In an epoch when polarization runs high and skins rub thin, the multi-ethnic Los Angeles Festival wants to nurture understanding between the diverse cultures on the Pacific Rim. Lurking behind this benign and healing impulse is the danger that the festival might fail to draw the right balance between ethnography and art. Too much of the one and the festival speaks only to the already initiated. Too little of the other and it disappoints an audience expecting entertainment or aesthetic delectation.
The problem nags at the most prominent art exhibition associated with the festival. Titled "CARA" (an acronym for "Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation"), it opened Sunday at UCLA's Wight Art Gallery and runs to Dec. 9. As a measure of its ambition, it will travel to seven museums around the country and includes about 130 works by more than 90 artists, including many collaborative projects and suggesting the communal urge that inspired the whole.
On one hand, it is an exercise in cultural history, out to educate--even indoctrinate--its audience, first in the history and mores of a U.S. subculture. But, unlike the recent "The Latin American Spirit: Art and Artists in the United States," "CARA" tightens the focus first to Americans of Mexican descent, then to that faction among them who wish to be known as Chicanos and as part of the Chicano movement. An interpretive glossary to be included in the show's yet-undelivered catalogue, defines the movement as social, cultural, political and out to assert and regain the civil rights in a community where some feel they have been lost. It defines Chicano as a "self-designating term for politicized people of Mexican descent in the United States."
Evidently, some Mexican-Americans regard the term as a slur. According to the glossary virtually all terms for Latin-descended U.S. citizens from Spanish to Latino to Hispanic are offensive to somebody, proving there is no consensus on the subject. U.S. citizens who call themselves "Americans" are generally regarded as arrogant as the whole continent is America, north and south. Chicanos embrace their handle as a symbol of identification with the poor and disenfranchised.
The main essay by Shifra Goldman and Tomas Ybarra-Frausto says the movement is centered in the Southwest. The geography is known to Chicanos as Aztlan and regarded as the ancestral home of the Aztecs. During the heyday of the movement, some Chicanos held it was plunder lost to the Anglos in the Mexican-American War and they wanted it back.
The exhibition traces the movement from 1965 to 1985. The essay reviews it from Cesar Chavez's organization of the United Farm Workers in the '60s to its tragic apogee in East Los Angeles during a huge 1970 anti-Vietnam War demonstration when newsman Ruben Salazar was killed by a tear-gas canister fired by a sheriff's deputy. It moves on to such cultural matters as the representation of Latinos in feature films like Gregory and Anna Nava's classic "El Norte."
A lot of this is informative if sometimes myopically biased but it does create a problem that is shared by the increasingly large numbers of exhibitions that want to link fine art to social and political issues. There is always a traumatic disjuncture between the intellectual and generalizing mind-set of the social historian and the intensely personal and specific operation of the artist. Even when the artist consciously shares the intellectual's goals, his creative product and its scholarly rationale repel each another like magnets turned the wrong way. They represent irreconcilable modes of human expression. Art is about organic feeling which is reduced to cold ideology by advocacy scholarship. The Chicano art movement is not well-known to the general culture. In L.A. we have seen such occasional museum exhibitions as the County Museum of Art's "Los Four" in 1974 and commercial gallery shows that have created individual reputations for such artists as the late Carlos Almaraz, Gronk and John Valadez, among others. "CARA" creates the impression that Chicano art was less an organized movement than a spontaneous expression.
Spontaneity is hard to define but very convincing, as when somebody suddenly slugs you. That is what the real art in "CARA" does and it's a big relief after all the polemic. The art also bursts unexpectedly into song or plants a big kiss on your kisser. You feel like you've been invited into the barrio to share the artists' most tender and angry feelings.
The trademark form of Chicano art is its powerful, raw murals, like the noted works of L.A.'s Judith Baca. They speak most clearly of a subculture struggling for internal cohesion and individual identity. Since murals can't be brought into an art gallery, they are represented, diluted, in a slide show. Other installations remained unfinished as vernissage festivities approached on Sunday, but the spirit was there.
