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Enrique Chagoya @ Electric Works

2012: Super-Bato Saves the World, 2009, customized slot machine, coins, cups

Gilbert and Sullivan may have written that “a policeman’s lot is not a happy one” in “The Pirates of Penzance”, but neither is the progressive political artist’s. Denounced by the political right for socialist proclivities (no Canada!) and by the cultural left for abandoning the lofty plane of pure sensation to produce agitprop for the groundlings, such artists generally get no respect. 

Happily, some artists are able to balance the competing imperatives of art, history, and art history, and to couch their subversion in visually acceptable and even beautiful form. One such artist is Enrique Chagoya, whose paintings, prints, codices and repurposed Campbell soup cans (“Cream of Dealer”, “Critic’s Tongue”, 
St. George and the Dragon, 2004, paper plate monoprint over lithograph
“Museum Director’s Tripe”) build on his love of American pop culture and European high art and his knowledge of the dark, violent, imperialist side of sunny American optimism.“Borderlandia”, his 2008 retrospective at the Berkeley Art Museum, offered a comprehensive view of his eclectic culture-clash aesthetic. “2012: Super-Bato Saves the World”presents newer work and enlarges his cultural critique to encompass current events, like the world financial meltdown and eco-collapse as well as the predicted Mayan apocalypse in 2012.
“Super-Bato” a humorous version of Batman, is given high, window-like eyes, an Aztec-style nose, and curled-moustachio fangs. (Bato, by the way, is Mexican slang for guy, dude, gangster and gringo, and given a phonetic spelling by Chagoya.)

A couple of paintings from 2002 are representative of Chagoya’s art of juxtaposed signifiers. “Untitled” depicts a scene set within an engraving appropriated from a Renaissance treatise on perspective.  A long room is covered with a grid of tiles whose vanishing point is located within a central figure, as with Leonardo’s “Last Supper”. In this case, the focus is Petunia Pig, six-breasted and grown up, in a blue bikini. Arrayed around her head, receding into space like monumental movie credits, in large capital letters, are various examples of mangled beginner’s English: “English as she is spoke”, “I am catched cold in the brain”,  and “It must never to laugh of the unhappies”.

Dream, 2002, Digital print with hand work on Amate paper, 48 x 48"; Histoire Naturelle des Especies Illegal Alilen’s Manuscript 2008, color lithograph, 11 x 74.5"
“World Backwards” features a similar repurposed background. Crude Spanish woodcuts depict the Judgment-Day revenge of the animals on their cruel taskmasters: a dog beats its cowering pet; two pigs cut a man’s throat, catching the blood in a pan; a burro whips its bipedal beast of burden; a horse, unsatisfied with its one-manpower carriage, resorts to the lash. Several of the panels are overlaid with red or white paint; atop one them sits a can of Chagoyesque soup: Cannibull’s Consultant with Beans.
Untitled, 2002, archival pigment print with handwork, 47”x67”
Chagoya’s codices carry the imagery of the paintings into a sprawling, horizontal panoramic format. Endowed with loquacious, sprawling surrealist titles (e.g., “The Axis of Goodness vs. the Eroticized Aerials of the Psyche”), these accordion-shaped works on paper are catalogues of visual/verbal absurdities: butterflies labeled Pessimists; skull-headed tots labeled Hedge Fund Managers; Egyptian/Assyrian soldiers, riding a war camel labeled Critical Theorists and Philosophers opine on ”free-wheeling non-linear thought”; and a Lone Ranger, labeled Museum Directors, muses on “superficiality and facades.”

Pyramid Scheme, 2009, digital pigment prints on cans, silk screened cardboard storage box
The soup cans and slot machines made for this show reflect more recent contemporary anxieties. The stacked soup cans of “Pyramid Scheme” (2009) reflect the fall of the House of Bush with flavors like Wallstreet Gumbo, Bailout Bisque, and Freddie Mac ’n’ Cheese. The exquisitely crafted, full-sized slot machines and their gold tokens (inscribed with party-hatted skulls) – collectively titled “2012: Super-Bato” –reflect our impolitic money policy and perhaps the imminent collapse that the Mayas foretold.  That vision includes: nuclear plants emitting toxic clouds, comets raining down on earth, and a dozing black cat who, like Chuang-tzu’s butterfly surrogate, philosophizes, ”Life’s a dream, then you wake up.”
Yes, now we’re finally awake. But as Chagoya suggests, we may have overslept to find a world we scarcely recognize or care to inhabit. 


—DeWitt Cheng

DeWitt Cheng is a San Francisco-based critic and curator. He is a regular contributor to the Art Ltd., the East Bay Express, Artillery,, ArtSlant, and San Francisco 
Enrique Chagoya’s "2012: Super Bato Saves the World" closed July 2, 2009 at Electric Works, SF.





One Response to “Enrique Chagoya @ Electric Works”

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