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Enrique Chagoya @ Anglim Gilbert

by Tirza True Latimer
 
Mindful Savage's Guide to Reverse Modernism

The history of art is a history of appropriation. Yet the term did not enter art parlance until the contemporary era. In the late 20th century, appropriation gained currency as a keyword describing strategies adopted by artists from Andy Warhol to Sherrie Levine who repurposed existing artworks and images.  So-called appropriation art engages with systems of cultural value unwritten by such concepts as originality, authenticity and iconicity.  Earlier, at the turn of the 20th century, “primitivists” (from Paul Gauguin to Pablo Picasso) made the cultural appropriations underpinning European modernism.  Colonialist booty from Africa, Oceana, and the Americas stored in European museums inspired artworks by expressionists, fauvists, cubists and surrealists.

Mindful Savage's Guide to Reverse Modernism, Enrique Chagoya’s current exhibition at Anglim Gilbert’s Minnesota St. location, puts the notion of appropriation into even deeper historical perspective.   The title piece, a horizontally organized painting, presents six ethnographic self-portraits, each picturing subjects from the pageant of colonialism.  By impersonating stock characters, from Japanese Geisha to Tudor Guardsman, Chagoya detaches himself from any singular (ethnic, economic, racial, or gendered) position within global struggles for dominance. The flow of power, Chagoya proposes, is never unidirectional, nor is the subject/object position static.  
 
Chagoya made his first codex in 1992, the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival on American shores.  Since then, he has created over a dozen loosely related works, many executed on bark-based amate paper like the ancient Aztec and Maya used. The codices have been a primary vehicle for the artist’s enterprise of “reverse anthropology,” an act of revenge in which the artist turns symbols of cultural invasion against the invaders themselves, “reverse modernism” being one aspect of that project.
 
Detail: La Bestia's Guide to Birth of the Cool, 2014, lithograph with chine collie and gold metallic powder on handmade Amate paper; total: 8 1/4 x 92"
 
The Spanish burned thousands of Aztec and Maya codices during their campaigns of conquest.  Examples that escaped destruction served as models for the production of revisionist cultural histories.  The perverse replicas produced by the Spanish served as ideological weapons in their quest for dominance. Thus an indigenous form was forcefully turned against its makers and used to subjugate them and, in effect, undo their histories and belief systems and, thus, their civilizations.  The Spanish shipped a few ancient codices back to Europe where they remain conserved in libraries, archives, and museums along with other colonialist trophies.
 
In Mexico, as a university student, Chagoya laid his intellectual foundations in the fields of anthropology, cultural history, and political economics. He studied such monuments as Teotihuacan and learned about the codices and other ancient modes of cultural transmission. As a student at San Francisco Art Institute and UC Berkeley in the 1980s, he continued to research Maya and Aztec codices and learn about the post-conquest recasts used by the Spanish to impose Catholicism and colonial rule.  Reversing the colonialist power dynamics, Chagoya’s contemporary remakes of these already remade codices tell stories with different historical outcomes for Mesoamerica.
 
El Gran Sombrero, 2012, intaglio print

Several such works are on view.  They include, in addition to Mindful Savage’s Guide to Reverse Modernism, La Bestia’s Guide to the Birth of Cool (on handmade amate paper), Canibales Daguerrotipicos (digital prints), and Illegal Alien’s Guide to Mindfulness (acrylic on rust patinated steel). With these compound pieces, Chagoya demonstrates his virtuosity in a range of techniques that include, in addition to painting, lithography, copperplate etching, woodcut, letterpress, collage, calligraphy, and digitally manipulated photographs.  He recasts a wide variety of iconic images (Edward Curtis photographs of “vanishing” tribes, Yves St. Laurent fashion plates, ethnographic illustrations, political cartoons, comic book super heroes, Posada engravings, Mondrian paintings, Nike and Apple logos, Toltec masks, Day of the Dead skeletons, Catholic saints) to unsettle triumphal narratives of European and Euro-American hegemony.  Chagoya acknowledges history as “an ideological construction made by those who win wars,” and his codices make the case that wars are never won once and for all.  For every history written by the winners there are others waiting to be written by the vanquished, poised to re-emerge transformed in unpredictable ways.

Chagoya, however, makes no attempt to posit either the superiority or purity of pre-conquest cultures. To his way of thinking, there is no “pre,” only a series of conquests and exchanges stretching back to the dawn of humanity.  Thus he does not aim to wrest from ignominy “lost” civilizations; instead he actively occupies his own (and everyone else’s) thickly layered cultural past.
 
