materials - concrete, barbed wire, and a closed-circuit television spy camera for an eye - the creature has been endowed with life by the national security state in an attempt to keep humanity divided. The concrete slabs that form the monster’s head also allude to the so-called “Security Fence” Israel has constructed around the Palestinian West Bank.

However, since its creation, Paki’s artwork has been given another layer of meaning. President Obama’s NSA surveillance program is currently spying on every American that sends an e-mail, views a webpage, posts a photo to social media, or uses a cell phone.

I am not a fan of “appropriation” in postmodern art. Too often the methodology is employed in such a way that the “repurposing” of another artist’s work not only leads to a facile style that does not require much imagination and even less skill, it also strips history from our collective consciousness. As a rule such works offer little more than cynicism and a supposed “ironic” view of life, concomitantly avoiding any substantive critique of the social order.

An accepted practice with today’s elite art establishment and its stables of revolting art stars, “appropriation art” is a far cry from its origins, the radically subversive “détournement” that members of the late 1950s Situationist International (SI) advanced.  For those revolutionists, it was a method of “turning expressions of the capitalist system and its media culture against itself.”

That being said, Nancy Hom’s digital print, Catalina’s World, is an example of how appropriation works best in visual art. Hom is counting on the viewer being familiar with the famous 1948 painting by Andrew Wyeth, Christina’s World, since her print would be meaningless without foreknowledge of Wyeth’s tour de force. Hom re-imagined Wyeth’s realist painting as a hard-edged, silkscreen-like image, and in the process transformed Wyeth’s magnum opus into a depiction of the sad realities now occurring at the U.S., Mexico border.

"Catalina’s World" - Nancy Hom. Digital print, 2011. "As she treads wearily towards the promised land of El Norte, the very earth she crawls upon becomes death itself."

"Catalina’s World" - Nancy Hom. Digital print, 2011. "As she treads wearily towards the promised land of El Norte, the very earth she crawls upon becomes death itself."

Wyeth painted a portrait of his neighbor Christina, a woman incapacitated by polio whose courage and will to live was not at all stricken; as Wyeth put it, she was “limited physically but by no means spiritually.” Somehow the depiction of the woman crawling through a parched field of tall grass towards a hilltop wooden farmhouse conveys a great sense of optimism; Wyeth’s brilliant treatment of sunlight and open space suggests, not a world of pain, but one of boundless freedom. Christina is an enchanted being that makes her way through a dreamlike realm where all things are possible. Wyeth’s celebration of mystery and the indomitable human spirit can easily be categorized as “magical realism,” a genre that today is most often associated with the artists of Latin America; here we begin to slip into Nancy Hom’s vision.

In Hom’s print, Christina has metamorphosized into Catalina, an archetypical Latina. As an “everywoman” figure, Catalina also displays bravery and the will to persevere, but instead of finding herself in a sunny dreamland where hope imbues every blade of grass, she is trapped in the nightmare world of the border region. As she treads wearily towards the promised land of El Norte, the very earth she crawls upon becomes death itself - a morbid reminder of the thousands who have perished from thirst or violence in failed attempts to cross the border over the years.

"Quetzal" - Fernando Marti. linocut, monoprint, and hand painted watercolor. "Complying only with the laws of nature."

"Quetzal" - Fernando Marti. linocut, monoprint, and hand painted watercolor. "Complying only with the laws of nature."

Fernando Marti’s Quetzal is a dazzling poster, for its message as well as its technical virtuosity; the print is a combination of linoleum cut, monoprint, and hand-painted watercolor.

The simple black and white linoleum cut of the border security fence is convincing in its minimalism, as is the rocky barren landscape it divides. Soaring above the scene is a magnificent Quetzal, the bird most closely associated with Central America; sacred to the indigenous people of the region, the bird is a symbol of freedom to many.

The pre-Columbian border design and the “speech glyph” emanating from the bird, allude to the role the Quetzal played in the ancient Maya and Aztec civilizations. The Quetzal flies freely over the fence, complying only with the laws of nature and ignoring the false divides imposed by nation states.

"Ningun ser Humano es Ilegal" (No Human Being is Illegal). Mark Vallen. Offset poster ©. This photo shows the poster carried at the 2010 Chicano Moratorium march in Los Angeles, CA.

"Ningun ser Humano es Ilegal" (No Human Being is Illegal). Mark Vallen. Offset poster ©. This photo shows the poster carried at the 2010 Chicano Moratorium march in Los Angeles, CA.

My own No Human Being is Illegal poster is included in the show. First published as a bilingual street poster in 1988, its title eventually became a catchphrase for today’s defenders of immigrants’ rights. The poster’s axiom is an emphatic affirmation of the inherent rights possessed by humankind. It cautions that when individuals are stripped of humanity and designated as “illegal,” then even worse abuses cannot be far behind. Not so long ago it used to be said that a child born to unmarried parents was “illegitimate.” I am hopeful that in the future, the opinion that some people are “illegal aliens” will also become an archaic expression.

