Xican@ Demiurge: An Immediate Survey at L.A.’s downtown Pharmaka Art gallery, is the latest examination of Chicano art to grace the L.A. art scene. I viewed the works of the twenty-one artists in the exhibit, which according to the organizers of the show are referred to as “Los In-betweens”, both for their standing in-between cultures and for evading the clichés of their chosen genre. Curated by Richard Duardo, Francesco X. Siqueiros and Armando H. Torres, the raison d’être of the exhibit is to “reposition ‘Xicanism@’ as a viable genre in which any artist influenced by our community can participate”.
Instead of commenting on the artistic merits of individual artists participating in the show, I’ve decided to critique the exhibit as a whole, it is after all a collective statement billed as a survey, and my assessment can also be read as an evaluation of the current state of Chicano art and its possible directions. For those expecting to find powerful, evocative images that expand and deepen the legacy of Chicano art as an activist oriented art form, Xican@ Demiurge is likely to disappoint. While the works largely adhere to the tradition of Chicano art as a bulwark for figurative realism, the stance of the show is decidedly postmodernist – offering little in the way of narrative, history or direction.
For those familiar with Chicano art – please bear with me. Since this web log has an international audience, I feel the need to reveal the obscure and esoteric secrets of the “Xican@” chronicles so that readers new to these histories can better appreciate what I’m going to say about Xican@ Demiurge. Historically, the Mexican American population in the western states of the U.S. endured the pains of a suffocating discrimination. In the mid-1960s, they rose to claim equality with the larger society, a struggle that entailed the right of self-identification – leading to the use of the term, “Chicano.” As a cultural identity and signifier of ethnic pride, “Chicano” is today more or less accepted by the mainstream, though the term is still evolving. Currently a number of Chicanos spell the word with an “X”, connecting their identity to ancient indigenous roots – in the Nahuatl language, the Aztecs called themselves Mexica (pronounced: meh-Shee-ka). Also, the gendered structure of the Spanish language has been rejected by some, who favor the written plural forms “Chicano/a” or “Chican@”.
Now that those basic facts have been made somewhat clear, allow me to open another can of worms – exactly what is Chicano art and how shall it be defined? Xican@ Demiurge attempts to form a definition, but as a survey it is stilted and woefully incomplete, in part because it’s extremely difficult to present the totality of Chicano aesthetics with a single exhibit. Chicano art necessarily arose from the tumultuous 60’s as a combative aesthetic in opposition to a system of racial, cultural, and political oppression – a cultural renaissance that took place concurrently with the Mexican American community’s political awakening. The California Ethnic and Multicultural Archives of the University of Santa Barbara, California (CEMA), describes the aesthetic in the following manner: “Chicano art is a public and political art, proclaiming and expressing public and social concerns in its themes and subjects.” That is not a description I’m inclined to argue against, though in all fairness it is one in need of further elaboration.
In their curatorial statement, the organizers of Xican@ Demiurge wrote: “Art that is innovative and aggressive in its approach is critical to developing a contemporary aesthetic that is representative of the 21st Century Xican@ artist. The cultural climate influencing this particular group today is not the same as the one that triggered ‘El Movimiento Chicano’ of the 1960’s.”
I’m left wondering how the art presented in this exhibit could be considered “aggressive in its approach”, unless the direction is one of insistent self-absorption, political retreat and apathy. The curators of Xican@ Demiurge take pains to point out that conditions currently facing Chicanos are not those of the 60s, which is true enough – but this seems an excuse not to address current realities more than anything else. Of the twenty-one artists in the exhibit, only one displayed a work addressing an overt political issue – and that attempt was not very engaging. The show nearly exists in a vacuum, as if one million Latinos did not march in the streets of Los Angeles to protest repressive immigration laws on May 1st, 2006, or that Latinos in the U.S. armed forces are not being wounded and killed in huge numbers in the pointless occupation of Iraq. The powerful tradition of Chicano art as an irrepressible force for social justice is almost nowhere to be found in this exhibit.
Historically Chicano Art – or Chicanarte – has served as the basic building blocks of a people’s self-esteem. It has exhorted the Mexican American community to stand, take pride in itself, and to resist the forces of subjugation. The earliest expressions of Chicano art were in support of the United Farm Worker’s Union and their leader César Chávez, as the battle to bring decent working conditions to California’s agricultural workers raged in the mid-60s, but artworks soon addressed other concerns – from cultural identity and immigration, to poverty and the Vietnam war. Chicanarte was – and remains – community based and tied to the culture, folk traditions and histories of people on both sides of the U.S./Mexico border. Over the years Chicano art has become nuanced, accepting a multiplicity of styles and interests without becoming diluted, it has embraced performance, installation, and conceptual forms without abandoning its essence. But the works in Xican@ Demiurge are ripped from any traditional moorings, they float freely as a hodge-podge informed by minimalism, low brow, hip-hop and yawning personal introspection.
It is certainly true that we are not living in the 1960’s, but I fear the curator’s statement represents a depoliticalization of Chicano art, which up to this point has persisted as a genre known for social engagement and activism. I’m not arguing here that Chicano art is nothing more than the artistic expression of social concerns, or that Chicano artists must be yoked with continually producing political imagery, far from it. It’s my firm conviction that every artist must be free to explore and create without constraint, but at the same time the legacy of Chicano art cannot be ignored. One could say that Chicanarte is nothing more than art created by Chicanos – but it has always been so much more than that. To remain viable it must remain true to its history, otherwise, why continue to create works under its banner?
The word “demiurge” has as its root, the Greek “demiurgus”, meaning quite literally an “artisan in the service of the people.” The word can also refer to an autonomous and powerful creative force. But the artworks in Xican@ Demiurge seem out of synch with these definitions, and so it’s difficult to imagine them representing an independent force, let alone one that is in the service of the people.