Enrique Chagoya


Chagoya's Clash of Cultures Comic, Caustic

Kenneth Baker, Chronicle Art Critic

Saturday, March 29, 2023

The current political dust-up over immigration, an ideological duel with real lives and livelihoods at stake, adds voltage to the already electric work of Enrique Chagoya at the Berkeley Art Museum.

Chagoya has won considerable recognition locally. Born in Mexico City, he attended the San Francisco Art Institute, has advanced degrees from UC Berkeley and tenure at Stanford. But the Des Moines Art Center has organized and circulated "Borderlandia," his midcareer retrospective, which will travel later to the Palm Springs Art Museum.

From its beginnings Chagoya's work has had a grisly edge and a comedic one, not least because it draws directly from cartoons and comics. Big pastels, such as "Thesis/Antithesis" (1988), look like editorial cartoons taken to the scale of large posters, minus the clear message we expect from political art. These pieces also set the register of Chagoya's best work in that they manifest his acerbic tone while making it hard to pinpoint the humor in them.

"Thesis/Antithesis" shows trousered legs and smartly shod feet jouncing, like an acrobat's, atop a pair of bare feet that rises from what looks like a sea of blood. A figure for North American supremacy over the South?

To the left, in a passage irreverently borrowed from Michelangelo's Sistine ceiling, a bare hand also protrudes from the red depths, meeting fingertip to fingertip with a disembodied three-fingered glove - the right hand of Mickey Mouse.

Mickey appears throughout Chagoya's art as a symbol of American cultural influence, ostensibly cheery but in his falseness a sinister shill. Mickey, or his hand, serves in this case to satirize the developed world's fantasy of having originated everything.

In recent years, Chagoya has occasionally revisited the big black-and-red pastel format, with less convincing results. His caricatures of Bush administration luminaries as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Muhammad and Jesus as "girlie men" look like products of critical desperation, rather than inspiration. They suggest dishearteningly that events have outrun even the inventive responses of an artist as nimble as Chagoya.

So, in a different way, do the ink-on-paper works that pay too-direct homage to the Nixon drawings of Philip Guston (1913-1980), substituting the Bush cohort for Nixon and his cronies. Guston's Nixon drawings succeed because they achieve what I call delirious figuration, where marks through an ambiguous crudeness assume multiple meanings: a manner subject to tribute but not to imitation.

Chagoya found his own parallels to Guston's inimitable style in some of his prints and in his "codices," the accordion-fold drawings that celebrate and send up examples of ancient Mesoamerican pictorial narrative. Chagoya has gone so far as to replicate the amate paper on which ancient codices were inscribed, to amplify his connection to them as source material.

In his codices and related drawings and prints, Chagoya redraws the encounter between European invaders and vanquished indigenous people, envisioning a collision not merely of contemporaneous cultures but also of incommensurable mythologies and centuries.

In "Crossing I" (1994), he envisions the Aztec warrior god Tlaloc confronting Superman, who strips away a pilgrim outfit, rather than his Clark Kent disguise, to reveal his true identity. A tiny flying saucer with Aztecs aboard hovers in the background, evoking the cultures' alienation from one another as galactic, not merely cognitive.

The codices present themselves as continuous narratives, yet because they admit of no coherent reading, they force us to look. "The Organic Cannibal" (1996), for example, tumbles from an Aztec death god swallowing the most famous portrait of Christopher Columbus to racist panels adapted from Little Nemo and other old newspaper comics, diagrams from Vesalius and imagery from explorers' tales and Spanish colonial painting.

Only occasionally, as in the prints "Untitled (Pocahontas)" (2000) and "Road Map" (2003) does Chagoya pack into a single sheet the complexities of the manifold codices. Those complexities include satires of the putative liberties of modern European art, especially Picasso's, derided more heavy-handedly in a painting such as "Hidden Memories at Giverny" (1995).

The Pocahontas print even incorporates a reminiscence of the work of John Graham (1886-1961), a Russian expatriate to New York who helped to transmit Picasso's influence to a generation of American emulators.

"Borderlandia" familiarizes us with an artist who appears to work best when he does not know quite what he wants and so lets himself dream pictorially on his preoccupations with boundaries that divide cultural rituals, belief systems, social strata and eras.

His show of recent work at Paule Anglim, which ends today, displays the same triumph of graphic invention in prints over more conceptually ambitious but pictorially lumbering efforts on canvas.