No Human Being is Illegal was original published in conjunction with a 1988 drive conducted by the Los Angeles based Central American Resource Center (CARECEN), to secure the rights of undocumented Central American war refugees in the U.S. During the 1980s Central America was convulsed by revolution and murderous state repression. Seeking to escape the carnage, hundreds of thousands of people furtively entered the U.S., only to find themselves targeted for arrest and deportation back to the killing fields.

Welcome to the Land of Your Dreams by Jos Sances, takes a scatological approach to the issue at hand. Grimly sarcastic, the land of milk and honey resembles nothing so much as an enormous dung-heap, a foul pile made from the detritus of empire. Composed of discarded refrigerators, cars, TVs, disposable consumer products of all kinds… and human bodies, the enormous lopsided rubbish mound is perilously close to falling over from its own weight. The fetid mass is protected by a razor wire topped cyclone fence, the vehicle of an armed security patrol parked at the ready alongside the security fence.

"Welcome to the Land of Your Dreams" - Jos Sances. Digital and Screen-print, 2001.

"Welcome to the Land of Your Dreams" - Jos Sances. Digital and Screen-print, 2001.

At the pinnacle of the mountain of crap sits an amusement park carousel ride, except that the merry-go-round’s painted wooden horses have been replaced with grotesqueries; sitting atop the carnival ride’s rooftop is the logo for the American International Group (AIG). Formerly one of the world’s biggest insurers, AIG collapsed in 2008, was then bailed out by the U.S. government using taxpayer dollars - $182 billion worth - after which AIG used around $1.2 billion of the bailout funds to pay their CEOs lavish bonuses. The dung-heap must be maintained.

Adding a surrealist touch to the miserablist landscape, a gargantuan housefly buzzes over the rotten panorama like a converted crop duster towing an aerial advertising banner; flapping in the wind, the streamer is emblazoned with a mock advertising jingle, which also serves as the title of the print… “Welcome to the Land of Your Dreams.

On the face of it New World Border has a single focus, the border between Mexico and the U.S, but the exhibit provides an opportunity to look closer at a very complex situation; modern Mexico is in a tailspin, and U.S. governmental policy has much to do with it. Mexico is tormented by a vicious “Drug War” that has taken the lives of some 70,000 people, workers in Mexico and the U.S. have suffered immense setbacks under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and the Mexico government is run by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), a corrupt political party that has held power almost continuously for 71 years. While not directly addressed in the New World Border, these facts form a backdrop for a deeper understanding of the exhibit.

A quick look at Mexico’s humble corn tortilla reveals much. The domestication of corn began in Mexico some 9,000 years ago, and it became the foundation of the great Olmec, Maya, and Aztec civilizations. Corn went on to become a main food crop and staple in Mexico’s centuries old village-based corn economy, with the corn tortilla still reigning supreme. Then came NAFTA. Signed into law by President Clinton, Canadian Prime Minister Mulroney, and Mexican President Carlos Salinas of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the supposed goal of NAFTA was the abolition of trade barriers between the capitalists of the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.

One result of NAFTA was that Mexico was flooded with inexpensive U.S. corn imports produced by American corporate agribusiness, so much that Mexico’s farmers had no chance to sell their corn at competitive prices. Hundreds of thousands of Mexican campesinos stopped growing corn, can no longer maintain their farms, and have lost their land and livelihoods. Today Mexico imports more corn from the U.S. than it grows; the corn tortilla in Mexico is more likely made of cheap GMO corn from the U.S. than from a Mexican farmer. To think, the Aztecs used to worship “the Lord of Maize.” As Mexico’s corn economy continues to collapse, the country’s farmers and agricultural laborers migrate to the U.S. in search of work.

Despite promises from President Clinton that “NAFTA means jobs, American jobs, and good-paying jobs,” the results of NAFTA have been the deindustrialization of the U.S. and the exportation of hundreds of thousands of U.S. jobs to the Maquiladora “Free Trade Zone” of Mexico. Mexican workers labor in those U.S. owned plants for as little as $50 for a 60-hour work week. Largely composed of women, the work force suffers from severe exploitation, miserable working conditions, a total lack of union representation, grinding poverty, and environmental hazards. U.S. and Mexican elites have made off like bandits, while workers on both sides of the border have suffered nothing but losses.

The “Drug War” fought in Mexico since 2006 has taken the lives of 57,449 Mexicans as reported in late 2012 by the Monterrey de Milenio newspaper. Let us put that statistic in context. U.S. soldiers fought in Vietnam from 1955 to 1975, and during those twenty years 58,209 U.S. soldiers died in combat. In Aug. of 2012, the Mexican non-governmental citizens action group, Movement for Peace With Justice and Dignity, put the drug war death toll at 70,000 - so far. As the Mexican government supposedly combats groups like the Sinaloa and Los Zetas drug cartels, the well armed cartels battle each other for control of turf and profits. The war is exceedingly brutal, as this photo essay in The Atlantic attests. Mass killings, torture, and beheadings committed by cartel gunmen are routine; it is all done to feed the drug habits of North Americans.

