February, 2011: Enrique Chagoya @ Gallery Paule Anglim

Enrique Chagoya, Time Out, 2009
Charcoal and pastel on paper, 80” x 80”
Courtesy of the artist and Gallery Paule Anglim

Enrique Chagoya: Works on Paper
Gallery Paule Anglim
14 Geary Street
San Francisco, CA
January 5 through 29, 2011

Historically, the work of Enrique Chagoya has been rooted in the long trajectory of the encounter and clash of European and indigenous American cultures. Chagoya’s work has explored the function and significance of cultural images as vehicles that represent the social values of historically variant ruling elites -- Mexica (Aztec), Spanish, and U.S. and others.

In Chagoya’s earlier work, from the late 1980s to mid-‘90s, the juxtaposition of conflicting cultural icons served as a means of commenting on colonial history(ies), cultural hegemony, and power relations. In those works, the destruction and displacement of sophisticated indigenous forms of thought and expression, and concurrent interjection of high Renaissance ideas through colonization and cultural dominance, were articulated by a focus on iconic intercultural collision, commenting on the ever-changing nature of social and cultural identity. In work from this period, the dominance of colonial culture was logically extended to the meta-culture of American commodity production, as represented in the guise of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Superman, et al., as a means of redefining these icons as global emissaries of cultural dominance, and exposing the nature of these images as cultural emissaries of meta-capitalist exploitation and oppression.

Enrique Chagoya, Illegal Alien’s Guide to the Concept of Relative Surplus Value, 2009
Color lithograph, 15” x 80” uf, 19” x 83” fr, edition of 30

Courtesy of the artist and Gallery Paule Anglim

More recently, Chagoya has said, “My artwork integrates diverse elements: pre-Columbian mythology, Western religious iconography, ethnic stereotypes, ideological propaganda from various times and places, American popular culture, etc. The art becomes a product of collisions between historical visions, ancient and modern, marginal and dominant paradigms - a thesis and an anti-thesis that end in a synthesis in the mind of the viewer. Often, the result is a non-linear narrative with many possible interpretations.” This orientation is discernable in the current exhibition, and situates a shift in Chagoya’s work over the last several years: an ideological re-positioning that might be best described as a change in artistic orientation, from a concern with addressing politics and history, to focusing on a nebulous politics of representation in the use of visual imagery.  
The works currently on view reference these concerns and are formed of a strategy that condenses and juxtaposes diverse visual elements, iconic personages, and symbols, presented here as free-floating signifiers that comment on ideologies embodied in images and texts. Here, the multiple components that constitute the images — which derived from diverse sources and places of origin — are spatially congealed so that they co-exist and operate simultaneously in pictorial time and space, and in dialogue with one another. This strategy seems to allude to social and historical interconnectedness, and to the semiotics of art making as a cultural practice that is rendered coherent through recognizable inherited conventions that are used to structure meaning.

In the current presentation, many of the signature formal strategies that have come to be identified with the form and content(s) of Chagoya’s work — the juxtaposing of images to signify the cultural contact, the large black-and-red charcoal format reminiscent of earlier works, and the synthesizing of references to ancient and post-conquest codices — are still in place. However, there is a critical qualitative difference between Chagoya’s earlier and current work, in that histories that surfaced in previous works, of expansion, genocide, territorial occupation, and resistance—which were central to identifying the ideological nature of images and which worked as a means of binding and identifying with acts of historical aggression, and the economic and suicidal ecological conundrum the world currently faces—have now been displaced by a general concern with the idea of “History” in the abstract, a subject area that is relativized in a comic free-flow of visual symbols that are formally equalized and divested of socio-political signification.

Enrique Chagoya, Histoire Naturelle des Espécies: Illegal Alien's Manuscript, 2008
Color lithograph, 11” x 74½” uf, 15 3/4” x 79” fr, edition of 30

Courtesy of the artist and Gallery Paule Anglim

Chagoya has stated that the work of the last few years has been “based on the idea that history is told by those who win wars, as previous historic accounts are erased, destroyed, re-mapped and re-named by rulers with new rules. As such, history is an ideological construction,” and thus Chagoya has “decided to invent my own account of the many possible stories—from Cortez to the border patrol.”  

While to a certain extent one can recognize the general validity of Chagoya’s position, the problem is that in the process of making that observation, he seems to have forgotten or overlooked the stakes involved in the nature of historical construction(s): that images and ideologies do not speak from equal positions of power, and that there are counter-hegemonic ideological discourses concerned with addressing historical realities and social issues, which are not purely conceptual, theoretical, or wholly consumed with self-indulgent compositional exercises—and that not all ideological positions or historical narratives are equally valid.  

In looking at the current exhibition, one wonders if the aesthetic and social concerns articulated by Chagoya in the past that reflected socio-historical genesis on a grand scale, as well as his own personal bicultural experience, have been subsumed or repressed as a result of cultural resignation and retreat.  

Interestingly, whether consciously or unconsciously, it is here that the cultural significance of the work and the subject of “history” may be socially redeemable, in that while Chagoya seems to have accepted a strain of postmodernism that privileges culture, diversity, and identity in the abstract—thus neutralizing them—as if these concepts in themselves represent social enlightenment, or constitute a critique of dominant social forces, by favoring a nebulous presentation of “history” as a visually amusing imaginary dialogue, he has in the process enunciated a symptomatic cultural predicament in which social and class distinctions and interests are rendered increasingly blurred and passé in contemporary society.

Within a world where the dissemination, inundation, and popularization of a range of images, which become familiar and easily identifiable by audiences who are bombarded by images, our shared experience and understanding of contemporary society seems to take place on relatively equal cultural footing, while the unequal economic structural inheritances that determine mass culture remain, are rendered given and natural, and are thus beyond question.

Enrique Chagoya, The Illegal Aliens Guide to Somewhere Over the Rainbow, 2010
Lithograph, 24.75” x 40.75”, edition of 30

Courtesy of the artist and Gallery Paule Anglim

Indeed, one wonders to what extent the current work serves as a form of visual semantics that is indicative of a cultural resignation that has accepted the futility of social struggle aimed at qualitative structural social transformation, in favor of an ideological orientation that has privileged aesthetic self-sufficiency. Such an orientation is part and parcel of Western cultural traditions that have privileged and projected their own aesthetic ideological values as “universal,” and in the guise of art for art’s sake, it militates against work with an overt or accessible social message, which may be aimed at demystification, issue identification concerned with the transformation of consciousness as a vehicle for social change, and the creation of art as a vehicle of solidarity centered in political identification.

That said, it is important to recognize and value that art practices maintain a level of relative autonomy from servicing a proscriptive political orientation or program, and venerate revolutionary formal art practices aimed at social commentary and critique through oppositional aesthetic and formal strategies, in all their complexity. If the current work seems to sidestep direct engagement with what can be identified or constituted as overt political art, one would hope that it does so in an effort to open up divergent artistic proposals relevant to nurturing greater aesthetic experimentation as a means of addressing complex social realities.

In this context, one hopes that the “political” is constituted more inclusively as an intervention where art functions as a form of resistance by means of affirming the “human”—however nebulously defined—in an otherwise repressive alienating world, in which people are separated from each other and from themselves in processes of social reification; to articulate that making, viewing, and the construction of meaning are multifold and integral to advancing the dialogical processes intrinsic to art making and interpretation, in an effort to address linkages between art practices, exhibitions, and the complex social structures that inform them in myriad forms.

Anthony Torres

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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