“Freedom of Expression: The Work of Enrique Chagoya” is at the Kala Art Institute through July 6. Photo: Eric Hoffman

In our wired era of ubiquitous information and perpetual image bombardment, all of human history, cultural production included, is online and available for plunder: to sample, remix, recycle and repurpose. This embarrassment of riches has not been lost on artists. In music, film, TV, literature, performance, visual art, you name it, today’s artists steal voraciously from everywhere.

But when everything is up for grabs 24/7, it’s a rare artist who can exploit this vast archive to make distinctive works that speak eloquently to our contemporary condition. Maybe it takes an artist who’s a cultural hybrid him- or herself, who inhabits disparate communities and has a polyglot sensibility, to craft unexpected and compelling forms from the multifarious influences we are bathed in from birth.

Berkeley is currently hosting two exhibitions by contemporary visual artists who meet, even exceed, the requirements for inspired appropriation: “Freedom of Expression: The Work of Enrique Chagoya” at Kala Art Institute through July 6, and Nicole Eisenman/MATRIX 248 at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive through July 14.

Both artists mine the visual riches of art history and popular culture. Both are hyper-aware of current social, economic and political realities. And both transmute these resources into densely allusive, complex works that comment — with biting humor, in sorrow and in anger — on our lives right now.

This review comes in two installments. Below is the first, on the work of Enrique Chagoya. The second, on Nicole Eisenman, is coming soon.

Freedom of Expression: The Work of Enrique Chagoya

For starters, let me say that this exhibition is a must-see, not just for art lovers but for anyone interested in the ways that art can catalyze dialogues on politics and social justice. It will also amaze and delight anyone — young people included — who want to experience a true mashup virtuoso in action.

Co-organized by Peter Selz and Sue Kubly, “Freedom of Expression” is a mini-retrospective survey of three decades of work by this Bay Area-based, nationally known, politically engaged artist. The arresting installation includes prints, large charcoal and pastel drawings in Chagoya’s dramatic black, white and red palette, three-dimensional objects, and codices. While almost all of the work here is compelling, for me, the codices are the stars of the show.

Three charcoal-and-pastel drawings by Enrique Chagoya at Kala Art Institute. Photo: Eric Hoffman

Enrique Chagoya was born, raised and educated in Mexico City before he moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he earned art degrees at the San Francisco Art Institute and UC Berkeley. Apart from sojourns in France, he has lived and worked here for decades, is a professor of art at Stanford University, and became a U.S. citizen in 2000. Immersed early on in Mexican history and iconography, as a child Chagoya also absorbed pan-American popular visual culture: cartoons, comic books and action heroes. He grew up with Mickey Mouse and Superman amidst the ruins of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlán, destroyed by Spanish conquistadores in 1521.

As an artist and citizen, Chagoya is an impassioned and informed social and political activist and commentator. The theme of conquest is the connecting thread throughout his work, but he expands the definition of that term. Beyond the appalling slaughter and wholesale destruction of the ancient civilization from which he descends, Chagoya extends the meaning of conquest to encompass all power relationships between the dominant and the dominated, the victor and the vanquished, the included and the excluded. Conquest, he shows, can be imposed by ideology — economic, political, religious — and through TV screens, movies and the Internet, as well as by the sword or drone. Brainwashing and intimidation are forms of conquest, too.

“Their Freedom of Expression… The Recovery of Their Economy,” 1984, depicts a Ronald Reagan-faced Mickey Mouse as a graffiti artist, daubing, presumably in blood (his paint can contains a dismembered foot), “RUSSKIES AND CUBANS OUT OF CENTRAL AME…” on an appropriately whitewashed wall. At his feet, a Henry Kissinger mini-Mickey, similarly equipped, scrawls “BY THE WAY, KEEP ART OUT OF POLITI…” Freedom of expression is reserved, the piece implies, for those whose economy has recovered most.

“Their Freedom of Expression… The Recovery of Their Economy,” 1984. Charcoal and pastel on paper. Collection of the San Jose Museum of Art. Gift of Enrique Chagoya with additional support from the Collection Committee, in honor of the San Jose Museum of Art’s 35th anniversary. 2003.39 Photo: Douglas Sandberg

Chagoya’s drawings are political cartoons writ large. They’re indebted to the 20th-century Mexican muralists Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros; 19th century political cartoonists José Posada (known for his drawings of lively calaveras, or skeletons), Honoré Daumier, and George Cruikshank; graffiti art; and Latino agitprop poster graphics. Like all of Chagoya’s work, the drawings invade you subliminally with their multiple allusions and humor, and consciously through their topicality and graphic impact. It’s a double whammy.