Much has been made of arms purchased in U.S. gun stores ending up in the hands of Mexican drug gangs. But the weapons seized by Mexican authorities often include the same type of weapons the Pentagon supplies the Mexican military. The U.S. has provided $2 billion in military aid to Mexico’s police and armed forces since 2009. Leftover rocket-propelled grenades, mortars, and fully automatic AK47 rifles from Central America’s civil wars are also available on the black market. It should be apparent that corrupt members of the Mexican government, military, and police run a pipeline of arms to the cartels.

The Obama administration claims that it tried to smash cartel arms traffickers in 2009 with Operation Fast & Furious. Agents of the ATF allowed criminals working with the cartels to purchase guns in the U.S., then tracked the arms as they were brought into Mexico. It is alleged that the operation was to meant to identify and arrest the drug lords receiving the guns. However, the weapons were never traced to their end users, they disappeared into the cartel underground; no cartel boss was ever arrested as a result of the “sting.” The operation started to unravel when U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry was killed in 2010 near the Arizona-Mexico border by gunmen using two AK47 rifles traced to Fast & Furious. Since then hundreds of Mexican civilians have been killed by guns traced to the operation. Of the over 2,000 guns Fast & Furious brought into Mexico, 710 have been found at crime scenes or otherwise “recovered,” the rest remain in the hands of the cartels.

"PRInocho: Peña No Cumple" (Peña Fails) - Opposition poster against President Nieto. "Pinocho" is Spanish for "Pinocchio", so PRInocho is a play on words that equates Nieto with the marionette whose nose grew longer when telling a lie, and identifies Nieto as a string-puppet of the PRI.

"PRInocho: Peña No Cumple" (Peña Fails) - This poster against President Nieto is not part of the New World Border exhibit. "Pinocho" is Spanish for "Pinocchio", so PRInocho is a play on words that equates Nieto with the marionette whose nose grew longer when telling a lie. The poster also identifies Nieto as a string-puppet of the PRI.

Then there is Mexico’s rigged general election of July 1, 2012. The contest was between Enrique Peña Nieto of the PRI, and Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the “left” social democratic Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD).

Massive vote rigging swept Nieto and the PRI into power; reports of fraud, vote buying and tampering with ballots were rife. The AP reported that the PRI distributed untold thousands of pre-paid “gift cards” in poor neighborhoods in exchange for votes.

The Sydney Morning Herald of Australia quoted Eduardo Huchim of the Civic Alliance, which is funded by the United Nations Development Program; ”It was neither a clean nor fair election, it was perhaps the biggest operation of vote-buying and coercion in the county’s history.”

Latinos Post quoted an electrician and trade unionist, Heliodoro Maciel; “Yes, the PRI has experience. They know how to steal. They know how to make pacts with drug cartels. And they know how to kill.”

President Obama telephoned Enrique Peña Nieto in the aftermath of the sham election to congratulate Nieto for winning a “free, fair, and clear” election. Nieto’s reign will not be any different than that of his crooked PRI predecessors; historically the PRI has been the party of oligarchy, repression, and naked reaction.

In 1938 left-leaning President Lázaro Cárdenas nationalized Mexico’s oil at a time when U.S. and British oil companies completely dominated Mexico’s oilfields, taking the lion’s share of the profits. Cárdenas’ nationalization of the country’s oil has long been a wellspring of national pride for Mexicans. But Nieto wants to privatize sectors of Mexico’s Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex), the state-owned oil company. El Presidente wants the nation’s oil resources sold to the highest bidding foreign oil companies - which is the real reason he received a heartfelt “congrats” from Mr. Obama.

On Sept. 8, 2013, over 40,000 people gathered in Mexico’s capital beneath a gigantic banner that read, “No To The Robbery Of All Time,” in opposition to Nieto’s privatizing the oil industry. Just 3 days before Mexico’s Independence Day (celebrated each Sept. 16th), President Nieto ordered 3,000 riot police to forcibly remove tens of thousands of striking Mexican teachers who were protesting in the capital’s central plaza. Prior to seeing Nieto shout “¡Viva México!” from the balcony of the National Palace in the annual commemoration of the revolution against the Spanish Empire, the nation got to witness riot cops tear-gassing, and bludgeoning teachers.

Stories more revealing of Mexico’s excrescent ruling elite could not be told.

The New World Border exhibit has been shown at venues from Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, to exhibit spaces in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Missouri. At the end of 2012 an entire suite of prints from the show was acquired by the U.S. Library of Congress for that body’s impressive permanent collection. In mid-October 2013, a PowerPoint display of New World Border prints was presented at the Borders, Walls and Security international conference held at the University of Quebec at Montreal, Quebec, Canada, bringing the exhibit to three countries.

New World Border is also scheduled to be shown from November 2013 to March 2014 at the main library of City College of San Francisco in San Francisco, California. In addition, a full set of New World Border posters will be donated to the collection of Cal State University at Sacramento, California, were a future exhibition of the prints is currently being scheduled.

Art Is For Everyone!

On September 27, 2013 the “liberal” American magazine, The New Republic, published an article by its editor-at-large Michael Kinsley. In the piece titled If They Replaced Detroit’s Art Treasures with Fakes, Would Anyone be Able to Tell?, Kinsley suggested that a proposal made by Harvard political scientist Edward Banfield 30 years ago might be the solution to the crisis at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA). Banfield had written that museum collections should be sold off and replaced by reproductions, his logic being that most people would not know the difference. Kinsley remarked that personally he “certainly couldn’t” tell the difference, and then went on to add his own smug ignorance to Banfield’s bottomless pit of philistinism by adding that fakes placed in the DIA would not even have to be good quality reproductions.

