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Un muy high grotesque :Neo-Mexicanism and Chicano Art in the 1980s

by Annabela Tournon

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Identified through various movements restoring the humanist notion of painting (whose death certificate had nonetheless been duly signed by the picture artists group and its critics1), the history of the 1980s reiterated the story of the return to order of the 1930s, when the avant-garde had folded and the fans of order and progress regained the upper hand. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, avant-gardists therefore succeeded the Thatcher, Reagan, and Mitterrand years, the return to figuration and to the subject, in every sense of the term. But against the discourse of the likes of Barbara Rose, arguing for the virilist need to paint, the example of neo-Mexicanism and Chicano art allows a flipside to be presented. Because, if painting has made a comeback, it was precisely in order to deconstruct the great modernist narrative that it did so.

Through posters, murales, and altares2, Chicano art accompanied the protests from the latino, Mexican-American, Chicana3 community, aligned with the civil rights movements of the 1960s in the United States. Chicano art notably falls within the period immediately following the invention of the “teatro campesino”, an artistic form organically linked to the movimiento of the 1965-1985 period, which replayed and divulged the stakes of the social and political struggles of the hour, addressing a wider community. The Chicano researcher and activist Tomas Ybarra-Frausto4 stresses that Chicano art and culture, to which the rasquache sensibility is attached, is an art and culture de los de abajos, or a working-class culture5, stemming from a political and economic diaspora. The formation of this minority dates from 1848, when the United States and Mexico redefined the borders of their respective countries after a war, to the detriment of the latter. As the expression “the border crossed them” makes clear, it was well before the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), followed by the economic crises that made more women and men take the road north. Chicano art relies on the appropriation of Mexican national insignia. The Virgin of Guadalupe, the cactus, the bleeding heart, Death, the flag, Aztec and Mayan glyphs, the resistance figures of the Conquest such as Cuauhtémoc, those of the Mexican Revolution such as Zapata, the self-portraits of Frida Kahlo, but also Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros’s murales, conveyed the affirmation of identity of brow pride. Over the course of the movimiento period, artists from Chicana communities such as Rupert Garcia, Yreina D. Cervantez, Yolanda M. Lopez, and Malaquias Montoya, not to mention numerous collectives, such as Los Four, Asco, and Royal Chicano Air Force, made the iconography of the Mexican school of painting a working-class iconography, representing the concerns of a minority community. In a landmark article, “Rasquachismo: a Chicano sensibility”6 (1987), Ybarra-Frausto suggested analysing this taste, attitude, and sensibility of the art and life of the Chicana community in which the ornamental and the surface prevail.

The cursi of the neo-Mexicanists apparently corresponds to Chicano rasquachismo, even if the latter term retains a militant connotation whereas the former seems apolitical, and without the industrial connotations of kitsch. While the iconography is more or less the same in these two movements, the question of identity is not played out in each according to the same coordinates. For the neo-Mexicanist artists, whether with the representation of eroticised bodies by Javier de la Garza, the self-portraits of Monica Castillo, Nahum B. Zenil or Julio Galan, the question of identity was cut off from the community, which seemed to withdraw into a sense of self in crisis, just as the national iconography seems cut off from the values that it once ennobled. This concurs with the observations of a number of critics, who saw in the bad taste typical of neo-Mexicanism the sign of a culture exiled in its own country. An exile that can be understood both as alienation, insofar as Mexicanist iconography in its “neo” form was used to commodify the Mexican school of painting (this was what the joint development of neo-Mexicanism and the art market in Mexico seemed to suggest; note also that neo-Mexicanist painting is above all easel painting, unlike the murales of their predecessors and of the Chicano artists); and also as the sign of the decline of the Nation (neo-Mexicanism seen as the swan song of Mexicanity7, and hence as pictorial postmodernism). Finally, as I’ve said, neo-Mexicanism could be seen as the result of a two-fold appropriation: since it was less a national iconography than it was an iconography already in exile that the neo-Mexicanist painters appropriated.

The terms rasquache and cursi are aligned with the way in which Bakhtin deployed the term “grotesque” in his theory of the novel. Exile suggests linguistic adventures, from bilingualism to translation. In this sense, we might think that Chicano art would’ve produced the context of multilingualism that was indispensable for the emergence of neo-Mexicanism. Before Chicano art, Mexican iconography adhered to state monolingualism. But the Chicana appropriations created the conditions for the parody that neo-Mexicanism constitutes. The comparison between these two movements has been outlined a number of times, although often starting with the neo-Mexicanist artists and in the negative. Indeed, the latter often understated this cross-border filiation, as the art historian Teresa Eckmann notes: “Even though both groups draw from a shared visual vocabulary and cultural roots, neo-Mexicanists generally deny having taken lessons from Chicano artists.”8 However, it seems clear that Chicano art was a vital phase in the reinvestment of Mexicanist iconography that had long been absorbed by power and its representation. Neo-Mexicanism is well and truly the twin, the parodic distortion, the comic/ironic corollary of official Mexicanism. “After all, it is possible to objectivize one’s own particular language, its internal form the peculiarities of its worldview, its specific linguistic habitus, only in the light of another language belonging to someone else, which is almost as much ‘one’s own’ as one’s native language9” writes Bakhtin in his essay on the prehistory of novelistic discourse. Parody and distortion, grotesque forms, define the cursi of neo-Mexicanism. From the athletic poses of the Prince Cuauhtémoc clutching his pink toy steed, to the reversal of the national flag by Nahum Zenil, or the sad clown poses of Julio Galan, neo-Mexicanism appropriated the rasquachismo that Ybarra-Frausto defined by small touches in the article cited: “Muy (high) rasquache: being bilingual and speaking with an accent in both languages.” In other words, remaking the Mexican school of painting in Chicano mode.

