Category: Chicanarte-Chicano art

Richard Duardo: RIP

“‘Where in the world, where in this situation now can I be revolutionary, iconoclastic, and a voice of freedom?’ And, mind you, I’d never even lifted a pencil or drawn a circle. I was eighteen. I thought, “Artist. You can be as revolutionary and loud and opinionated and self-righteous as you want to be in this world - in the art world. And they’ll just accept it.” You know, what an interesting curiosity, an artist with an opinion. And I thought, “Okay. I’m going to be an artist. This is how I can survive, this is where I feel I can be free.”

- Richard Duardo in an 2007 interview with the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center.

 "Richard Duardo" - Mark Vallen. 1980 ©. Print from 35mm Diapositive. I took this photo of Richard standing in front of the Centro de Arte Público gallery in Highland Park, Los Angeles. He was 28 at the time and I was 27.

"Richard Duardo" - Mark Vallen. 1980 ©. Print from 35mm Diapositive. I took this photo of Richard standing in front of the Centro de Arte Público gallery in Highland Park, L.A. He was 28 at the time and I was 27.

My old friend and associate Richard Duardo died on November 11, 2014 at the age of 62. I will let others compose the detailed obituaries… but I do have a few things to say about the passing of L.A.’s maestro of serigraphy.

I made Richard’s acquaintance in 1980, since we were both denizens of the Los Angeles punk scene. Our reputations preceded us, as we knew of each other’s works before we ever met.

I had seen a number of silkscreen prints by Richard - like his 1978 poster Dia de Los Muertos, which was a public announcement for an art event held on Nov. 4, 1978 in the Highland Park area of the city.

Featuring a hand-drawn image of a skull clenching two red roses in its teeth, the poster is still in my collection. But it was Richard’s punk posters that really grabbed me.

Richard and I were both enamored with The Plugz, one of L.A.’s original Chicano punk bands. The group was widely popular in Los Angeles during that tumultuous period and Richard had produced a 1980 poster for them announcing performances with British bands Gang of Four (Starwood) and The Selector (Whiskey a Go Go).

"The Plugz" - Richard Duardo. 1980. Silkscreen poster announcing a Plugz performance at the Starwood with the Gang of Four.

"The Plugz" - Richard Duardo. 1980. Silkscreen poster announcing Plugz performances at the Starwood and Whiskey a Go Go.

That same year Richard teamed up with Tito Larriva of the Plugz and Yolanda Comparan Ferrer to form the Fatima Records punk label. Its first production was Attitudes, the debut album from L.A. Chicano punk rockers, The Brat. Richard designed the album cover art for the record.

Only in the last few years has there been some acknowledgement that a sizable portion of L.A.’s original punk scene was composed of working class Chicano youth.

We were also fans of the Screamers, possible L.A.’s most extreme and theatrical early punk bands. In 1980 Richard created a large silkscreen portrait of Screamers front man Tomata du Plenty and keyboard player Tommy Gear.

Snarling in cheap sun glasses, Tomata stands behind Gear, who breaks open a raw egg. Esoteric and mysteriously confrontational, the Screamers print not only captured the novelty of the band, but the uniqueness of the entire early L.A. punk scene.

I still think of the Screamers print as a high-point of Richard’s design career.

At the time I had also created portraits of the Screamers, and I am pleased that one of them, a 1978 portrait of Tomata, is currently on display at the Georgia Museum of Art’s Boxers and Backbeats: Tomata du Plenty and the West Coast Punk Scene until January 4, 2015.

"Screamers" - Richard Duardo. 1980. Silkscreen. 37 x 40 inches.

"Screamers" - Richard Duardo. 1980. Silkscreen. 37 x 40 inches.

My two cover illustrations for L.A.’s punk journal SLASH magazine were well known in 1980 - a portrait of singer Sue Tissue of the Suburban Lawns, and Come Back To Haunt You, a drawing of an indigenous man wearing a leather jacket and sporting a Mohawk.

One day in 1980 Richard called me to ask if I would exhibit my works at a small group exhibit of artists to take place at his Centro de Arte Público gallery in Highland Park. He knew of my art, especially liked the SLASH portraits, and really wanted these works in the show.  Of course I said yes; years later, every time I saw Richard he mentioned how much he loved the Sue Tissue drawing, and always hinted at buying it. Now I wish I had simply given him a print of it years ago.