Kinsley claimed that “most people’s appreciation of art” comes from seeing “posters or postcards or beach towels or t-shirts,” and he concluded his piece of writing with the tongue in cheek intimation that the DIA’s masterworks could be replaced “secretly” by making “the switcheroo late one night.” Kinsley was being facetious of course, but his flippancy masked a barely concealed contempt for art and its enthusiasts. Kinsley neglected to mention that Edward Banfield was also opposed to the establishment of the National Endowment for the Arts and that he was an advisor to Republican presidents Nixon, Ford, and Reagan. So much for liberalism.

But there is a precedent to the boorish notions of Banfield and Kinsley. At the end of 1962 the Louvre in Paris loaned Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa to the U.S. government for exhibit in the United States. The painting was endlessly hyped by the media, resulting in a sort of frenzy, or what arts writer and social historian Robert Hughes came to call, the Mona Lisa Curse.

On January 8, 1963 the Mona Lisa went on view at the National Gallery in the nation’s capital; U.S. President John F. Kennedy, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson were in attendance. The painting itself was given Secret Service protection at the same level ordinarily given to presidents. On February 4, 1963, the Mona Lisa went on display at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where during a three and a half week run, over one million people shuffled by the celebrated oil painting. When hearing that the Mona Lisa was coming to America, Andy Warhol made the oafish wisecrack, “Why don’t they have someone copy it and send the copy, no one would know the difference.”

Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight apparently could not countenance Kinsley’s foolishness, and so fired a metaphorical “shot across the bow” at The New Republic’s editor-at-large titled, A suggestion to replace art with reproductions in bankrupt Detroit. Knight’s withering screed berated Kinsley for adding to the “rich tradition of know-nothings writing about art and museums,” and for advocating “Art for the aristocrats, reproductions for the peasants.”

Though I agreed with much of what Knight wrote, he concluded that Kinsley’s piece failed as satire because it labored under “the common misconception that art is for everyone, even though it isn’t. Art is not for everyone (that would be TV), it’s for anyone - which is not the same thing.” In those words I find an assessment as absurd as Kinsley’s. Knight contradicts himself by admonishing Kinsley for having an aristocratic view of art, then proceeds to express what is the quintessential patrician view of art - it is not for everyone.

I have no regard for the works of postmodern artist Tracey Emin, who I am told is one of Britain’s greatest living artists and a “leading light” in the circle of bloated art star frauds nicknamed the “Young British Artists.” But after she received the Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) at the investiture ceremony held on March 7, 2013 at Buckingham Palace in London, Emin said: “I think that art’s for everybody and everybody’s entitled to the best culture, the best literature, the best education, the best that everyone can have.” Emin, who has declared herself to be a royalist, voted for the Conservatives in the 2010 election, and accepted a commission from Tory Prime Minister David Cameron to create an installation piece for 10 Downing Street.  She can proclaim that “art is for everybody,” but the art critic at the “liberal” L.A. Times declares the exact opposite. My goodness… the world has been turned upside down.

If “art is not for everyone” as Mr. Knight tells us, why then is it part of the core curriculum of the U.S. public education system? Should we stop teaching children about art? Art education in U.S. public schools has suffered brutal cutbacks for the last few decades, and Mr. Knight’s unhelpful proclamation only serves to place the finishing touches on its demise. My point is that we are not born with language and writing skills anymore than we have an inborn sophisticated appreciation of art and aesthetics… all of these things are obtained through education and socialization. If, for whatever reason, we stopped teaching children the use of language and writing, we would not have to wait long to see the harmful results. Curtailing or eliminating arts education in American schools will have no less a detrimental outcome.

Knight rebukes Kinsley for his “slide into phony populism” and then stakes out the anti-egalitarian position for himself by writing: “a great thing about democracy is that it aspires to create opportunities for anyone to become an elitist (….) That’s a primary reason we even have places like the Detroit Institute of Arts.” Actually no, the great thing about democracy is that it takes power from the hands of elites and places it in the hands of ordinary people, at least in theory it does. I do not call for the defense of the DIA because it helps to develop and maintain elitism, I support the museum because making a great collection of art accessible to everyday working people is a fundamental aspect of a democratic society.

Kinsley’s open contempt towards art and its aficionados, and Knight’s doggedness that “art is not for everyone” are both unwise if not laughable positions. I find them irksome because I have always believed and advocated that art is for everyone. I say this not as an activist, a trendy dilettante, an academic, or God forbid, a bourgeois art critic. I make the pronouncement as an artist who has been creating drawings, prints, and paintings his entire life.

A foundation of this conviction of mine is partly based upon seeing how art and culture has operated on a grass-roots level in the Mexican American community. “Making due with what you have” is a partial definition for “rasquache,” a Chicano term that describes an aesthetic of necessity and defiance. Rasquache sprang from poor barrios where working class people had few resources and even less access to art, at least how the dominant society defined art. Creating something out of nothing was rasquache, it was a “people’s art” made by those untrained in art, and it became a primary force in Chicano art and aesthetics.

