Category: Chicanarte-Chicano art

The Cold War and the Americas

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

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

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

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

Serigrafía: Chicano Art at the PMCA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– // –

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! IZEL oozes all the passion, style and charm that Latin America is known for.” I would say that the ostentatious establishment without a doubt 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.

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, Guest Workers: Far From Home. 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.

####

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.