Beyond the role of “theatricality” as a cornerstone or thematic of postmodernist (and grotesque) debates, the relationship with theatre of these two pictorial movements raises questions. Chicano art accepts theatricality from the outset, and it is in this redistribution of the values attached to cultural hierarchies that it is postmodern, by working between the “individual arts”, passing from easel painting to altares, from murales to theatre and performance. As for neo-Mexicanism, it emerged first as a pictorial movement, that had apparently undertaken from within (within the framework of the limits of painting) the project of deconstructing major narratives of the Nation and of painting, by targeting the (masculine) subject that went along with these. A few rare women nonetheless appear. In Llorar y suspirar [Cry and sigh] by Javier de la Garza (1991), we recognise an icon of pop music, Astrid Hadad, referring if not to theatre then at least to cabaret. Hadad began her career in the 1980s, by appropriating a repertoire of songs reserved for men, performing them on the stages of the equally masculine cantinas. Over time, she gradually took her shows a little further by creating costume-sculptures, which she wore in stagings that were at once grandiose and ridiculous, in which Mexican iconography was largely used. In the early days of her performances, the term “hard nopal” was used, a label evoking the syncretism of the songs in which she deployed a series of hard rock gestures to evoke the fate of Mexican women who are beaten, assigned to the home, and dependent on men, and all of this was set to well-known rancheras tunes. It was the period when she was frequenting a theatre group led by the couple Jesusa Rodriguez and Liliana Felipe. Turning their backs on the institutions, the project of this group of actresses was to appropriate the forms of popular spectacle – sketches and mime – and therefore the sites of the constructions of Mexican masculine identity. Hadad’s songs or Rodriguez’s sketches transform humour into an art of ambiguity, clichés are performed, themes are broached, without any kind of affirmation being formulated per se.
We are in the grey area of minority comedy and the female grotesque, to use Mary Russo’s term. They opened up spaces of resistance through wordplay. In this sense, Rodriguez’s sketches are barely comprehensible for those who do not know the Mexican language as it is spoken in the street10, just as the meaning of Hadad’s songs varies depending on the gender identification applied by the audience.

While the grotesque category makes comparisons immediately possible, and the possibility of equating artworks and objects that were seemingly designed to be distinguished, then this category is perhaps, like vulgar language, two things at once: an aesthetic category and a model for action. Transhistorical or even anthropological from an aesthetic point of view (its intuition in terms of the structure of the forms that seem to constitute the category),
it serves to bring illegitimate forms into an academic discourse. Tactical in its praxis, it also emerges as a model of action and subversion through laughter and ambiguity, and a resource for minority voices.

Notes

  1. Such as Douglas Crimp, critic and curator of the exhibition Pictures at the Committee for the Visual Arts in New York in 1977, who paved the way for the appropriationist approaches of artists such as Troy Brauntuch, Jack Goldstein, Sherrie Levine, Robert Longo, and Philipp Smith.
  2. Mural paintings, altars.
  3. Chicana/o comes from a verbal contraction of “mejicana/o”. In her article “A commentary on aspects of Chicana/o aesthetics” (in Mercer, K. (ed.) Pop and Vernacular Cultures, London: INIVA, 2007), Holly Barnet-Sanchez cites the definitions of the journalist Ruben Salazar: “A Chicana is a Mexican American with a non-Anglo image of himself,” and of the artist Santos Martinez “who referred to a Chicano as ‘a politicized Mexican American’.” 
  4. Tomàs Ybarra-Frausto is an academic and activist working since the 1970s on literature, latino and Chicano/a culture and art. He widely contributed to their institutional recognition, along with other personalities such as the theorist Shifra Goldman or the artist Amalia Mesa-Bains.
  5. The have-nots, the working class.
  6. Published several times since, including a translation into French for the exhibition catalogue of “Le Démon des anges, 16 artistes Chicanos autour de Los Angeles”, Nantes, Centre de recherche pour le développement culturel, 1989.
  7. Cf. Olivier Debroise. “¿
Un postmodernismo en México?”, México DF, México en el arte, n° 16, summer 1987.
  8. Teresa Eckmann. Neo-Mexicanism. Mexican Figurative Painting and Patronage in the 1980s, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2011.
  9. Mickhail Bakhtin, M. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M. M. Bakhtin Holquist, M. (ed.), Emerson, C. and Holquist, M. (trans). (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981 (1975)) Gallimard, “Tel” coll., 1987. 
  10. Elsewhere in Mexico, there is a way of speaking known as albur / albures that consists of saying two things at once: an authorised meaning and another, usually risqué, meaning.







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