In 2002 I contacted Richard to see if he would be interested in reprinting my Sabra poster at his Modern Multiples serigraphy studio in downtown Los Angeles. He was extremely supportive of the project and immediately agreed to do the work. At the time Israel had started its “Operation Defensive Wall” campaign that had its soldiers fighting major battles in Palestinian West Bank cities; it would be the largest Israeli military campaign in the West Bank since the 1967 war. Moreover, in June of 2002 the Israeli cabinet decided to build a gigantic wall that would seal-off the Palestinians in the West Bank. The Israelis called it a “security fence,” the Palestinians called it the “apartheid wall.” I thought it was time to republish my Sabra silkscreen poster.

I originally created the Sabra print in 1982 as a street poster reaction to the Sabra and Shatila massacres that killed some 3,000 Palestinian civilians in Lebanon during the Israeli invasion of that country in June of 1982. The Israelis had invaded with the intention of destroying the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which was then in exile in Lebanon. The Israeli Defense Force surrounded the PLO in the capital of Beirut, and laid a seven week long siege of the nation’s capital of Beirut that included saturation bombing. The war ended with a U.S. negotiated settlement that forced the PLO to completely withdraw from Lebanon. After the pull out, Lebanon’s President Bashir Gemayel was assassinated, and in retaliation his right-wing supporters were allowed by Israeli troops to enter the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila - thousands of innocent Palestinian civilians were brutally murdered and mutilated.

"Sabra" - Mark Vallen. Silkscreen. 23 x 29 inches. Originally published in 1983, Sabra was reprinted in 2002 by Richard Duardo at his Modern Multiples Serigraphy Studio in L.A. Each print was pulled on heavy white paper, hand-signed by the artist, and received the Modern Multiples studio "chop" mark.

"Sabra" - Mark Vallen. Silkscreen. 23 x 29 inches. Originally published in 1982, Sabra was reprinted in 2002 by Richard Duardo at his Modern Multiples serigraphy studio in Los Angeles. Each print was pulled on heavy white paper, hand-signed by the artist, and received the Modern Multiples studio "chop" mark.

As Richard pulled the Sabra print, we discussed the politics of printmaking and much more. He was very “left,” but also quite cynical, preferring the artist’s life to that of the political activist. I spent some days around the studio, talking with Richard about all manner of things, including the so-called art scene. In a moment of truth he told me that he sometimes wondered what it was all about. He spoke of the hundreds of artists that had passed through his studio, and how so few of them actually got anywhere; of those that did achieve fame, their celebrity was usually fleeting.

I have to mention that during my time at Modern Multiples, Richard was also working on a silkscreen reworking of the legendary artwork created by Ignacio Gomez for the play, Zoot Suit. I was thrilled to see this work in progress, not just because I have come to know Mr. Gomez, but for the reason that as a twenty-five year old I saw Zoot Suit premier at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in 1978. I watched in fascination as Richard’s assistants worked on creating a hand-drawn stencil for the large 37 x 51 inch silkscreen. Since the print had 25 colors in it, that meant 25 different screens; and because the edition was 250 prints, that meant an extremely labor intensive project. The results however are nothing short of astounding. Zoot Suit is a dazzling print full of rich detail and one of the reasons why Richard was an acknowledged master printer and his Modern Multiples was possibly the best arts oriented silkscreen workshop in the entire country.

I certainly had artistic differences with Richard. I thought his personal works became much too commercial in the latter half of his career, and that he need not have worked with so many self-absorbed art stars. He started to apply to himself the dreadful moniker given to him by others, “the Andy Warhol of the West Coast.” But I have been told that it is impolite to speak ill of the dead.

Richard was sociable, gracious, and always supportive of artists. Looking up his own prints online, I am alarmed to find that his early works are practically non-existent, which is why I felt it necessary to write this obituary. Of the hundreds of artists that did pass through his workshop, I am certain that each and every one of them felt special because of the experience. That perhaps was Richard Duardo’s greatest legacy.