Enrique Chagoya: 'Borderlandia'

The artist's passion and embrace of hybridity are at the core of a survey at the UC Berkeley Art Museum.


By Leah Ollman

Special to The Times

From the Los Angeles Times

March 17, 2023

BERKELEY -- Enrique Chagoya is a savvy, rambunctious and surprisingly respectful thief. He takes what he needs from the general store of art history and uses it to furnish his own aesthetic. He plucks a few cartoon superheroes off the shelf, sets them among Aztec gods, borrows some settings from Goya, the soup can motif from Warhol, a color scheme from Russian revolutionary propaganda, a handful of icons from the Catholic Church, a touch of Disney. He plays freely with the goods, contriving surprises and generating friction. Throughout, he uses humor as a weapon against a multitude of wrongs.

A 25-year survey of Chagoya's work at the UC Berkeley Art Museum flaunts the artist's versatility and his impassioned embrace of hybridity. In paintings, drawings, prints and scroll-style or accordion-fold books, Chagoya addresses specific cultural or political incidents as well as the broader dynamics of encounter and conquest, the use and abuse of power. At its best, the work is brilliant. When he falters, it feels loud but thin, all insistence and no nuance. His most recent paintings are the most disappointing in this respect, but there are not enough of them to drag down an otherwise ebullient display of intelligence and talent.

The show, "Borderlandia," was organized by Patricia Hickson for the Des Moines Art Center, where it opened, and will travel in September to the Palm Springs Art Museum. It comes with a handsome catalog, the largest publication of Chagoya's work to date.

Born in Mexico City, Chagoya moved to the U.S. in 1979 after studying political economics in college. His social conscience was catalyzed, he recalls, by the Tlatelolco massacre of 1968, when Mexican police fired on student demonstrators in the capital, and by the government's suppression of the nature and extent of the violence. He settled in the Bay Area, earned a master's in fine arts at UC Berkeley and has been teaching art at Stanford since 1995.

The exhibition presents Chagoya's work in clusters, according to theme or medium, rendering a sense of chronological development both elusive and irrelevant. Cannibalism -- literal and metaphoric -- comes into play repeatedly. An image of Aztecs making a meal of former Gov. Pete Wilson spoofs a stereotype of primitive savagery. Each figure holds up an ear, a heart, a tongue, a penis or a brain before digging in, and a bound and sweating Mickey Mouse is also being seasoned for the feast. In the picture, "The Governor's Nightmare" has come true: Our neighbors south of the border have taken over and are subsuming and consuming all that is powerful and precious in our state.

Chagoya painted the scene in 1994 on paper made from amate, a wild fig bark used by the Aztecs as a drawing surface. The paper has a thick, slightly rough texture, and Chagoya has smudged its ivory surface liberally with blood-red paint, as if a transcription of the event had been made on the spot, by a participant.

He also uses amate paper as the base for many of his codices -- dazzling epics of densely compressed history. Horizontal spreads of joined pages, the books are meant to be read from right to left, like the few Mixtec and Maya originals that survived the Spanish conquest. They don't present conventional linear narratives, however. Instead, they unfurl in a controlled gush of intelligent outrage, riffing on myths of arrival, objects of worship both spiritual and commercial, and violation of all sorts -- physical, cultural, religious, political, artistic.

In another canny body of work, Chagoya answers the question "What would Goya draw?" He re-imagines the print series "Los Caprichos" and "The Disasters of War" set in the present, featuring familiar public figures (including Monica Lewinsky and former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke) faithfully transcribed in Goya's own style and compositions.

The patina of age and the authenticity of materials contradict the contemporary references and yet reinforce them: The historical elements feel as though they endure into the present, and the current events feel like extensions of older, established patterns. Anachronism is one of Chagoya's best-used tools. It startles, tickles, informs and disarms, putting us in the place of Superman, who, in a frame from one codex, stands beside a complex knot of pre-Columbian imagery -- gods, warriors, symbolic patterns -- and exclaims, "Hey! Hold on! I've got a million questions!"

Chagoya paints himself into his scenes occasionally, and he acts the artistic cannibal in part to bring attention to the way artists of European heritage have long poached on the artistic legacies of cultures they have also dominated politically. The hierarchy shifts in Chagoya's hands -- he calls what he does "reverse anthropology." The work can feel wonderfully edgy and irreverent -- distorted maps finally redrawn, the greedy getting their due -- or just plain amusing, like a cartoon with well-aimed barbs: George W. Bush and his first Cabinet drawn as the seven dwarfs, under the bitter watch of then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice as Snow White.

