The gallery exhibit "Open Your Eyes/Abre Los Ojos" at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center was something of an epiphany for the show's curator, artist Jose Lozano. "Matt [Leslie, director of exhibitions] convinced me to have a show, so I started brainstorming ideas. Then one night I fell asleep and I opened my eyes and thought, "Chicano art!" and after that it was all really easy." The result? A collection of Mexican, Mexican-American, and Chicano art created over a period of 40 years that gives audiences a taste of the genre's politically charged history and its ever-changing definitions of identity.
Work by Chicano art pioneers Carlo Almaraz and Gilbert Lujan are displayed alongside younger artists such as political commentator Lalo Alcaraz, Robert Palacios and Yreina Cervantez. Salomon Huerta, Margaret Garcia, Barbara Carrasco, Gronk, and others round up the collection. Most of the collection comes from Lozano's personal collection, as well as the collections of Armando Duron, Miguel Echeverria, Anita Miranda, and Enrique Serrato.
On a balmy Wednesday evening, Lozano and art collector Armando Duron joined me to discuss Chicano art, artists who identify with the Chicano label, its reception in Orange County and the rest of the world.
What were your curatorial parameters for the show? How did you choose the work included?
Jose Lozano: I just went to look at what [the collectors] had, and if something caught my eye, I grabbed it. Most of the artists are L.A. based. Some of them [identify with the term] Mexicano, some of them are Chicano, some of them are more global kind of artists and are beyond [those labels]. Post-Chicano? (laughs)
Most of this art is representational, because I'm a representational artist myself. So I was drawn to work that had a figure in it. But I also wanted to include old and young artists that I liked. We're talking about 30 to 40 years of Chicano art making; that's all over the map, since Los Four came out in 1974.
You know, before Los Four there was no account of Chicano art. It was kind of like people didn't think it was important enough -- even though there were artists making art before the Chicano movement. Some of them were more political and some were addressing cultural issues, but others were just showing abstract art. They were showing in galleries in Hollywood, but they didn't have a sticker on their forehead saying "Chicano," they were just trying to make it into the art world. They wanted to have a show, sell paintings, and have [an art] career.
Was this the time you started collecting Chicano art?
Armando Duron: I started collecting Chicano art because I came from that movement. We felt the need to collect our own patrimony. We needed a Chicano eye to collecting. Most collections in this country -- whether they're modernist or abstract or aboriginal or whatever -- are collected by rich Anglo Americans, who have a certain view about what is valuable when it's not art from their time or their generation.
Lozano: The question "What is collectible?" comes up.
Duron: My wife and I felt that the perspective of Chicano art was an important component that could not be missed. So that's how we started collecting and we've been doing it for 30 years.
Lozano: When I was young I used to go to the library and there was only book, one thick book on Mexican American art. I'd go, "Ooh there are people making art!"
So how did you develop your collection?
Duron: You build by going to every art show you can, by educating yourself, by meeting artists. Sometimes you buy from the artist; sometimes you buy from the trunk of their car, sometimes you buy from someone's garage. One time I bought a painting at the Hollywood freeway. It was hanging on the fence on the north side of the freeway. And I loved it and I said, "I want that piece."
To this day you need to be flexible because not all Chicano art is in galleries. I do buy from galleries, but if you just go out looking for Chicano art in galleries you're going to miss about 90 percent of what's being produced out here.
But what about artists like the Date Brothers? I feel like they're an example of Chicano art that came from the streets and easily got representation in an established gallery.
Duron: They're an exception.
Lozano: They definitely are.
Duron: You can analogize them to Basquiat. Their main audience is an Anglo audience, and they seem to be working for that aesthetic view -- which is fine, you know? Clearly they're Latino. You see it in their work even if they don't identify themselves as Chicano artists. There's a Mexican mask eating a paleta, how much more Latino can you get? And you do see a lot of that [in other artists], if you know art and how to read references.
Lozano: It's the way they present the work.
Duron: You'll see it between the lines, even if it's highly conceptual. Like Sandra Fuentes's piece -- all the iconographical references are based on a mural in East LA that's based on pre-Columbian imagery. So she takes it three steps. The mural in east LA, then reconfiguring the whole piece in digital.
So what kind of art did you seek out when you began building your collection?