In this short interview with Dr. Tomás Ybarra-Frausto, a foremost scholar of Chicano and U.S. Latino art, we are given a clear definition of rasquachismo and how it has shaped working class Chicano culture. Ybarra-Frausto makes clear that rasquache is not analogous to the kitsch or low-brow art of the postmodern “avant-garde.” Rasquache has a class dimension, it is rooted in poor Chicano communities and has always been a form of cultural resistance to the dominant society.

During the Chicano Arts Movement of the late 1960s, artists embraced rasquache and exalted the sleek modernist lines and intricate paint jobs of low-rider cars, the altars and religious icons of pious Catholics, the uniquely ornate placas (graffiti) found on the street, the attire of Cholos wearing button down flannel shirts with bandanas around their foreheads, the “Mom & Pop” storefronts painted in bright colors, the iconography of pre-Columbian civilizations and the Mexican Revolution, and so much more. Chicano artists were stirred by the life found in their communities, and they distilled that experience into a unique aesthetic. Those artistic sensibilities still largely imbue and guide contemporary Chicano art.

Rasquache is a word that once referred to things tawdry and cheap, but its meaning was changed in the late 60s to describe the assortment of visual cues, histories, and cultural identifiers that made up the new Chicano aesthetic. At the time there was an explosion of murals, theater pieces, and posters that were rooted in rasquache sensibilities, works that sought to uplift, beautify, defend, and unite the Mexican American community through art. This is something my friend and artistic associate Gilbert “Magú” Luján (RIP) discussed with me on more than a few occasions. Artists like Magú felt that art was for, and sprang from, the community. Mexican Americans have developed their art and culture from the ground up, nurturing and cultivating it even as it was denied a place in America’s cultural institutions. To Chicanos, Knight’s proclamation that “art is not for everyone” sounds not only ridiculous, but discriminatory.

But there was another dimension to the Chicano Art Movement in the late 1960s. We were inspired by the likes of Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros of the Mexican Muralist School. Those artists created public works in the belief that art was for everyone, and that working people would be enriched by interactions with art. Though snubbed today by those who spout postmodern gobbledygook, that democratic impulse in art still survives.

I must remind the “art is not for everyone” crowd of the 1932 América Tropical mural created in Los Angeles by Siqueiros. Preserved in situ by the Getty Conservation Institute, the mural on L.A.’s downtown Olvera Street now has its own museum, which opened to the public in October, 2012 to great acclaim. América Tropical is one of L.A.’s finest historic examples of art being for everyone; it is a work that birthed a new phase in American muralism that eventually led to Los Angeles becoming the “mural capital of the world” by the early 1970s.

In some quarters art has become a cynical intellectual exercise that is incomprehensible without an art degree and knowledge in dubious and obscurest theories. Things are really much simpler; making and appreciating art is what makes us human. Art is but one facet of an ordered human community, it has always been so. If you want to know what mathematics are all about, you might want to ask a mathematician. If curious about the stars in the heavens, talk to an astronomer. It follows that if you want to know about art, you should ask an artist.

Leave the critics to argue amongst themselves.

Sept. 11, Chicano Park & Chile

On Sept. 7, 2013, I went to the Southern California coastal City of San Diego, where I revisited the famed Chicano Park murals located in the Mexican-American community of Logan Heights. I spent a day photographing the park’s huge murals that are painted on the monolithic pillars of a freeway overpass, and in months to come I intend to present photos of the wall paintings along with essays on the how’s and why’s of their creation. But this post is more than a “sneak peak” at the photos. Sept. 11, 2013 marks the 40th anniversary of the Chilean coup, and this article will focus on one particular mural in Chicano Park titled, Tribute to Allende.

"Tribute to Allende mural" in Chicano Park. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

"Tribute to Allende mural" in Chicano Park. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

Eleven Minutes, Nine Seconds, One Image: September 11 was an independent film on the subject of the al-Qaeda terror attacks that targeted Americans on Sept. 11, 2001. The movie was actually 11 different visualizations of those events, as told by 11 directors from around the world; the film won two awards at the Venice Film Festival when it premiered in 2002. The contribution to the movie from U.K. director Ken Loach focused on a Chilean folk singer named Pablo. Exiled in London as a result of the coup d’état that took place in Chile on Sept. 11, 1973, Pablo is filmed writing a letter to the American people expressing his sorrow over the 9/11 attacks. He also explains that “enemies of freedom” ravaged and bloodied Chile on 9/11/73. Viewing the film’s segment sets the tone for the rest of this article.

On April 22, 1970, working class Mexican-Americans living in Logan Heights discovered that a parking lot for the Highway Patrol was being constructed in an open area beneath the just built Coronado Bridge. Already stinging from poverty, racism, police brutality, and the displacement of 5,000 families and their homes due to the construction of the Interstate 5 eight lane freeway and the Coronado Bridge, the community had had enough. The Chicanos of Logan Heights seized the land, stopped the bulldozers, drove off the construction workers, and began to build a park for their district. Activists wanted a “people’s park”, and demanded that the land become a liberated zone where Chicano art and culture could flourish. The police arrived in great numbers and a standoff over the park lasted for twelve days. Finally the city agreed to acquire the land for the development of a community park. On January 1, 2013, the National Park Service placed Chicano Park on its Register of Historic Places.

