‘On the Verge’ with Chicano art

    With the most recent national census showing that Latinos comprise more than a tenth of the U.S. population, it is a difficult task to match this number with the significant underrepresentation of Hispanics in popular media. Certainly one can now find a healthy amount of J-Lo Hollywood scandal floating around the local newsstands, a smattering of sitcoms and teledramas (PBS’ “American Family,” NBC’s short-lived “Kingpin,” and ABC’s “The George Lopez Show”), and pointed satire in the syndicated comic strip “La Cucaracha.” But with this sudden spike of interest in the Latino community, dangers of misrepresentation and stereotype run high. It’s a given that most Latinas aren’t callipygian Salma Hayeks and that most Mexican-American families aren’t deeply embroiled in Mafioso drug-traffic. So, if not in movies and television, how then does one approach Chicano culture? The recently premiered Chicano exhibit at San Diego’s Museum of Contemporary Art alternatively suggests painting and other artistic media as different views of often skewed Mexican-American culture.

    Originating from the San Antonio Museum of Art and sequentially rounding around the United States, stopping at various locales such as the Smithsonian and the El Paso Museum of Art, the exhibit pays its first visit to California at the MCASD, after which the collection will visit eight other cities over a three-year span.

    MCASD director Hugh Davies stressed the importance of the exhibit’s local presence.

    “This is a first-class collection of works that speaks eloquently to a cultural movement rich in tradition and heritage,” Davies said. “An exhibition of this magnitude takes on special significance in the San Diego/Tijuana region we call home.”

    A key figure in realizing this project is none other than the comedian and actor Cheech Marin, notorious for his brash humor alongside Tommy Chong. Though famous for his irreverent on-screen shenanigans, it is largely unknown that he boasts one of the largest private collections of Chicano art in the United States.

    Marin, having loaned the exhibit a great deal of his personal gallery, described his efforts in exposing Chicano culture to the public.

    “We’re bringing our interpretation of the Chicano experience to the American public,” he said. “I want all Americans to understand that Chicano culture plays a big part in the patchwork quilt that is Americana.”

    With radically diverse attention on topics such as the landmark Chicano civil rights movement of the 1970s, current-day grass-roots activism, pop iconography and the end of the U.S.-Mexican War in 1848, the exhibit explores a resonant Mexican-American culture and history in a separate two-part exhibition — “Chicano Visions: American Painting on the Verge” and “Chicano Now: American Expressions.”

    The first includes nearly 80 visual artworks by more than 26 artists, showcasing mainly paintings of oil or acrylic on canvas, and pastel drawings. A few of the artists include Carlos Almaraz, Melesio Casas, Diane Gamboa, Margaret Garcia and Glugio “Gronk” Nicandro. As the vanguard of Chicano art, many of the predominantly Californian and Southwestern artists have headed pioneering artistic circles, such as muralists East Los Streetscapers and Los Four, in movements that coincided with the pressing social concerns of the time.

    “While other ‘schools’ of painting have been defined overwhelmingly by stylistic concerns, the Chicano school combines stylistic innovation, blends traditional Mexican popular and religious iconography with modern images of urban angst,” Marin said in a written statement. “This blend of the sophistication and naivete, combined with a sociopolitical overlay, has produced a unique American school of painting based on Chicano content.”

    Alternatively, the latter “Chicano Now” exhibition favors a more hands-on approach with a mish-mash of media, which toy with traditional notions of the “viewing only” art museum. This 5,000-square-foot multimedia area is categorized under seven different aspects of Chicano culture: The Border, La Familia, Work, Style, Music, Who am I?, and OTC (Other Than Chicano). In displaying these particular facets of Chicano culture, “Chicano Now” highlights the artistic, scholastic and cultural achievements of numerous comedians, musicians, filmmakers and artists. Among the featured names are the comedy troupe Culture Clash, Paul Rodriguez, George Lopez, Gustavo Vazquez, Guillermo Gomez Pena and Robert Rogriguez (director of “El Mariachi,” “Desperado” and “Spy Kids”).

    Alongside the audio-visual media of the walk-in theaters, one can find tactile excitement in learning to make tortillas, menudo or pollo con mole. Yet, if a visitor isn’t too keen on the kitchen scene, perhaps one can get his kicks while cruising in an original low-rider simulator with Cheech himself as the passenger. And after the thrill of pumping hydraulics, ease into the dance hall scene and browse the interactive jukebox for all kinds of cumbia, salsa and rock, including a heavy metal version of “La Bamba.”

    An involving and unique exhibition of art and culture, the Chicano exhibit offers a fresh view of Mexican-American representation apart from more overtly popular formats.

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