Friday, August 7, 2009

the artists speak//Chicana/o Biennial at MACLA again

First Fridays are a monthly gallery walk in downtown San Jose. This Friday, I went to Movimiento de Arte y Culturea Latino Americanan (MACLA) to hear the artists of the Chicana/o Biennial speak about their works. For me, hearing the artist's intention and process usually makes the work more meaningful, especially when they use elements with personal connotations or with significances that I am unfamiliar with.

Of the evening, it was Rio Yanez that most impressed me. His piece, Ask a Chola, references a world that I had hardly considered when I originally saw it, and after hearing his explanation, the simple, boldly colored image became my favorite of the night.

Yanez began by telling of how contemporary mythologies interest him, how people can create alter egos that they can become online. I immediately thought of online games like sims, or second life, but what Yanez was talking about was imminently more interesting. He was talking about people who fully develop other selves and lead that life online through videos, images, blogs. Ask a Chola is his "absolute favorite" of online alter egos. Ask a Chola, as she is known, always sports a green bandana tied around her head to cover her face and protect her off-line, real world identity. It was partly this disguise that prompted Yanez to work with her image, "Of all the identities, hers is the most secret. She never performs without her bandanna. Very little is known about her, and her identity is the most mysterious."

As a way of introducing young artists into the mythology that draws him, Yanez is working on a series of Chicanas/os that create alternative identities. To create the portrait of Ask a Chola, Yanez explained how he "based it on a photo that she sent me. To me, it captured a moment of rhapsody." He then photoshopped the image, making it flat, of broad swaths of color and little shadowing, much like a cartoon, while retained some very realistic characteristics. This delicate blend of real and fantastical precisely capture Ask a Chola's online character: she has a blog, does videos in a "Dear Abby" style, but because she is not part of a show, or anything obviously fictional, the unknown persona that has created Ask a Chola hides her own identity, making the division between real and fictional identity palpable.

Yanez didn't just select Ask a Chola for her mysteriousness, though. "I admire her," he said, "I wanted to giver her an image. One of the things that draws me to her is that she is very political and uses humor to address issues."

Yolanda M. Lopez spoke about her piece, Leather Flowers (pictured above), as well. It is a beautifully painted design, with a border of glitter. Again, a piece that I thought was beautiful, but hearing her speak about it and how she came to create it imbued it with a meaning that had previously eluded me.

She based the design on designs that often decorate leather goods that are sold in touristy areas in Tijuana. Having grown up in San Diego, Lopez recounted people asking her about Mexico, but "I don't know about it, except for tourist arts." She recalled Tijuana as having "a lurid reputation, as a playground for sailors." and told about going to Tijuana, then coming back across and always, the tourist shops along the way. "I picked up on tourist art--because, in a way, it is colonist art. Art modified to sell to the dominant culture, whether its in Tijuana or in Navajo Nation or where ever. Its colonist art."

Lopez' painting, however, is not simply a rendition of leather goods, but "a metaphor of being on the road to Aztlan, and what we take on that road. We bring the gifts of our goodwill, but the dominant US culture doesn't understand our gifts."

In his talk, Gustavo Martinez continued this idea of "what we carry with us." His sculpture, Tren del Este, is a ceramic train, built out of ceramic pots and a ferocious head, that comes out of the wall, where he has sketched in the tail and a hint of landscape. The train sits on a narrow wooden trestle.

Inspired by mesoamerican god, and the idea of living in and connected to nature, Martinez included many mesoamerican symbols. He played with the dualism of earth and sky that, in the image of eagle and serpent, have been part of Aztec lore since the original founding of Mexico City as Tenchiltlan, and became an integral part of Chicano imagery. These symbols well stand in for Martinez' intention of a train "leaving and coming back," as Mexican migration north is often considered to be an Aztec return to the homeland, Atlan. By using ancestral symbols, Martinez ties his sculpture to the past, and "made it in vessal form, of containers, to transport ideas, thoughts, stories.

"It comes from ancestral ways-- spirituality, culture--to the present way of being and shows how to move forward with ancestral past."

I question art a lot. For me, significance is important. For that matter, so is beauty, and a carefully crafted piece always stops me in my tracks. But I need art to be functional or to have a meaning, and while I know that in most pieces, I can read whatever meaning I like, and that we all bring our own histories to each work, when I don't have a handle on where the artist started and why, the work often just seems flat. For this reason, going to hear the artists speak gave new depth to several works that I had originally liked visually and I left refreshed.


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