"The 'Tribute to Allende mural' is wrapped around a massive concrete column that holds up the freeway, so the artists took advantage of the architectural support and made their work three dimensional." Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

"The 'Tribute to Allende mural' is wrapped around a massive concrete column that holds up the freeway, so the artists took advantage of the architectural support and made their work three dimensional." Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

I was seventeen-years-old in 1970, and I had been following news of the Chilean revolution in America’s underground radical press. I do not recall how I got a copy of Por Vietnam, the 1968 album released by the Chilean group Quilapayún, but it changed my life. I had already heard of Victor Jara and Nueva Canción Chilena, so it was the work of Chile’s artists that made me pay closer  attention to what was happening in their country. Of course, there was turmoil everywhere in 1970, and El Movimiento (the Chicano Movement) was at its height in California. The anti-Vietnam war Chicano Moratorium march and rally would take place in East Los Angeles on August 29, 1970, and at seventeen I was very much involved in the spirit of the day.

"Copper for Chile" - Street mural by the Ramona Parra Brigade. Circa 1972. Photographer unknown. The great majority of political street murals from the Allende years were destroyed by the U.S. backed dictatorship of General Pinochet.

"Copper for Chile" - Street mural by the Ramona Parra Brigade. Circa 1972. Photographer unknown. The great majority of political street murals from the Allende years were destroyed by the U.S. backed dictatorship of General Pinochet.

Through the Chicano and antiwar movements I learned that young muralistas in Chile like the Brigada Venceremos, Brigada Ramona Parra (BRP), and other collectives were painting vibrant political murals. I learned that David Alfaro Siqueiros went to Chile in 1941 to paint his influential mural, Muerte al Invasor (Death to the Invader) in the southern Chilean town of Chillán. The mural was painted during a time of political crisis in Chile; during a 1946 general strike in support of striking miners, government soldiers killed six protesting workers, including a 20 year old activist named Ramona Parra -  the BRP’s namesake. From afar I watched in abject horror as Chile was drowned in blood on Sept. 11, 1973.

I believe the earliest mural in Chicano Park was the 1973 Historical Mural, a panorama of events and heroes important to Chicanos. Along with muralist Victor Ochoa and a collective of others, L.A.’s own Gilbert “Magú” Luján (1940-2011) lent a hand in creating the painting. Dozens of mural works followed over the years, and some of these will be pictured in future posts. Tribute to Allende was painted in 1974 by Smiley Benavides & Team from Los Angeles, showing once more how Chicano Park served as a lightning rod for Mexican-Americans throughout the Southwest. Like many of the murals in Chicano Park, Tribute to Allende was fully restored and preserved in 2012 as a result of The Chicano Park Mural Restoration Project. The artists who restored the mural are Norma Montoya, Guillermo Rosette, and Mario Torero.

Detail of "Tribute to Allende" mural in Chicano Park. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

Detail of "Tribute to Allende" mural in Chicano Park. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

I consider Tribute to Allende to be one of the finest mural works in Chicano Park. Many of the park’s murals were created by teams of non-professional artists, but while some of the murals might be lacking in artistic excellence, they all excel when it comes to expressing meaning, community spirit, and the zeal for creating a new society. Tribute to Allende was obviously created by skilled artists; Internationalist in flavor, the mural transcends Chicanismo to address larger issues and the world community. Aesthetically it takes its cue from the militant Chilean murals of the Allende years, capturing the energy of a people struggling against tyranny and oppression. Like a number of Chicano Park murals, Tribute to Allende is wrapped around a massive concrete column that holds up the freeway, so the artists took advantage of the architectural support and made their work three dimensional. Almost abstract, the mural’s nearly Day-Glo colors positively glow in the Southern California sun.

In the early morning hours of September 11, 1973, the armed forces of Chile carried out a coup d’état against the democratically elected Socialist government of President Salvador Allende. Within a few hours the military controlled the entire country with the exception of Santiago, the nation’s capital. President Allende and his loyal bodyguards were surrounded inside La Moneda, the presidential palace; Allende was defiant and refused to surrender to the military. The Air Force bombed La Moneda, hitting it with at least 17 bombs. The generals say Allende took his own life, but it was the military that murdered Chilean democracy.

Detail of "Tribute to Allende" mural in Chicano Park. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

Detail of "Tribute to Allende" mural in Chicano Park. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

What followed was a military dictatorship that reigned until 1990. Led by General Augusto Pinochet, the regime outright murdered some 3,200 people and arrested well over 130,000. Sports stadiums were used as prisons and “interrogation” centers. At the time of the coup, Santiago’s Estadio Nacional (National Stadium) held over 40,000 detainees. At the Estadio Chile (Chile Stadium) in Santiago, thousands were held by the Army, including the pro-Allende folk singer Victor Jara. Recognizing the popular singer, soldiers pulled out his fingernails and smashed his hands with rifle butts, then mocked him by requesting that he play them a song on guitar. The soldiers shot Jara in the back of the head, then raked his body with machine gun fire.