The Spanish artist Francisco Goya (1746-1828) is probably Chagoya’s most profound and lasting inspiration. His etchings based on Goya’s “Disasters of War” project the same dark vision and bitter humor. They are altered so skillfully and subtly that they might be mistaken for forgeries until you notice the contemporary updates. A policeman aims a canister of pepper spray, not a rifle, at terrified, cowering civilians in “No se puede mirar / Cannot watch (After Goya’s Disasters of War),” 2012. In “Contra el bien general / Against the General Good,” 2003, Ronald Reagan’s head replaces that of the evil monk in Goya’s original.

“No se puede mirar / Cannot Watch (after Goya’s Disasters of War),” 2012. Aquatint etching. Courtesy of the artist and Boston University Red Press Editions. Photo: Eric Hoffman

Chagoya’s work is always responsive to — even prescient about — current events. As I write, U.S. citizens are wrapping their heads around revelations of secret and pervasive government surveillance of their telephone calls and emails, aided and abetted by powerful multinational corporations. Chagoya’s 2012 monotype “The History of Surveillance” depicts a skeleton seated on a toilet, presumably a bastion of privacy. It is reading a book titled The History of Surveillance, overlooked by a giant disembodied eyeball snaking out from the eye in the pyramid of the U.S. dollar bill.

“The History of Surveillance,” 2012, by Enrique Chagoya

It’s in his codices that Chagoya makes the most compelling use of his panoptic vision and eclectic grabs. He began creating codices in 1992, the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage to the New World. There are eleven so far.

The Mesoamerican codex (pl. codices) originated around 300 AD, independent of outside influence. It is an accordion-folded illuminated manuscript on amatl (amate) paper handmade from pounded tree bark and painted with colorful images and texts, reading from right to left in the indigenous glyph-based writing system of the Aztecs, Mayans and Mixtecs. When the Spaniards arrived, they found thousands of these books in Aztec and Mayan libraries, on every conceivable subject, and burned most of them. The few survivors are mostly in Europe. Once the colonizers settled in, new codices appeared, invaded by Old World imagery and Catholic iconography.

In his updated versions, Chagoya retains the same format and traditional amate paper as the originals. It is a potent gesture of reclamation. But he subjects the paper, which is almost sacred in Mexico, to printing processes and media that were nonexistent in pre-Conquest times: lithography, color xerox transfer. The new “narratives” he inscribes have absurdist contemporary titles: “The Adventures of the Modernist Cannibals” and “Illegal Alien’s Guide to the Concept of Relative Surplus Value.” They are marvelous yet unreadable to anyone who expects a logical, linear story line.

Instead, they act suggestively and allusively, like dreams or hallucinations, combining Mesoamerican glyphs and designs with printed or painted imagery from European, African, Latin American and Asian art history, religious iconography, pop culture images from vintage and modern comic books, cartoons, science fiction, commercial advertising, and contemporary art. Many of the figures resemble Dada-esque “exquisite corpses”: hybrid creatures with Mesoamerican heads and 21st-century bodies, for instance.

The texts — oblique commentaries, snatches of dialogue — are equally wide-ranging, from Karl Marx to impenetrable artcritspeak, and in a Babel of languages: Nahuatl, Spanish, French and Japanese as well as English, sometimes mixed together. “Habla Aramaic?” asks one Aztec-headed femme fatale. “Tu connais Gustave Moreau?”

You get the gist of their themes, and the humor. The sense of moral urgency that pervades all of Chagoya’s work comes across loud and clear too. But, as with the surreal collages of the late San Francisco artist Jess, you have to go with the mesmerizing, opaque associative flow. It’s all in the details and juxtapositions.

“Illegal Alien’s Guide to the Concept of Relative Surplus Value,” 2009. Codex color lithograph. Courtesy of the artist and Gallery Paule Anglim. Photo: Mayumi Hamanaka

His intention with these works, Chagoya says, is to invent a “reverse anthropology.” He wants the codices to reimagine historic narrative as if Mesoamerican — not European — culture had prevailed. Yet they also consciously resist the notion of a “dominant narrative” with their democratic inclusion of fragments of many multicultural narratives. With so many voices heard from, who is the colonizer, who the colonized?

While Chagoya’s work is beautifully installed at Kala, the guest curators’ effort is incoherent and does not serve the artist well. Selection of pieces could have been tighter and more focused, and some of the weaker pieces omitted. The lack of interpretive text and guidance about the chronology, evolution, context and content of the objects on view is disappointing, even negligent. Chagoya deserves better.

“Freedom of Expression” is still a great introduction to Enrique Chagoya’s work. I urge you to see it before it closes on July 6.

Co-curated by Peter Selz and Sue Kubly
Kala Art Institute through July 6
2990 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley

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