Often the most eagerly awaited guests don't show up at reunions. Such is the case with the Centro Cultural de la Raza's "Re-Union XX," an exhibition celebrating the Centro's 20th year in operation.
"Re-Union XX" functions neither as a representative survey of the Centro's visual arts programs, nor as a selection of its "greatest hits." Instead, the show is a diffused, blurred vision of the Centro's engagement with the arts. Some of the participating artists, such as Salvador Torres and Victor Ochoa, were founders of the Centro. Others, such as Alfred Quiroz and Graciela Ovejero, have exhibited there in recent years. All of the artists included have had some form of affiliation with the Centro, but the same is true of an even greater number of artists not included in the show.
The Centro, in Balboa Park's Pepper Grove, was born of a will for self-determination in the Chicano community, and for 20 years it has energetically lived up to its mandate to create, promote and preserve Indian, Mexican and Chicano art and culture. That will went flaccid in the planning of the current exhibition, however, and the result is less of a celebration than a polyglot parade of varying intentions and accomplishments.
Excerpts from some of the Centro's most powerful shows, by artists Esther Parada, Barbara Carrasco, Gronk, the Border Art Workshop (Taller de Arte Fronterizo) and others are scant or absent altogether. The arbitrary seems to have taken over the willful in the planning of this show, and the celebration suffers accordingly.
The show moves haltingly from simple sketches to allegorical tableaux, from commercial art to social documents.
Alfred Quiroz makes a dramatic return to the Centro with his large oil pastel drawing, "Christopher Columbus Discovers America and Introduces the Spanish Language." Here, he retells in his characteristic snappy, satirical style the story of an event long glorified and distorted by traditional American histories.
Columbus, surrounded by several of his fellow explorers, stands proudly on American soil, one foot firmly planted on the head of a native. He holds aloft a flag, whose central emblem is the gleaming bar of gold that hovers in Columbus' imagination. To one side, a dumbfounded explorer ponders a crude nautical map of India, wondering where they went wrong. Another sets foot and sword on a freshly decapitated native, while reveling in the glory of his gold loot. A pirate, pocked with bulging red sores, rapes a native woman, introducing to her culture a new disease.
In the background, a monk cheerily carries a large wooden cross to the shore, setting in motion a centuries-long course of exploitation, violence and oppression enforced in the name of Christianity. Quiroz's image, in black and white with gold, blue and red accents, may be exaggerated in style, but historically it is closer to the truth than most standard accounts, visual or verbal.
"Hispania," an installation by Graciela Ovejero, provides another of the show's sporadic, compelling encounters. A large square of raw canvas hangs from the wall by two long nails, whose forceful contact with the fabric appears to have caused it to bleed red paint. Ovejero's reference to martyrdom overlaps with a suggestion of sexism--the "His" in "Hispania" is underlined. Two gray, plaster-encrusted briefcases hang from the canvas, and five more form a semicircle on the floor beneath it. Their presence perhaps reinforces the artist's view of Latino culture as male-dominated, but Ovejero leaves the installation's meaning open.
Salvador Torres' sketches and paintings of the building of the Coronado Bay Bridge and the ensuing development of Chicano Park beneath its pillars lend a strong sense of history to this fragmented show. They provide brief, eyewitness accounts of an event that divided, then mobilized and unified the local Chicano community.
Other participants, such as Ochoa, David Avalos and Mario Torero also give the show a sense of historical weight, due to their continuing activism in the Chicano and larger community. Their work reflects on issues of identity, expression and belief, through a potent mixture of passion and humor.
The show continues through July 29.