Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Chicanartists Update

Michael Sedano

La Bloga was invited to a “Mental Menudo” recently, at the home of noted Chicano artist Magu. The tertulia’s subject ranged across such topics as art history, rhetoric and aesthetics in the praxis of Chicanarte, and quotidian issues revolving around marketing and selling.

As with literature, artists struggle with perception and identity, whether to be recognized as “artist” or “Chicana artist” “Chicano artist” or perhaps “Xicana Xicano”. The difference may or may not affect sales per se, but in who buys art. Magu recounted an incident when an Anglo collector wrote a check for several thousand dollars to buy some splashes of color laid on canvas by an MFA student the collector thought might one day become important. Then he asks Magu, “What do you have for about fifty dollars?”

Such are consequences of being shoehorned into a niche market. Readers, collectors see the work as limited appeal, specialized, hence worthy of small sales.

Finding a market becomes the persistent challenge of niche art. In Los Angeles, for example, eastside galleries come and go. Historic Self Help Graphics and Art imploded in recent years and exists only as a struggling shoestring calaca of its former self. But it's still there, thankfully.

Eagle Rock's Carlotta’s Passion recently closed after the owner lost several hundred thousand dollars, leaving Avenue 50 Studio as the sole major eastside venue for Chicanarte. Downtown LA is similar, with new spots opening up like the 2d Street Cigar Bar & Gallery. Over on the west side of town, Patricia Correia's is among the rare dealers presenting Chicana Chicano work.

What do young people know of their arte? Ask a high school kid if she knows who Gronk is? Patssi Valdez? Frank Romero? Carlos Almaraz? Magu? Chances are the kid will respond, "huh?" or worse, “I don’t know and I don’t care.”

Such ignorance and apathy are not universal. People care about their art, when they know it. For instance, the crowd who showed up on Whittier Boulevard recently for the unveiling of the Latino Walk of Fame star for Antonio Aguilar. When the singer’s widow, actress Flor Sylvestre accompanied by Antonio, Jr. arrived, eager fans of all ages thronged around them, proud to be in their presence, then stood line for an hour for a chance to get an autograph and shake the singer’s hand. Such excitement grows from one part awareness, one part commitment to cultural continuity, exemplified in a remark one spectator shared, “¿Todavia esta tan bonita, verdad?”

Preservation and continuity exist as dual objectives of any culture. That, however, may not concern artists whose focus is on the making. Magu and Polaroid emulsion artist Mario Trillo, co-host of the Mental Menudo, both express small concern with “letting go” of a work once sold, or given away. (Unlike many writers who sweat blood over an editor’s emendation or alteration of a single word). Trillo observed sometimes he's completely satisfied to create an image for his exclusive enjoyment and if it never finds an audience, so it goes.

In Chicanarte, preservation and documentation are dual obstacles to providing succeeding generations with a record of their culture’s art. For example, Magu curated the first Chicano art show when he mounted an exhibit in 1964, in association with East Los Angeles College. The college produced no catalog or other lasting record. Similarly, the Autry Museum of the American West mounted a major show in 1998 whose beauty haunts the memory of Mental Menudist and experimental physicist Manuel Urrutia, who decries the wealthy institution’s failure to produce a catalog of such an awesome show.

In southern California, fortunately, two institutions have taken up their cultural responsibility to preserve and document Chicana and Chicano art, UC Santa Barbara and UCLA. At UCLA, the 38 year old Chicano Studies Research Center recently announced it would retrieve one of America’s earliest Chicano murals—perhaps the first Chicano mural—from its basement and hang it.

At the same time, UCLA has created A Ver, a program of documenting important contemporary artists, with the first publication Max Benavidez’ Gronk. Magu, who announced his retirement from arts activism at the Mental Menudo, will be the focus of an upcoming title, as well. Magu, who founded the seminal Chicano art collective Los Four comprised of Carlos Almaraz, Roberto de la Rocha, and Frank Romero, has earned the spotlight. A Ver looks to become as important a cultural resource as Los Four or ASCO have become in the history of Chicanarte.

Not on UCLA’s list yet is another activist-artist, East LA’s Carlos Callejo. Last Christmas season La Bloga spotlighted Callejo’s offer of his archives to any interested institution. Actually, he offered them to me, but I cannot take possession of something with the historical and cultural value of Callejo’s material. This material should be in public hands, not some private collector’s hoard.

Callejo recently relocated from El Paso to East Los. Currently developing a “freedom” series, Callejo’s work demonstrates the skill and aesthetic that characterizes the finest art and also the best exemplars of Chicano art. His bird's-eye perspective of a fellow pulling gente riding inner tubes and dressed in Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes will be a show stopper. (Click the image for a larger view).

Callejo's archives remain available to UCLA or UCSB, or another institution willing to accept its responsibility to cultural and historical preservation.

As the Mental Menudo drew to a reluctant close, someone asked Magu when he started Los Four. “Give us a date, Magu.” October 1973.

October. The beginning of a school year. This year, UCLA announced A Ver and the rescue of that first mural. October 2008 marks the 35th anniversary of the emergence of Los Four. Wouldn’t that anniversary be an ideal way for UCLA’s CSRC to open its academic year while achieving a beautiful syncretism between CSRC, A Ver, the community, and the university's mission?

Imagine what a first-class institution like CSRC can do. Mount a massive exhibit linking the precursors to Los Four and the ensuing movement that has grown from that 1973 spark.

Do it up right; an academic conference, published proceedings, a gallery catalog. After all, isn’t this the function of a university, cultural preservation and continuity? Tempus fugit, carpe diem, academicos.

Have a great feast day this week, and thanks for reading La Bloga!


Saturday, November 24, La Bloga welcomes a new monthly guest columnist, playwright Tomás Gonzales whose first contribution will be his one-act The Reunion. Please join us on Saturday to welcome Tomás.


Lisa Alvarado said...

Aside from bringing to light the ongoing evolution of what is and isn't Chicano/a arte, you've also brought to light a range of artists and perspectives to be considered.

Those walls of invisibility get broken down piece by piece with writing like yours.


Manuel Ramos said...

Another superb piece, Michael.You are on a roll. Is it all that extra time you have now?