Over the years, thousands of people became desaparecidos (the disappeared), kidnapped by security forces and never seen again. Tens of thousands more were sent to detention camps where they suffered beatings, rape, and torture. The regime created the Caravana de la Muerte (Caravan of Death), an Army death squad that rounded up and assassinated dozens of political opponents. All this and more… the entire country of Chile had become a torture center.

"Rebirth of Quetzalcoatl Tolteca" - Restored by Guillermo Rosette in 2012.

"Rebirth of Quetzalcoatl Tolteca" - Restored by Guillermo Rosette in 2012. On the base of the heavy column that supports the freeway overpass, the artist painted the feathered serpent deity of the Aztecs. Photo by Mark Vallen ©

As it turned out, the Nixon administration had long plotted to overthrow the government of President Salvador Allende, who had committed the unpardonable crime of nationalizing Chile’s resources. Up until the Allende administration, Chile’s three largest copper mines were owned by two U.S. companies, Anaconda Copper Company and Kennecott Copper Corporation. On July 11, 1971, President Allende’s proposed constitutional amendment allowing nationalization of Chile’s copper mines passed the Congress by unanimous vote. The U.S. plot against Chile went into high gear.

Declassified U.S. documents show that the White House and the CIA played a direct role in the overthrow of the Allende government. In 1970 President Richard Nixon gave the CIA orders to “make the economy scream” so as to “prevent Allende from coming to power or to unseat him.” A 1970 memo written by the CIA deputy director of plans stated: “It is firm and continuing policy that Allende be overthrown by a coup. It is imperative that these actions be implemented clandestinely and securely so that the USG (the U.S. government) and American hand be well hidden.” On June 27, 1970, Henry Kissinger, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, infamously remarked, “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist because of the irresponsibility of its own people.”

On Sept. 10, 2013, it was announced that Victor Jara’s family succeeded in serving a civil lawsuit to the former Chilean Army officer allegedly responsible for ordering Jara’s murder. The former officer, Pedro Barrientos Nuñez, was found living comfortably in Florida, enjoying U.S. citizenship through marriage to an American woman. In December 2012 a Chilean court charged Nuñez in absentia for the brutal murder of Jara… Nuñez had fled to the U.S. in 1989. The lawsuit brings seven claims against the ex-commander, including crimes against humanity, torture, and extrajudicial killing. It is a welcome break in the nightmare legacy of the Pinochet coup, but after 40 years, justice has still not been served. The affair however does make the Tribute to Allende mural as relevant today as it was in 1974.

Detail of "Tribute to Allende" mural in Chicano Park. "Internationalist in flavor, the mural transcends Chicanismo to address larger issues and the world community. Aesthetically it takes its cue from the militant Chilean murals of the Allende years." Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

Detail of "Tribute to Allende" mural in Chicano Park. "Internationalist in flavor, the mural transcends Chicanismo to address larger issues and the world community. Aesthetically it takes its cue from the militant Chilean murals of the Allende years." Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

The young artists that created the murals in the Logan Heights Barrio, painted their spiritual, political, international, and Chicano visions onto the walls for all to see. Those murals continue to be a great source of community pride, moreover, they stand as examples of an authentic “people’s art,” the very antithesis of today’s detached, elite, postmodern art. Rather than being frozen in the past, the Chicano Park murals embody a way forward for today’s artists.

The Mexican Museum of San Francisco

I am pleased to announce that I am now a member of the Arts and Letters Council of the Mexican Museum of San Francisco. I was asked to join the council by the museum’s director, David de la Torre, and by accepting the position I have become part of a group of esteemed artists, writers, and scholars who have lent their names in support of the museum and its upcoming expansion.

Too numerous to list, my colleagues on the council come from across the nation and work in various disciplines. Some I have had the honor of meeting and or working with, others I hope to collaborate with in the future. All of us however, are united in promoting The Mexican Museum as it prepares to move into its new state of the art facility in the Yerba Buena Arts District of San Francisco. A groundbreaking celebration marking the start of construction of the brand new museum will take place sometime in 2014, and a grand opening for the new museum is scheduled for 2017.

The Mexican Museum, the only San Francisco museum that is an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, holds a growing permanent collection of over 14,000 Pre-Hispanic, Colonial, Popular, Modern and Contemporary Mexican, Latino, and Chicano artworks. It is the largest such collection in the continental United States.

The Mexican Museum's new facilities as envisioned by architect Enrique Norton of Ten Arquitectos and Handel Architects LLP. Artist's conception courtesy of Handel Architects LLP ©.

The Mexican Museum's new facilities as envisioned by architect Enrique Norton of Ten Arquitectos and Handel Architects LLP. Artist's conception courtesy of Handel Architects LLP ©.

Currently located in the Fort Mason Center of San Francisco’s Mission District, the museum’s new home in the Yerba Buena Arts District will place it near the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Contemporary Jewish Museum, the African Diaspora Museum, the Cartoon Art Museum, and the California Historical Society museum. In the words of David de la Torre, the museum will be a “national center for the serious study of Latino art, history and culture.”