– // –

The McNay Art Museum in San Antonio, Texas will present an exhibition of 20 large-scale silkscreen prints by Richard Duardo from June 3, 2015 to August 10, 2015.

Dia de los Muertos - Monoprints

"Ayotzinapa: Faltan 43" - Mark Vallen. Monoprint. 6 x 8 inches. 2014 ©

"Ayotzinapa: Faltan 43" - Mark Vallen. Monoprint. 6 x 8 inches. 2014 ©. Printed on Arches watercolor paper with eleven different oil colors.

To mark the 2014 observance of Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), I have created a suite of twenty monoprints based upon an ancient Aztec glyph representing death. Essentially a printed painting, no two images are alike. The images were painted directly on a sheet of glass in oil paint, and burnished with a wooden spoon; each color was “pulled” separately.

Working with cadmium yellows, oranges, and reds, I printed starting with the lightest warm colors and worked-up to the darker hues like vermillion and rose madder. I added contrasting cool colors - cinnabar green, emerald green and cerulean blue - with a final dark purple pulling all the colors together and giving form to the calaca (skull) glyph. When buying these monoprints, remember that each stand-alone print is unique, and that I cannot guarantee that your purchase will have anything more than a general likeness to those displayed here. However, I curated the prints and found each one suitable for inclusion in the suite. Each print is hand-signed with the artist’s signature, date, and the title of the print - Ayotzinapa: Faltan 43.

And what is the meaning behind the title of the print?

43 male members of the Normal Rural School of Ayotzinapa in the state of Guerrero disappeared on Sept. 26, 2014 after being kidnapped by the police. The cops handed their prisoners to members of the Guerreros Unidos drug cartel, who allegedly murdered them. Since then the people of Mexico have held protests and other activities to place the blame on the government of President Enrique Peña Nieto and his allies in Washington, D.C. While dozens of suspects have been arrested, not one has been charged with any crime, likewise, not a single member of the 43 male students has been found. Other mass graves have been discovered in the area, some 12 large graves, but the students were not found in them. Since 2007, some 100,000 civilians have perished in the so-called “drug war.”

Banners, flyers, street art, and graffiti have appeared across the country, some reading Todos Somos Ayotzinapa (You Are Not Alone Ayotzinapa), Crimen de Estado (It was the state), and Vivos Los Llevaron, Vivos Los Queremos! (They were taken away alive, we want them back alive!). The popular slogan Ayotzinapa: Faltan 43, is the title of my monotype series. It simply means, “In Ayotzinapa, 43 are missing.”

With my Ayotzinapa print I mean to bring attention to the current situation in Mexico; the corruption and collusion of government forces like the courts, ruing elites, and the police and army with the criminal drug gangs that run large areas of the nation; the U.S. government arming and training Mexican security forces as well as the drug gangs, and the Mexican democratic masses themselves, who protest at every opportunity against the depravity of the Mexican state. On October 29, 2014, President Nieto met with relatives of the missing students, promising that they would be found, but the relatives were not impressed.

Ayotzinapa: Faltan 43 represents a new period of print experimentation for me, and in the months to come a number of new monotype prints will appear on this web log.

So on this Día de los Muertos, remain vigilant and do not forget… in Ayotzinapa, 43 are missing.

$100. Ayotzinapa: Faltan 43 - Mark Vallen. Monoprint. 6 x 8 inches. 2014.
Purchase your print here.

Artworks by Mark Vallen ©

Four examples from the print series that show the differences in each print.

Roberto Chavez & The False University


Self-Portrait in Blue - Roberto Chavez. Oil on panel. 1963. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

"Self-Portrait in Blue" - Roberto Chavez. Oil on panel. 1963. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Roberto Chavez and The False University: A Retrospective, is a noteworthy exhibition of works by the 82-year old Chavez, an artist that should be a better known figure from the school of Chicanarte (Chicano art). The Vincent Price Art Museum at East Los Angeles College (ELAC) offers an exhibit comprised of more than 50 artworks by Chavez that cover a surprisingly wide range of mediums and styles.