Chagoya is a satirist in the tradition of Daumier and Hogarth and in the good company of his Southern California peers Sandow Birk and Einar and Jamex de la Torre. He practices an adept visual ventriloquism, assuming the voices of countless artists across the centuries and the continents. What makes his thievery so unusual, so smart and so compelling is that he gives back as much as he takes.

For a Broad Landscape, an Equally Wide Survey

New York Times

May 31, 2023

By Ken Johnson

At this moment in the United States, artists are collectively producing every kind of art imaginable, from the conservatively traditional to the radically conceptual. Critics, curators, gallery owners and historians will filter out most of it in their continuing efforts to discover some meaningful direction, but no one really has a clear view of the big picture. It is too broad, hazy and confusing.

In its own haphazard way, however, the National Academy Museum's "181st Annual" comes close to reflecting accurately the pluralism of art in America. (This year, as it is in alternate years, the show is an invitational made up of works by artists who are not members of the academy.) The eight-member invitational committee did not try to carve a thin slice out of the whole in an effort to represent some important or up-to-date development. Numerous well-known artists are among the 124 selected, including John Chamberlain, Pat Steir and Kiki Smith, but what the committee came up with is a trend-blind cross section. With artists born in every decade from the 1920's to the 1980's, it is, you might say, the anti-Whitney Biennial. It won't make you angry, but neither will it thrill you.

Besides looking all too much as if it were organized by committee, the show has a major problem in its installation. Because so many different styles are represented, and the layout seems to have been determined mainly by the sizes of different works, there is a numbing randomness.

A better idea might have been to group pieces according to style into a series of focused mini-exhibitions. For example, at least a dozen of the show's painters are still drawing inspiration from Abstract Expressionism, producing essays in painterly and emotional spontaneity. Gathering together works of this sort by Judith Murray, Lynne Frehm, Brian Rutenberg and others would provide an occasion not only for comparisons of quality but also for a meditation on what it is that continues to make painterly abstraction so appealing to so many artists.

Geometric abstraction preoccupies another large group of artists who aim not for expressive freedom but for structural order and sensuous calm. These include, most notably, Merrill Wagner, James Little and Helen Miranda Wilson. And, as you would expect of a traditionalist institution like the National Academy, there are many who paint or draw from perceptual experience. Works in this vein include Sylvia Plimack Mangold's Cézannesque painting of a tree; Joan Semmel's slyly aggressive nude self-portrait with a camera; and Margery Beaumont's small, soft-focus, Morandi-like still-life painting.

Providing relief from traditionalist approaches that are too often overly familiar, whether abstract or representational, are those artists involved in more or less comical figurative fantasy, like Alexi Worth, Karl Wirsum, Trevor Winkfield and Llyn Foulkes. Others, including Jim Lutes, Jonathan Lasker and Gordon Powell, put inventive spins on abstraction. The idiosyncratic originality of these artists is

something the show needs more of.

One of the few sociologically assertive works is Maren Hassinger's mock-primitivist installation centered on a video in which she paints her own face black to satirize racist stereotyping. Another is Enrique Chagoya's large, cartoon-style charcoal drawing featuring a military helicopter piloted by two Jesus figures; it is from a series called "Road Map" that satirizes President Bush's plans for Middle East peace. But the invitational committee members were clearly more interested in visibly skillful handmade approaches than they were in challenging new concepts or ideologies.

There is one other video work, a poetic sculpture by Heidi Kumao in which imagery of flowing, water-borne sediment is projected onto a piece of paper inserted in an old-fashioned typewriter. A multimedia corner installation of Constructivist forms, found objects and a glowing black light by Phong Bui also adds to the impression that, however tentatively, the academy is trying to cultivate some openness to nontraditional forms.

Sculpture, for some reason, is the most consistently high-quality part of the show. Mr. Chamberlain's tangle of colorful strips of auto-body metal; Kathy Butterly's lovely little, funky-surrealist ceramic vessel; Richard Rezac's sleek, subtly eccentric construction of wood and metal; and Tony Feher's hanging configuration of small glass jars with a red marble in each: these, along with works by Lynda Benglis, Garth Evans and Tom Burckhardt, would make an excellent small sculpture show.

If the two-dimensional works had been selected as discerningly, the whole annual might have been a terrific exhibition. But then it would not be so democratic.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company