"No, not Spanish; it's Latino." I overheard this half-scolding correction given by an instructor to his high school students touring the current exhibition at El Museo del Barrio. Phantom Sightings: Art after the Chicano Movement, an exhibition of contemporary Latin American artists centered on issues of identity, culture, and politics, mostly hailing from the Southwest. The habit for East Coasters to identify people and food from Latin America and the Islands as 'Spanish' has always startled me. Coming from Los Angeles, I am familiar with the need to maintain specificity with identity language, partly for the sake of political correctness, but much more so as a necessity for social survival — 'Spanish' referred only to the language and the Europeans. It's a different story on this side of the Mississippi, so a show here that addresses something so regionally unique as Chicano issues becomes somewhat of a cultural import: not completely foreign, but with a different set of values and a specific history.
The term Chicano (also Xicano) commonly refers to U.S. citizens of Mexican descent. It gained popular usage during the civil rights oriented Chicano Movement of the late 60's and early 70's (César Chávez is a popular figurehead) which crystallized and validated the ethnic identity. This makes for a plausible set of curatorial criteria; that the artwork should represent the interests and experiences of the Latino American and, in so doing, present a legacy of the Chicano Movement. An appropriate set of intentions for a museum whose mission is to educate about Latin American culture. Taking this into consideration, the artwork by itself resists criticism, while the curators' decisions, relative to their apparent ambitions, and the educational aspects are more at stake.
The galleries that contain Phantom Sightings are fairly crowded from floors to walls with heterogeneity of media and modes of presentation. The large photographic and small video documents of the group ASCO's near the entrance provide a good summary of the issues at hand. Their theatrical performances on L.A. streets use spectacle to raise issues of gender identity with androgynous costume, ethnic identity with traditional Mexican symbols, and urban life. As the oldest work on view, they establish an avant-garde precedent to the art that follows. However, their approach seems the most radical in comparison to the other works, which seems to have no problem fitting into the art institution. This likely reflects the tightening of the screws on anything 'guerrilla' that happens in urban public zones since 2001.
Also near the entrance is one of Alejandro Diaz's Miracle Cans, 2008: a nearly 4 foot tall, enlarged version of a hand made donation can — the kind you'd find in a small market or bodega — asking for money for a loved one's health care, complete with a vague photograph of the person in need, a genuine sounding typed plead, a giant red bow, and a slot cut through the plastic lid. The enlargement of these personal and sometimes tragic urban artifacts seems an attempt to force attention, not only on their socio-economic causes, but also onto our own inclination to take it for granted. Oddly, there were a few dollars and some change in this first of three cans through the show. Doubtful that the artist placed the money there — more likely moved visitors — so questions of whether or not he is employing fiction and what faith may be placed in him by those visitors become an issue. In another room hangs his Dichos (Sayings), 2004, consisting of a wall covered with hand painted cardboard signs riffing off the homeless comedian's strategy for seeking charity with witty remarks directed to an art crowd: "Marfa 1,800 miles [with left arrow]" or "The Filet Mignon of affordable conceptual art." His art here recontextualizes common urban symptoms of economic struggle and attempt to force latent recognition of these issues in viewers.
A major political theme in this show, and the country, is illegal immigration. Julio César Morales' deadpan series, Undocumented Interventions, 2005, consists of large prints of strategies for hiding people in cars or objects hardly big enough drawn in the style of airplane emergency pamphlet or IKEA furniture schematics. Perhaps the most 'beautiful' works here are Delilah Montoya's large panoramic desert landscape photographs which present sites where those braving the trip through the desert to the U.S. from Mexico have camped or can get water. The subject matter here is very strong, and the selection of this work should be commended, as it's easy to be heavy handed with this issues.
Another prominent characteristic of this show is the emphasis on cars and car culture. A peice from Rubén Ortiz-Torres's Assimilation and Resistance series, 2003 is like color field painting of high gloss specialty car paint on aluminum that changes color based on the angle from which it's viewed. It seems not only an exploration of the formal possibilities of the paints (although it's a pleasure to look upon), but it carries with it some of the obsession attached to car modification. Also, a collaborative set of sculptures from Ruben Ochoa and Marco Rios, Rigormotors, 2004-06, are caskets formed to emulate the animated and open positions of tricked out lowriders showing off feats of hydraulic engineering.
This last theme in the show brings up an important aspect that is, in my opinion, unique to the West Coast; at least something we don't see around here. It is the display acceptance of 'cool' content in a supposedly serious fine art context. Car culture is one. Shizu Saldamondo's paintings of friends looking hip, retro illustration with glitter, converse shoes, and the Black Flag logo are a few more examples. It's the kind found in the San Francisco based Juxtapose magazine (not popular in NY), which has a lot of art tied in with street culture. I'd venture to guess much, not all, of this work would be considered immature in the Chelsea and East coast academic contexts (perhaps this calls for a reevaluation of our own regional tastes). The exhibition brochure calls this popular imagery "vernacular", which isn't wrong, but also isn't an end in and of its self. The reading and subtle understanding of some of this art are accessible for those who are familiar, not restricted to the informed art audience. Returning to the priorities of the Chicano Movement, this aligns with ideas about cultural solidarity and appropriately positions this exhibition within populist ideologies, however regionally specific.