While the works of Chavez are grounded in the Mexican-American experience, they are universal in scope. A number of his early canvases are playfully cubist, and expressionism is a current that runs through his art. When viewing some of the artist’s paintings, I was reminded of the works of Arshile Gorky, especially his famous canvas The Artist and His Mother. That trace of Gorky’s influence is evident in The Group Shoe, a 1962 oil on canvas by Chavez. I could also see Van Gogh’s 1885 painting The Potato Eaters in works by Chavez, not because of theme or even technique, but for reasons of temperament. Chavez’s The Artist’s Brother, Raul (1959) displays hints of Van Gogh’s 1885 canvas.

But Chavez is not a Gorky, Van Gogh, or Picasso, he is uniquely himself. That fact aside, there are nonetheless inconsistencies and weaknesses to be found in his work. Some paintings like his 1980 Birth of Genji are so unappealing - in that obnoxiously aggressive expressionist manner, that one winces and quickly moves on. In a few of his lesser works, the artist seemed to be struggling with aesthetics and narrative, as if unsure of what to say or how to say it.

The retrospective for Chavez presents the first museum examination of his censored mural, The Path to Knowledge and the False University, painted on the facade of a building at East Los Angeles College in 1974. Created at the zenith of the Chicano movement, the mural pointedly criticized the curriculum of the college as irrelevant to Chicano students - hence the title of “False University.” The college administration perceived the mural as a threat, and whitewashed it in 1979. It is amazing how such a non-threatening painting could ruffle so many feathers. Frankly speaking, despite the attention given to the mural in the exhibit, it is fairly shaky artistically and feeble as a political work. Its importance comes from being censored and having served as a lightning rod for an angry community, rather than any inherent artistic weight.  That being said, it is a long overdue and welcome move that ELAC would admit to, and present for research and discussion, their 1979 act of censorship.

Despite the chinks in Chavez’s armor, his weak points and failings, his oeuvre is otherwise sterling. He is a genuine painter’s painter. Overall, though the works of Chavez in the retrospective are not necessarily didactic, curious viewers will discover a sense of history in them; those who dig deep may unearth certain truths about our society and the world.  In that sense Chavez continues to carry the banner of Chicanarte, which up to the present still largely upholds figurative realism, narrative, craft, and an exploration of the human condition, as foundational and necessary facets of art. Being a champion of such an aesthetic is perhaps Chavez’s greatest triumph.

The balance of this non-review will present my thoughts on a number of paintings from the retrospective that I thought impressive. Owing to the generosity of the Vincent Price Art Museum, I was allowed to take some close-up photographs of the artist’s works, those photos will illustrate my reflections on the art of Roberto Chavez.

Portrait of Gilbert Luján - Roberto Chavez. Oil on canvas. 1966. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

"Portrait of Gilbert Luján" - Roberto Chavez. Oil on canvas. 1966. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

A student and assistant of Roberto Chavez beginning in 1965, Gilbert “Magú” Luján (1940-2011) went on to become a leading artist and theoretician in the Los Angeles based Chicano art movement. Magú worked on a commission he had received in 1990, to incorporate art into the Hollywood and Vine station on the Metro Rail Red Line of Los Angeles, California. The Metro Station project consisted of a series of images depicting anthropomorphized animals and pre-Columbian figures driving around Hollywood in lowrider cars; Magú had drawn the images by hand onto dozens of ceramic tiles that were set into the walls of the Metro station. That and his fanciful sculptural benches shaped into lowrider cars, transformed the Hollywood and Vine station into a miniature Magulandia. Magú completed the Metro station project in 1999.

I met Magú around 2003, and we remained friends and artistic compañeros until his passing.

Once again leaping over the boundaries of Chicano art, the Chavez portrait of Magú looks as if it could have been painted by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff or Conrad Felixmüller, two German Expressionist artists from the 1930s that I greatly admire.

The Artist's Mother - Roberto Chavez. Oil on canvas. 1970. <br>Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

"The Artist's Mother" - Roberto Chavez. Oil on canvas. 1970. "The matriarch of a family surveying the world from her kitchen domain." Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

The Artist’s Mother illustrates a scene familiar to most older Mexican-Americans, the matriarch of a family surveying the world from her kitchen domain. This could be a portrait of my deceased grandmother, Dolores Maytorena-Riveroll, who lived in a small wooden house in the barrio of San Diego, California.