Duron: In the beginning you're looking for representational work, work that speaks to the community, to the obvious issues. Almost everybody starts there. But our collection is now over 500 works over 30 years, and it includes not just the works but about 1000 publications, exhibition catalogs and books related to the art, about 3500 invitations to the exhibitions on Chicano art since 1971. It's quite intensive, there's files and correspondence with the artists. We're archiving everything around it because the idea is you should be able to come to my house and get a pretty good sense of what Chicano art has been like in [Southern California] in the past 40 years. So it's more than just a collection of the works, because in order to understand the context of the work -- and the time of the work -- you have to know what was behind some of the thinking of the artist and why did they choose to do what they were doing?
Lozano: And the term Chicano art has gone through changes. It was very definitively defined and it had an agenda behind it. Now it's gotten blurry. Some younger artists can't stand that label. They want to belong to the world and make work that doesn't have your typical Chicano imagery, the virgen and the calaveras. Others jumped on the bandwagon and called themselves Chicano artists after they started using that imagery. So it diluted the whole term. When I was putting up the exhibit I was wondering if I should even label it Chicano art; it doesn't have that same kind of power that it used to have.
Duron: It's not a closed definition, though.
Lozano: Yes, but most Chicano kids graduating from art school are well versed in the rhetoric. They come out sounding and speaking and reading Art Forum. And they're hip to all the digital gadgets so they can make art that they think is new, but has been done years ago.
There's still a romantic vision I have about the term Chicano art, that it might inspire the gente, define them more and make them think. To see the artwork, and learn from it on a human level instead of saying, "I'm addressing a Chicano audience only, this is only for Chicanos." That's what I think most artists want that in the long run; to get five minutes out of you, to engage you for a while regardless of your political baggage or your party affiliation. Just to be intrigued by the work. And that's how I picked the work in the show. It intrigued me.
So is the term Chicano art not a one of pride anymore?
Lozano: I don't know. I wonder if that's a stigma, once you make it in the mainstream the Chicano part of your description gets chopped out.
Duron: I don't know. I was at the MoMa at a print show last May. I looked up and see these prints. I didn't know Daniel Martinez was going to be at the show, but that guy's work was more colorful and just different from everyone else's gray prints.They were all in different rooms but his just stood out. And you could say he's gone beyond that [label Chicano artist], he's in a big show at the MoMa and is the only Latino in the whole show. And yet when you look at it, you can spot it. It was strange, and that's the kind of experience I have with artists who say, "I'm not Chicano." And I say that's fine, you don't have to be. Whatever. Yet it comes out anyway.
Why is it that 40 years after the movement for validation of Chicano art, shows like this are still rare?
Lozano: I don't know, it's Orange County (laughs). They had Mexican dancers here at the opening, and I wasn't sure about that ... it turned out fine but I just didn't want it to turn into Cinco de Mayo.
So you think to be able to digest a show like "Open Your Eyes/Abre Los Ojos" Orange County still needs those cultural signifiers?
Duron: I don't live here, but as an observer it seems to me that there are two Orange Counties. I've gone to Santa Ana a couple of times for their art walks and I've seen a lot more diversity than I thought I was going to find. There's a lot more inclusion of Chicanos and that kind of aesthetic.
Lozano: There's multiple realities going on. I grew up here in Fullerton, but this place (gesturing toward the Muck) was so foreign to me. I grew up in this little barrio off Lemon, less than three miles from here. We never ventured up here. They never had Chicano shows or workshops here [when I was growing up]. It's such a rare occasion to have these kind of shows.
Does that also relate to your acceptance of the "Chicano artist" label?
Lozano: I used to do abstract in art school. And I was flunking! So one day out of desperation I drew something -- a memory -- from my childhood. Someone said, "Cut that [abstract] crap and do more of this!" And then it was easy. Suddenly I was all that! Then I was able to graduate and go to grad school. That's where the whole Chicano thing comes out, it's memories and stories and humor and sarcasm and storytelling. All that was just coming through. And it was the late '80s and there was also a compelling need to address the issues [of Chicanos].
"Open Your Eyes/ Abre Los Ojos" is at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center, 1201 West Malvern Ave., Fullerton, (714) 738-6595, www.TheMuck.org. It features selections of Mexican and Chicano artfrom the collections of Armando Duron, Miguel Echeverria, José Lozano, Anita Miranda, and Enrique Serrato. Featuring works by Lalo Alcaraz, Frank Romero, Gilbert Lujan, Salomon Huerta, Margaret Garcia, Yreina Cervantez, Barbara Carrasco, Gronk and others.