In 1972, Betye Saar transformed such products as Darkee toothpaste and Aunt Jemima pancake mix into emblems of empowerment by depicting the black figures in aggressive postures (Jemima packs a pistol). A 1969 poster by Rupert Garcia couples an image of the black cook on the Cream of Wheat box with the slogan "No More O' This S---."
Decades later, blatant ethnic stereotypes used by artists to expose racist attitudes retain a genuine shock value. But in a time of often strident racial polarization and affirmative action backlash, the stakes have risen.
In "Same Difference," at Chapman University's Guggenheim Gallery, curator Maggi Owens has assembled work about minority cultures by 12 artists, some of whom are likely to get under the skin of normally open-minded viewers.
Though some of this work is simplistic and bluntly dogmatic, much of it raises uncomfortable questions with no easy answers. Enormous credit goes to the gallery and the university for taking the risk of showing such potentially inflammatory art in the name of broadening honest dialogue among viewers of different backgrounds and points of view.
Several of the artists operate on the theory that the only way to disarm degrading popular images of minorities is for members of those cultures to wrest control of them. It's the same approach that promoted the use of the epithet "queer" by gay groups.
So, for example, in "(Forever Free) Hello, I'm Your New Neighbor," painted with the simplified outlines and bright colors of a circus poster, Michael Ray Charles envisions the white homeowner's supposed private horror of living next door to an African American.
Below a cartoon-like image of harmony--white and black arms shooting out of side-by-side houses to shake hands--Charles paints the large, genie-like head of a black apparition with devil horns, a coin bank slot in his head and a grin filled with watermelon chunks and dancing black seeds.
Bruce and Norman Yonemoto use a different strategy in "Environmental Portrait" to spotlight the hapless theme of the "yellow peril."
The brothers juxtapose an anti-Japanese comic strip panel of World War II vintage, a studio photograph of two awkward young Japanese boys and a decades-old advertising cartoon for Pepsodent emblazoned with the scourge: yellow. The Yonemotos let their message seep gradually into the viewer's awareness, much as the original hatemongering relied on a network of muttered slurs and innuendoes.
Things become more problematic in William Anastasi's "Delay." Anastasi, a longtime conceptual artist who is not Jewish, has provocatively lettered the word Jew on top of a photograph of Jesus from Leonardo's "The Last Supper" and etched the German words "Ich bin Jude" (I am Jewish) on a piece of glass.
How appropriate is it for an artist to presume to speak for a group to which he does not belong? Is this a humanitarian gesture (as a human being, he feels a kinship with the 6 million Jews annihilated in the death camps) or is it a wrongheaded attempt to identify rhetorically with a minority group's persecution while remaining safely on the sidelines in real life?
And what about David Levinthal, a white artist who has produced a series of glossily attractive Polaroids of racist figurines? His "Untitled (Blackface Series)" includes images of a grinning Uncle Tom and a black woman in a piecrust-shaped apron holding a bowl and a grinning Uncle Tom.
By luring our gaze to the surfaces of these rarely seen objects, he reminds us of a shameful element in the history of American pop culture.
But the danger--beyond the obvious one of stirring up the same feelings the objects were made to promote--is that viewers' sense of relief (Thank goodness that stuff is passe!) may gloss over the lingering mental residue of these images in everyday life.
Other pieces in the show aim to rehabilitate demeaning images or counter them with nasty new caricatures of evil white people. Still another body of what might be called "positive stereotypes" (in this case, of gays) has developed a cult status over the decades.
Judy Baca transforms a dozing Mexican in a sombrero into a trio of ceramic sculptures that merge the silhouette of the racist figure with the dignified bulk of the ancient deity Chocmul. Painted imagery, partly drawn from recent news stories about barrio and border life, evokes the travails and inner strengths of Mexicans in the U.S.
Alfred Quitoz attempts a revisionist look at the Mexican War of 1846-48 as the greed-driven product of a racist society in his epic painting "Muneefist Destiny." The heavy-handed satire bristles with evil-looking Norte-americanos (including President James Polk) who spout crude sentiments in an exaggerated drawl.
More grandly symbolic, Filipino artist Manuel Ocampo creates a fantasy world charged with bitter irony in "Why I Hate Europeans."
Gathered in a map room for a dance of death are a sorry-looking bunch of 19th-century imperialists: the swell-headed; the cockaded; the epicene; the porcine; the creature whose sucked-in face spews effluvia. Affixed to the bottom of the canvas is a label for white shoe polish--as if even bootblack were tarred by association with the "natives" they must subjugate.
Tom of Finland, an illustrator with a huge underground audience among gays, was an oddly apropos choice for this show. His fantasy images of hunks in visored caps, sleeveless shirts, boots and skin-tight trousers with telltale bulges helped create a dress code by which homosexual men flaunted their attributes.
The drawings adroitly demonstrate how slippery a category stereotypical imagery can be, capable of uniting a proudly defiant minority or labeling it as crude, cunning or predatory. What emerges from this show is a sense of the deep emotional resonance of this imagery, and how much its power rests with the viewer's own perceptions.
* "Same Difference," through Friday, Guggenheim Gallery, Chapman University, 333 N. Glassell St., Orange. Hours: Noon-5 p.m. Monday-Friday; 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday. Free. (714) 997-6729.