With this painting Chavez took the ordinary and made it sublime, he took what was familiar to millions, and made it iconic.

My grandmother came to the U.S. in the late 1920s as a young woman from Guaymas, Mexico, and ended up living in San Diego where she worked in the city’s Chicken of the Sea canning factory.

I came to know her when I was a child; she was old and deeply wrinkled, but full of life. A devout Catholic, she wore conservative dresses and shawls, and kept her hair in a bun. In my mind, she was the finest cook I have ever known, and from her tiny kitchen came Mexican culinary delights that seemed to come from paradise. I can still hear the sound of her patting tortilla dough between her hands as she made tortillas de harina.

I am sure Chavez had similar memories of his mother… the kitchen painted in the background of The Artist’s Mother looks exactly like the one belonging to my grandmother, from the glassware to the inexpensive chrome and vinyl kitchen chair.

The painting is beautifully if roughly executed. Starting with an underpainting done in cadmium orange, the portrait is built up in layers of blues and browns. The flesh tones are transparent, allowing the bright orange to peek through. The shawl and loose fitting dress are brilliantly painted with a mass of squiggly, nervous brushstrokes… some barely registering, others deftly laying down pigment from a fully loaded brush.

Japanese Fish Kite - Roberto Chavez. Oil on panel. 1956. Photo by Mark Vallen ©

"Japanese Fish Kite" - Roberto Chavez. Oil on panel. 1956. Photo by Mark Vallen ©

In the vibrant oil painting, Japanese Fish Kite Chavez created a still-life from Japanese craft items.

At first glance the painting could be mistaken as a work from the 1930s school of German Expressionism, but that is one of the things I appreciate about it, the artwork transcends the narrow definitions of Chicano art. Prominent in the composition is a red “fish kite” (hence the name of the painting), but below it, painted in almost mirror-like fashion, is another fish kite colored dark green.

At the lower left of the canvas can be seen a swath of the traditional indigo dyed fabric known as shibori; Japanese ceramic and porcelain bowls surround the kites. In actuality koinobori, carp-shaped “wind socks,” are flown in Japan during the month of May to celebrate the ancient tradition of Boy’s Day - tango no sekku. The carp is highly regarded in Japanese folklore as a determined and strong fish that battles upstream and fights to overcome adversity, hence it became an iconic symbol for Japanese families honoring their sons.

In 1948 the post-war Japanese government declared that the May 5th Boy’s Day celebration would be combined with the traditional March 3rd Girl’s Day celebration - hinamatsuri (literally, Doll Festival), to become Children’s Day - kodomo no hi. The new national holiday celebrating the “happiness of all children,” was to be celebrated on May 5th, with the brightly colored koinobori as its symbol. I became familiar with these traditions during my life-long association with the Japanese community of Los Angeles, located in the historic “Little Tokyo” area of downtown L.A.; In 1987 I maintained an art studio in an old 1911 brick warehouse in the Little Tokyo district, walking distance from the Buddhist Higashi Hongwanji Temple. My understanding of and appreciation for Japanese culture and aesthetics has had no small influence on my life as an artist, and a number of my paintings reflect this.

A surprising number of paintings by Chavez in False University, show the influence of Japanese culture and aesthetics. Aside from Japanese Fish Kite, other paintings also featured Japanese motifs. His large oil on canvas, North Coast Venus (not shown here), is somewhat reminiscent of a Renaissance portrait, but it just as readily conjures up the aesthetics of Japan’s Ukiyo-e (floating world) prints from Japan’s Edo period. Created in 1984, the painting shows a white female nude surrounded by sea life from the northern California coast, a large starfish and octopus at her feet.

During the Second World War President Roosevelt used an executive order to intern the entire Japanese American community living on the Pacific coast of the United States. Some 200,000 individuals, the great majority of which were U.S. citizens, had their properties seized and were sent to concentration camps. Prior to the war there were many opportunities in L.A. for cultural engagement between Japanese Americans and those Americans of Mexican heritage - in some instances their neighborhoods literally overlapped. During the war years Little Tokyo was completely emptied of its Japanese American residents, but after the war ended in August of 1945, they started to slowly drift back into Southern California. When Chavez painted Japanese Fish Kite in 1956, Japanese Americans were beginning to regain a foothold in the region.