His gestures of appropriation, like colonization or cannibalization, can be violent.  Indeed, the figure of the cannibal recurs in his work.  Taking cues from the early 20th Brazilian movement Antropófago [man-eating] — whose anti-colonial manifesto called for the “cannibalization” of European modern art, with its “primitive” sources — Chagoya mobilizes the figure of the cannibal both to reverse the thrust of modernism and to mock Enlightenment notions of the “noble savage.” He splices heads from ancient sources onto bodies clothed in contemporary European attire, and the reverse.  That the head of Duchamp’s avatar, Rrose Selavy, appears in

Disparate de Toritos (Folly of Young Bulls) 2015, etching

 the final frame of Canibales Daguerrotipicos, atop the hybrid body of a Mexican giant and a revolutionary, suggests that the process is not orderly, linear or unidirectional.  

The exhibit contains works of various formats that differently harness the critical potential of appropriation. His Recurrent Goya etchings, for example, ally themselves with the 18th-century Spanish master’s Caprichos (caprices) and Disparates/Proverbios (follies/proverbs).  Chagoya keeps faith with Goya’s technique and compositions, but updates the iconography to comment satirically on contemporary issues. These resonate with Goya’s Inquisition-era preoccupations: corruption in the Catholic church, abuse of political power, economic disparity, institutionalized violence, the ravages of war.

Chagoya first engaged with Goya’s oeuvre as an art student, and throughout his career he has repeatedly committed what he calls “forgeries” of Goya prints. One intaglio print even pictures him as ChaGoya (as he has signed some of his prints).
Grande el Sombrero, a Spanish figure of speech whose rough English equivalent is “big shoes to fill,” recasts Goya’s Francisco Goya y Lucientes, Pintor, the frontispiece for the Caprichos portfolio published in 1799.  Chagoya’s diminutive head sits on Goya’s big shoulders and fails to fill his distinctive top hat.  At the bottom of the print, a tongue-in-cheek collection stamp in red letterpress shows a small foot slipping into a big shoe punctuated by an exclamation point.  The (double) portrait exposes Chagoya’s reverence for Goya, who, he says,  “shows light through the dark side of the human experience.”  Chagoya’s painstaking replication of Goya’s materials and techniques imbues this series with the lovingness of an homage.  At the same time, the rubberstamp collection marks that appear and comment on each print, and the artful integration of contemporary props and personages, assert Chagoya’s own imperatives as a political satirist.
 
Auction House Blues, 2009, acrylic and water based oils on canvas, 60 x 80"
 
It is a tribute to the power of these relatively small-scale prints that they stand out in the gallery, surrounded by large oil paintings.  The paintings — with their legible inscriptions and iconography — at first appear more accessible and straightforwardly didactic than either the prints or the codices.  In Auction House Blues, for instance, the inscriptions “Laissez Faire” (let it be, the underlying logic of liberal economic theory) and “Laissez Passer” (grant access) scroll across the upper register of a scene set in Monet’s Giverny garden.  In the foreground, a cubist head and a Warhol portrait of Marilyn Monroe sink into (or emerge from) the lily pond, up to their necks in Nympheas.  Near the banks, a calaca (Day of the Day skeleton) stands upright in a rowboat to take aim with a bow and arrow at a mired down Hans Hoffman.
 
This is one of several paintings on view that riff on economic theory to satirize the modern market-driven system of artistic value and its propagators: dealers, critics, curators, collectors, and art historians. Yet, as Chagoya makes clear, there is no high ground above the capitalist fray for anyone (including the artist himself) to occupy; there is no escape from contests for dominance — whether artistic, economic, political, patriarchal or religious. Chagoya’s multivalent interventions into the long history of art hold out this promise, though: the fiction of hegemony need not stand uncontested.
 
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Enrique Chagoya, “Mindful Savage’s Guide to Reverse Modernism” @ Anglim Gilbert Gallery, Minnesota Street Project through May 14, 2016
 
About the Author:
Tirza True Latimer is Associate Professor and Chair of the Graduate Program in Visual & Critical Studies at California College of the Arts, San Francisco. Her published work reflects on modern and contemporary visual culture from feminist and queer perspectives. She is co-editor, with Whitney Chadwick, of the anthology The Modern Woman Revisited: Paris between the Wars (Rutgers University Press, 2003) and the author of Women Together / Women Apart: Portraits of Lesbian Paris (Rutgers University Press, 2005). She co-organized, with the art historian Wanda Corn, the 2011-2012 exhibition, "Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories," hosted by the Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco, and the National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C.; and co-authored a book, Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories (University of California Press, 2011), which accompanied the exhibition.   Her book, Eccentric Modernisms: Making Differences In The History Of American Art, will be released by UC Press in fall 2016.
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One Response to “Enrique Chagoya @ Anglim Gilbert”

  1. Elaine O'Brien says:

    Terrific piece. I’m appropriating it for my teaching in all classes – Latin American, Modern, and Contemporary. Hope to get to the show.

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