The museum's initial resistance, explains Noriega, was based on its reluctance to showcase private collections.
The very timing of these back-to-back shows raises some questions. Is the museum again signaling a generational split? Is it drawing a line between the young artists of "Phantom Sightings" and the older ones in the "Marin Collection"?
"I would hope not," says Noriega. "I would hope that people would attend both shows and come out and go, 'Wow, these are some pretty big bookends for a category called Chicano art! I would like to see some of the stuff that comes in between.' "
"Phantom Sightings" does not attempt to present a survey of Chicano art from the last show to the present, as if the museum were trying to pick up where it left off in 1975. "We thought it would be a disservice to the field to do that kind of show because in some ways it would sanction the idea that institutions can kind of catch up every one to three decades," says Noriega. "Besides, it's an impossible task, in many ways doomed to failure like the Whitney Biennial. No, we do much better if we accept the institution's commitment to ongoing activity in this area."
CONTEMPORARY Chicano artists are working in a social environment vastly different from the days of the Chicano movement. In Los Angeles, to begin with, the Latino population has boomed, putting demographic pressure on cultural institutions to respond. Recurrent waves of immigrants constantly revive the issues of marginalization and social acceptance, even as the offspring of previous generations progress up the social ladder, taking leadership roles as politicians, academics and curators, which were practically nonexistent 30 years ago.
Most of the artists in "Phantom Sightings" were born in the 1970s and live and work in Los Angeles. The oldest is 52 (not counting ASCO); the youngest 27. All have advanced degrees, 20 with masters of fine arts, most from California schools. Only two were born in Mexico.
Whether they call themselves Chicano or not, several artists explore issues of class and culture inherent in their backgrounds. In many cases, artists transform mundane objects from their everyday experience to make imaginative or pointed statements with the byproduct.
El Paso artist Adrian Esparza, for example, unspools the threads of a multicolored Mexican serape to create an abstract geometric pattern, thereby "taking artisanal traditions and using them in a postmodern way," as Fox puts it. Margarita Cabrera, also from El Paso, uses fabric from U.S. Border Patrol uniforms to create realistic cactus sculptures that conjures "a conceptual link between an unforgiving landscape and the relatively recent criminalization of border crossing," as Noriega explains in the catalog.
Perhaps the most obvious example of the mundane exalted as art is Ochoa's use of his family's tortilla delivery truck as a mobile art gallery. The L.A.-based artist emptied the interior of the slab-sided 1985 Chevy van and "just tricked it out" with white walls, track lighting and linoleum flooring and invited his friends to create projects for the road.
He called it "Class C," for the DMV's commercial license category, and did 75 shows from 2001 to 2005, "bringing contemporary art to the neighborhood and not dumbing it down." "I was the collaborator, curator, driver, installer and mechanic," says Ochoa, one of five artists in the exhibition who attended Otis College of Art and Design and one of six with MFAs from UC Irvine. "I'd move it around as far as my Triple-A miles would take me because it would break down and I had to tow it back."
Ochoa, born in Oceanside to Mexican immigrants, was practically raised inside that van, recruited like so many of his first-generation peers to work in their parents' business. Yet he represents a new generation of Chicanos who want to be identified primarily by their work, not their background, even though their barrio shapes their art.
"It's laid in the work, but it doesn't have to be highlighted," he says. "A lot of my work deals with different class tensions, boundaries and barriers, but it doesn't have to be solely the Mexican American experience."
For Gamboa, the former ASCO tagger, it doesn't matter what you call it as long as you give it a chance. "It's always been my contention that Chicanos are a co-equal culture and capable of participating and sharing and contributing," he says. "At some level, [the show] just gives people hope that it's possible to actually create work and have it recognized as being art."