The very first image encountered in the galleries is a woodcut by Carlos Cortez Koyokuikatl, a portrait including the phrase, "Art for art's sake is an absurdity." About three-quarters of the work echoes that sentiment. It's out to be forceful, idealistic, heartfelt and funny rather than perfect. You want generosity? Look at Amalia Mesa-Bains' "An Ofrenda for Dolores del Rio." There are works echoing the artists' admiration for Mexican Surrealist Frida Kahlo but only one of them--by Yreina D. Cervantes--approaches the quality of Kahlo's art. Admiring memories of the great Mexican revolutionary muralists, Rivera, Siqueiros and Orozco, are everywhere with a dollop of Posada and a whiff of Tamayo thrown in. Yet none of the Chicano artists display the masters' command of materials, heroic scale or symbolic savvy.
The style of what we see here is that of neighborhood art. Even markedly professional artists like Luis Jimenez retain an aura of home-grown funk. Rather than taking that immediately as a shortcoming, let's look at it as a diagnostic symptom. It's really not unlike what we've seen coming out from the now-liberated Soviet underground. It's art made to express intimate feelings to be shared with friends and family without consideration of a larger audience.
It would be a shame to change the candor of Carmen Lomas Garza. Her gentle poetry is already complete in "Camas Para Suenos" where we see mother making the beds while the kids lounge on the roof dreaming at the moon. Gilbert Lujan's Pachuco dogs and Aztec-jaguar lowriders have already been ripped off as boutique knickknacks, proving he can't afford to get much slicker.
"CARA" shows a complete sensibility. It's socially concerned, inbred, romantic, proud, nostalgic, ceremonial, masochistic, fetishistic and original. Where would the Anglos have been for fashion after World War II without the zoot suit?
Any art judged by sensibility is of interest just as all people are of interest. "CARA's" collective look becomes a simile of a stay-with-the-gang subculture. That works among the home folks but in a larger world, it's different--as proven by the growth of numerous artists here. Now they are in the Wight Gallery, which once housed a retrospective of Henri Matisse. That raises the ante just as society does when Junior moves out and has to please an objective boss, not just his mom and buddies.
The most successful single body of work here are the photographs. Maybe that's because a demand for technical savvy is built into the medium. Ricardo Valverde's "Boulevard Night" doesn't lose an ounce of eloquence from being well composed and printed. Technique enhances the dark glamour of a barrio street cruise and a girl with Egyptian eyes. Photos are also ideally suited to exhibitions with a sociological bias, as witness the work of Harry Gamboa Jr., Adam Avila and others.
Graphic art looks strong because it's learnable and a natural medium for propaganda. Rupert Garcia's red barbed-wire image " Cesen Deportacion!" is as good as any prime Cuban revolutionary poster, but his striking image of Zapata falls apart. It's a drawing problem around the jaw line and that's odd because a lot of the more cartoony work shows immense natural facility.
To paraphrase the moribund comedian, "Dying is easy, painting is hard." More paintings are blown among "CARA" works than in any other medium. Daniel Galvez's dogged, hyperreal "Homegirl" is a triumph of expression over art. The tough lady stands there in her T-shirt and the image is so present it nails us to the wall. But no thanks to Galvez's worriful paint handling. Baca has similar problems in "The Three Marias." When you have to agonize too much it hurts the work.
"CARA's" art rarely shows Chicano artists at their best. The exhibition proves that combining art and sociology is still a dicey business requiring more skill than was shown here. More importantly, "CARA" proves that the issue of quality in art will not go away. Some commentators are insisting these days that quality is a code word for the judgmental domination of white males. Nonsense. That's not what the word means. Quality has to do with every person's desire to get better, to express themselves with greater eloquence, force and finesse. The best artist in "CARA" wants to do that. So do I. So do you.