There is no doubt that Chavez, like myself, was directly influenced by the Japanese community of Los Angeles. In fact, the Chicano working class area of East Los Angeles where Chavez was born, was also home to a large number of Japanese Americans. I would argue that a unique hallmark of the L.A. school of Chicano art, is its having assimilated Japanese culture, unconsciously or not. I believe this is extant in the works of Chavez, and it is his awareness of other communities that helps to make the artist an exemplar in the Chicano art movement.

Incident in El Salvador - Roberto Chavez. Oil on canvas. 1993. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

"Incident in El Salvador" - Roberto Chavez. Oil on canvas. 1993. "El Salvador had been reduced to a nightmarish charnel house during the 1980s." Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

The Goyaesque painting, Incident in El Salvador, depicts the recent past of El Salvador. From 1979 to 1991, the Central American nation was torn asunder when grinding poverty and repression led to revolutionary insurrection. The Salvadoran right-wing had organized death squads to eliminate their left-wing opponents both real or perceived, in large part triggering the uprising.

One of the first death squads was the UGB - Unión Guerrera Blanca or “White Warriors Union.” The name had nothing to do with race, it was a proclamation that the UGB were “patriotic” anti-communists (Whites), fighting against subversives (Reds). The UGB were also known as the Mano Blanca (White Hand), because they marked the homes of their victims by leaving their handprints in white paint. Photographer Susan Meiselas took a famous photo in 1980 of the Mano Blanca signature left on the door of a peasant organizer the group had murdered.

Since El Salvador had been reduced to a nightmarish charnel house during the 1980s, Incident in El Salvador could be about any number of events, big or small, that occurred during that period.

On March 24, 1980, the Archbishop of El Salvador, Óscar Romero, was murdered by a death squad for calling for an end to repression and for siding with the poor; he was gunned down while giving Mass.  Romero’s funeral took place on March 30, 1980 in El Salvador’s capital; it was attended by more that 250,000 mourners. Unbelievably, the funeral Mass was attacked by death squad snipers who shot rifles from government building rooftops, killing dozens of mourners. No one ever took credit or was charged with these crimes. After the cold-blooded murder of Óscar Romero, the revolution took off in earnest. The left-wing Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN), fought against the brutal Salvadoran military which was allied with the country’s oligarchs - but armed, trained, and financed by the United States.

Incident in El Salvador (Detail). Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

"Incident in El Salvador" (Detail). Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Incident in El Salvador depicts a nighttime encounter between civilians and the security forces of the Salvadoran death squad government.

Two bullet riddled men are lying in the street, while two women plead for their lives; one women seems to have been shot and is falling to the ground, the other awaits her fate. The faces of the assassins are illuminated by automatic gunfire. The entire scene is awash in blood.

Photographer Chris Steele-Perkins documented the work of the murderous death squads while on assignment for Magnum Photos in El Salvador. His photo of families visiting a morgue to find loved ones killed by death squads illustrates the depravity of the war. In one photo, the headless bodies of victims are stacked up like cordwood, their heads neatly lined up in a row. John Hoagland was another photographer that caught the savagery of death squads while on assignment in El Salvador for Newsweek in 1979. He photographed El Playon, the dump where death squads left the bodies of their victims. Hoagland’s name appeared on a list of 35 journalists marked for death that was issued by the “Anti-Communist Alliance” death squad in 1982; in 1984 he was killed while covering a clash between guerillas and the Salvadoran army - which had most likely taken the opportunity to murder him.

Naturally, all of this and more was on the mind of Roberto Chavez when he painted Incident in El Salvador. The war that occurred in that impoverished nation during the 1980s became a subject for many artists around the globe; during those years I created a number of artworks about the conflict like We’re Making a Killing in Central America and El Salvador Presente. A negotiated settlement ended the war in 1992, but the wounds of war have not yet healed. Chavez memorialized the painful memories with Incident in El Salvador, a painting which also serves as a warning against the wars of today and tomorrow.