The museum continues to hold exhibits and events at its old Fort Mason Center as it prepares to move in 2017. To give an idea of what one can expect from The Mexican Museum, as of this writing the institution is about to open its latest exhibition, Diálogos Gráficos (Graphic Dialogues). Opening September 13, 2013 and running until April 2014, the exhibit will showcase Mexican and Latino printmaking from the past to the present. Divided into historical and contemporary sections, the show will present hand-made prints by José Guadalupe Posada, David Alfaro Siqueiros, José Clemente Orozco, Leopoldo Méndez, Francisco Mora and Alfredo Zalce. The contemporary section of the exhibit will show prints by Rene Castro, Enrique Chagoya, Juan R. Fuentes, Rupert García, Carmen Lomas Garza and Esther Hernandez.

While many in the U.S. are familiar with Posada, Siqueiros, and Orozco, it is exposure to the works of Méndez, Mora, and Zalce that is essential for an American audience as the three are so unfamiliar in the United States. They all worked in Mexico’s legendary Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP - “Popular Graphic Arts Workshop”), in fact Méndez and Mora were founding members of the TGP. In my opinion, Méndez (1902-1969) remains Mexico’s most important printmaker, if you want to understand Mexico, view his prints. As for Alfredo Zalce (1908-2003), he was the last of Mexico’s great revolutionary muralists - a contemporary of Rivera and Siqueiros known for his own searing brand of social realism.

The Mexican Museum exhibiting classic Mexican prints in Diálogos Gráficos is significant enough, that it offers a platform for current Chicano and Latino artists - in the same exhibit - is quite extraordinary. It is a blessing to us all that the works of these artists are being shown, and just one out of many reasons why I think this museum promises to be a major institution in our collective future.

I urge readers to spread the word about The Mexican Museum, and consider supporting it by making a donation or becoming a member (which gives you free unlimited admission to all Smithsonian Museums no matter where you are in the United States). If you live in California, you can show your support for the museum by attending the Diálogos Gráficos exhibit… perhaps you will see me there.

Exhibit: From Equinox to Solstice

"Spirit of Aztlán" - Mark Vallen. Oil on canvas 2012 ©.

"Spirit of Aztlán" - Mark Vallen. Oil on canvas 2012 ©.

I will be premiering Spirit of Aztlán at La Galeria Gitana’s exhibition, From Equinox to Solstice: Reflections on a Mayan Calendar. The exhibit opens on October 27, 2012 and runs until December 21, 2012. Click here for a larger view of my painting.

La Galeria Gitana is located in the City of San Fernando, in the northwestern region of Los Angeles, California. From Equinox to Solstice will present the works of twenty artists. Fellow Los Angeles painter Raoul de la Sota, the curator of the group exhibit, asked me to participate in the show, which explores themes surrounding two important calendar events from ancient Mesoamerica - the Aztec Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) and the end of the Maya calendar.

An Artists Reception will be held on Saturday, October 27 from 6:00 p.m. until 10:00 p.m. The Aztec dance troupe, Danza Mexica Cuauhtemoc, will gather on the street outside of La Galeria Gitana where they will dance into the gallery for a blessing ceremony. The festivities will also include a performance by the indigenous music group, Kukulcan.

The ending date of the ancient Maya calendar - December 21, 2012 - has been interpreted by some as “the end of the world”. However, the Maya divided time into 394-year periods they called “baktuns”, on December 21, 2012 we conclude their last cycle of time, 13 Baktun. In Maya cosmology, one cycle of creation ended as another started; so while some see an ending, others see the completion of Maya cyclical time as a new beginning.

With my painting, Spirit of Aztlán, I hope to communicate that universal sense of the transcendent that touches even those of us who live in the steel and plastic cage of 21st century modernity. Aztlán was the mythical ancestral homeland of the Mexika/Aztec people, and in their language (Nahuatl) the word means “Place of the White Heron”. Mexican American folklore locates Aztlán in what is now the greater Southwest of the United States, and there is some evidence this may be true. Indigenous tribal groups in the U.S. like the Hopi, Pima, Shoshone, and others share the Uto-Aztecan language of Nahuatl-speaking peoples of central Mexico.

From Equinox to Solstice: Reflections on a Mayan Calendar, runs from October 27 through December 21, 2012. La Galeria Gitana is located at 120 N. Maclay, Suite E, San Fernando CA. 91340. For additional information call: (818) 898-7708. Click here for map directions. In conjunction with Día de los Muertos, on Saturday, November 3, curator Raoul De la Sota, will present a lecture on the myths and beliefs of the ancient Maya and Aztec civilizations. Contact the gallery to reserve seats for the Nov. 3rd talk. The hour and a half program starts at 7 p.m. and costs $5.

Circle “the end of the world” on your calendar, pack your “bug-out bag“, stockpile some food and water, and then head on over to La Galeria Gitana to view the last art show before the lights go out on our so-called civilization.

"Spirit of Aztlán" - Work in progress in my studio, late September 2012. Mark Vallen ©.

"Spirit of Aztlán" - Work in progress in my studio, late September 2012. Mark Vallen ©.