By Anthony Torres
Creating New Roots, a retrospective exhibition of the work of artist Calixto Robles, is an integral part of San Francisco’s Mission Cultural Center’s celebration of its 30th anniversary.
Originally from Oaxaca, Robles has been an artist and instructor since 1988 at Mission Gráfica (Mission Cultural Center’s Graphic Art Department). Fellow instructor, and the exhibition’s curator, Juan R. Fuentes, states that Robles’ paintings and prints “deeply reflect the indigenous roots of his homeland…with powerful colors depicting the rich symbols inspired by myths of ancient Mesoamerica.”
Carlos Santana has said, “Calixto’s divine imagination gives birth through his heart, mind, and hands to painting, sculpture and lithographs, that become living children, masterpieces of joy.”
However from my perspective, the significance of the exhibition is in its articulation and condensation of a cultural history in which The Mission Cultural Center was instrumental — the struggle to create alternative spaces to present the work of Latino artists.
The current exhibition Calixto Robles: Creating New Roots is, after all, rooted in a fight for artistic self-determination and expression that arose in the 1960s and '70’s, resulting from ideological challenges to the economic and cultural status quo, and to general social crises of legitimacy and hegemonic authority since faced by various dominant cultural institutions.
In fact, these issues re-surface through the images and objects present in the exhibition, reflecting the lingering and often forgotten historic effects of widespread counter-cultural struggles that impacted various social spheres and academia, in the form of women's studies, Chicano studies, African American studies, and gender studies — all of which demanded greater social and structural transformation. This was manifested in the arts — and evidenced here — in processes that confronted and contested euro-americentric ideals and definitions of “quality” and “beauty”, and the development of culturally-specific exhibition spaces, which contributed to the emergence of contestational ideological and formal vocabularies.
These critical discourses were integrally connected to anti-colonial struggles, and domestically to dissident voices of protest from various marginalized groups in cities that had historically been oppressed and persecuted — like the constituency of The Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts.
It is therefore not surprising that (Calixto Robles was instrumental in organizing the recent exhibition OAXACA - (Testimonios de un Pueblo en la Lucha, an exhibition of woodcut prints from ASARO (Assembly of Revolutionary Artists), a group of artists who banded together in 2006 to support the resistance struggle against Oaxaca Governor Ulises Ruiz’s brutal suppression of striking teachers.
The posters, which covered the walls of Oaxaca City, functioned as a tool for denouncing the torture, disappearances, and killings of workers and protesters. They demanded freedom for political prisoners and an end to the repression of Oaxacan people in a struggle that is current and ongoing.
To a certain extent, Calixto Robles’ work in the current exhibition directly reflects the artistic values expressed by Mission Cultural Center, which were, and continue to be, instrumental in pushing for an inclusive re-definition of "American" art. And although the formal tactics in the various works articulate Robles’ personal sensibility beyond saying “we exist,” his work does constitute one very individual contribution to a diverse and complex subject area that is all too often “essentialized” as "Latino art,” even when the work reflects the desires and subjectivity of a particular artist.
In the various works on view, a broad range of iconic religious symbols and gestures, angels, animals, and objects coalesce to form a unified field that Robles says, “aims to articulate a universal oneness,” which he tries to draw on, channel, and use in the creative process of constructing his works.
The significance of Calixto Robles: Creating New Roots is that it demonstrates the continuing socio-historical critical importance of spaces like The Mission Cultural Center, which through artists’ representations, continue to press for inclusive and expanded declarative notions of what constitutes “art” as a human construct, and thereby facilitating intercultural dialogue in all its complexity.http://www.missionculturalcenter.org/
Anthony Torres is an independent scholar, art writer, and art appraiser. He has curated and traveled numerous exhibitions, and published extensively in Artweek, New Art Examiner, Art Papers and others. Additionally he researched and wrote the “Illustrated Chronology” and essay “Negotiating Space: The Sketch Books,” for the book, Frank Lobdell: The Art of Making and Meaning (2003).
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