None of this information was placed on the painting’s caption at the museum exhibit. While other works were furnished with lengthy explanatory text, the caption placed next to Incident in El Salvador was one of the shortest descriptive texts given to any work in the exhibit. It simply provided the painting’s title, medium, and date of creation. That over 75,000 Salvadorans were killed by U.S. backed government forces during 12 years of war, or that hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans fleeing certain death came to Los Angeles in the 1980s, received no attention from the exhibit’s curators. Given that the Salvadoran exile community literally changed the face of L.A., and that Chicano artists and activists played a tremendous role in opposing the war, this “oversight” regarding the caption was an unacceptable error in curation.

Iphigenia - Roberto Chavez (Detail). Oil on canvas. 2014. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

"Iphigenia" - Roberto Chavez (Detail). Oil on canvas. 2014. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Iphigenia has been the subject of artists throughout the ages, although she is the most unlikely character to be found in Chicano art. But that is what makes the work of Roberto Chavez such a delightful surprise.

Iphigenia was a heroine from Greek Mythology. She was the daughter of Clytemnestra and King Agamemnon, the King of Mycenae that led the ancient Greeks in war against the city of Troy. Artemis, the Goddess of the hunt, prevented the warships of Agamemnon from reaching Troy because the King had insulted her. To appease the Goddess, the King had to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia. Agamemnon tricked his wife by telling her that their daughter was to be wed to Achilles, the bravest and most handsome warrior in the King’s army. Clytemnestra eagerly brought the young woman to the wedding, but found instead that it was a sacrificial ritual. Some versions of the myth declare that Iphigenia was killed, while others say Artemis saved Iphigenia at the last moment by placing a deer in her place. Avenging her daughter, Clytemnestra killed Agamemnon when he returned victorious from the Trojan War.

One of the most recent works by Chavez to appear in the exhibit, Iphigenia is a tour de force. Using a bright red underpainting to begin with, the artist then brushed on layers of yellow ochre and burnt sienna flesh tones while letting the underpainting peek through. The figure’s hair was achieved simply by letting the underpainting show, then brushing on a few delicate strokes of cadmium orange. An ivory black background is blocked in, giving the portrait head its final form. The subject’s eyes are accusatory and fixed on the viewer, her hair aflame with a victim’s rage. The overall look of the portrait is delicate and ephemeral.

Iphigenia is a mature work produced by a highly skilled painter. At first glance, it may seem a portrait of punk rocker Johnny Rotten executed by Eugène Delacroix, but Chavez has instead chosen to expose the viewer to Greek mythology - the legends and folklore of which have mostly been forgotten by moderns.  It should be remembered, that the Greeks were the first people to give human attributes to their gods, thus bestowing these figures with continued universality and relevance. Once again, the artist pushes the boundaries of Chicano art by delving into the unfamiliar.

Golgotha - Roberto Chavez (Detail). Oil on Canvas. 2014. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

"Golgotha" - Roberto Chavez (Detail). Oil on Canvas. 2014. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Golgotha refers to the site where Jesus Christ was crucified by the soldiers of the Roman Empire. The full canvas depicts piles of human skulls from victims of previous crucifixions. Amongst the rocks where the skulls sit, a white dove symbolic of the Christian Holy Spirit is shown at rest. The dove was created by troweling on white paint with a palette knife; that the background colors show through, only heightens the spiritual nature of the bird. This close-up detail from Golgotha shows how Chavez used transparent glazes and brush splatters to great effect.

It could also be said that the paintings Iphigenia and Golgotha are statements against endless war. October 2014 marked the 13th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Just a week after the date marking the depressing event, President Obama signed a “Security and Defense Cooperation Agreement” with the Afghan government that will likely keep U.S. Soldiers in Afghanistan for another ten years. The President has also started a new war in Syria and Iraq - without Congressional approval - purportedly to destroy the so-called Islamic State fanatics. Obama’s former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency and Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, said of the latest war: “I think we’re looking at kind of a 30-year war.

One can hear the frantic protestations of Iphigenia as she is dragged to the sacrificial altar.

Roberto Chavez and The False University: A Retrospective, runs at the Vincent Price Art Museum at East Los Angeles College until December 6, 2014. Directions and visitors info for the museum, here.

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.

– // –

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.