Last October, Enrique Chagoya received that rare “honor” of having his work attacked — literally. A self-identified fundamentalist Christian took a crowbar to Chagoya’s The Misadventures of the Romantic Cannibals at the Loveland Museum in Colorado, claiming that the work’s depiction of Jesus Christ receiving oral sex was sacrilegious. The incident sparked several protests and counter-protests, as well as an attempt by a local councilman to defund the museum if it did not remove the work. Chagoya defended himself not only on first amendment grounds, but by patiently explaining his intentions and by attempting to encourage dialogue with the local Christian community.
Regardless, such an incident, alongside the recent removal of David Wojnarowicz’s video A Fire in my Belly from the Smithsonian, not only demonstrates the ongoing intensity of the culture wars in this country, but also the continuing effect that political art (as well as nonpolitical art that has become politicized) can have on audiences outside of the echo chamber of mainstream art world. Indeed, one of the challenges facing political artists in the U.S. is how to reach both inside and outside the dominant institutional frameworks of critics and collectors who enjoy the satisfaction of “recognizing the critique,” as long as that critique is aimed at someone else. Thus, the recent controversies in Loveland and Washington can be seen as wake-up calls for those who cynically imagine that political art can no longer provoke serious response and debate.
Chagoya’s recent exhibit Surviving Paradise/Sobreviviendo el Paraíso, curated by Robert Wuilfe for the di Rosa Preserve in Napa, showcased several new works that, while not shying away from controversy, also demonstrate the diversity of his practice, both in subject matter and materials. To be sure, there was little chance of protest in the relatively staid setting of Napa Valley, but the exhibit still popped with bold and brazen attitude. With few exceptions, Chagoya, in his new work, shows no evidence of resting on his laurels or on easy liberal platitudes. His intensely cross-cultural and trans-historical aesthetics continue to resist surface-level interpretations, demanding that we attend to the tangled complexities of politics and culture in a postcolonial world of oppression and resistance.
While almost all the works in the show were made in the last couple of years, visitors are initially greeted by When Paradise Arrives¸ an iconic work from 1988. It features the giant gloved hand of Mickey Mouse inscribed with the words English Only, poised to flick a woman of color out of the frame. Several large new works shared with this earlier piece the template of black charcoal on white paper, with bold borders and slashes of red. In “Time Out” (2009), skeletons golf as speech balloons offer ironic questions about the meaning of art, and in two 2010 canvases, Untitled (Homage to José Clemente Orozco), historical figures like Gandhi and the Dalai Lama are situated amidst crowds of marching figures.
Both drawings are dominated by a monstrous figure with eight snake heads and writhing feet. Their ominous nature is balanced by ambiguity, a characteristic that carries over into other works where Chagoya’s cat or some other seemingly minor elements add a carnivalesque feel, as if George Grosz or Max Beckman had been sharing drinks (if not stronger substances) with political muralists such as Orozco that Chagoya is in clear conversation with.
In other works, set in more surrealist landscapes, political violence and dread are thematized with a sense of uncanny poetics, all rendered with deft use of collage and color. In My Cat Santos had a Nightmare (2010), a crowd of seeming outcasts positioned against a background of flaming ships symbolizes a revolt or catastrophe. In Homage to the Un-Square and My Cat Frida (2009), the cat is again in frightful flight, this time through a modernist living room replete with a color-field painting on the wall. Art references appear again in Orozco Meets Victor Hugo at the Auction House (2009), where the snake-headed monster meets Hugo among several other art figures and figurines, each affixed with a sales tag.
In “Too Big” (2009) the hydra-headed reptile/figure reappears. It’s confronted by a small briefcase toting figure whose speech balloon is a name tag that reads “Fuck off” – an apparent reference to the bank bailout. The Headache (2010) portrays President Obama as George Washington sitting at the fire, berated by a posse of small devils with trumpets and axes. Atlas and the Arugulas (2008) shows Obama as Atlas, the globe balanced on his shoulders, as he marches with an unsavory mix of characters into an uneasy future. While using allegory to map out the difficult political challenges Obama faces, these works are not merely hagiographic or heroic portrayals. Indeed, just as much of the idealist hope invested in Obama has faded into disappointment, Chagoya here demonstrates ambivalence about our desire to have one leader take the world onto his back for us, or to expect that a single savior can meet our lofty expectations.
Chagoya’s recent sculptural works also comment on the current economic crisis and its underlying machinations. 2012: Super-Bato Saves the World (2009), a slot machine, is customized to represent the Vegas-style risk culture of the stock market, where the odds seem to be fixed in favor of the house. Pyramid Scheme (2009), a pyramid-shaped stack of green Campbell’s soup cans, takes Warhol into the realm of political economy, with flavors such as Wall Street Gumbo and Ponzi Chowder.
One Recession Watchdog (Instant Update) (2011), a mixed-media contraption of wood and electronics, forged into a pulsing dollar bill, flashes a running total of the national debt as it rises second by second. While playfully commenting on the current crisis, these works — the debt monitor in particular – gloss over too many subtleties, most notably how rising national debt has been invoked to justify brutal cuts to social services, not to mention a war on the middle class through union busting.
It’s easy to categorize Chagoya as a left-leaning political artist. But it’s notable, too, that his major works almost always employ historical events, both near and distant. In his poignant cross-cultural mash-ups, where repressed indigenous icons return to a Disney-fied America, and art historical figures dance through cartoon vistas of transnational intrigue, Chagoya explores a terrain where, as he has said, “all cultures meet and mix in the richest way, creating the most fertile ground for the arts.” For Chagoya, art trumps didactic moralism. He resists the shop-worn models of celebratory postmodernist cultural hybridity and knee-jerk anti-Western cynicism. Thus, his art continues to remain politically and aesthetically potent for those willing to go beneath its multi-layered surfaces.
— DAVID BUUCK
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Enrique Chagoya: “Surviving Paradise/Sobreviviendo el Paraíso” @ di Rosa Preserve through April 16, 2011.
Enrique Chagoya is represented in San Francisco by Gallery Paule Anglim.
Cover image: The Headache.
David Buuck is a writer who lives in Oakland, CA. He is the founder of BARGE, the Bay Area Research Group in Enviro-aesthetics, and co-founder and editor of Tripwire, a journal of poetics.