Chicano artists reign at museum

Forest Lawn Museum in Glendale ushered in Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept. 15 through Oct. 15) with the opening of “Adelante! Mexican American Artists: 1960s and Beyond,” an exhibition of paintings, prints, sculpture and photography that delineate the history, culture and religion of the Mexican American community.

The artwork speaks of the Mexican American journey, the people’s sense of identity, family, respect of past and persistence for their posterity.

Much of the art is rooted in the spiritual and political sensibilities of the Chicano community, whose identity is derived from ancient Mexican tradition. Mayan and Aztec symbolic language informs several of the works displayed, serving as a sort of visual anthropology. These, along with Catholic iconography in its pure form as well as hybrid narratives, define the importance of the indigenous sources and history of Chicano identity.

“King Jaguar One Man Army” and “Queen Jaguar with Love” (both oil on canvas, 2008) by Heriberto Luna are decorated with Mayan hieroglyphs, an early form of graffiti (writing or painting on public surfaces), repeated in flat contiguous patterns, forming three-quarter profiles of ancient Mayan deities.

A vivid primary blue and purple palette describes the queen, who holds a tall scepter in one hand, with an ornamental birdlike headdress. King Jaguar is defined with green patterns and holds a long, weapon-like scepter. The individual icons that make up the patterns represent lightning, jaguars, weather, medicine and many others. They are both primitive and modern.

One can imagine Luna’s images as fresh hieroglyphic paintings that adorned the magnificent architecture of his ancient ancestors. Luna’s grandmother spoke two dialects of Mayan, so his point of reference is very near. Luna has exhibited his work in many major museums and has received numerous awards for his accomplishments. He is a positive influence, as he continues to teach and mentor in order to serve his community and preserve his heritage.

From concrete to canvas, Leo Limon began his artistic journey painting public spaces; former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan labeled him “L.A. River Cat Artist” for his habit of painting storm drains and covers in graffiti style, which always included a signature cat face. Limon was one of several artists who initiated “Self Help Graphics and Art,” a culturally oriented artist collective whose mission was to promote the positive aspects of the Chicano community.

Limon exhibits a painting titled “Mas Juegos” (“More Games,” acrylic on canvas, 2000). It is abstract and loaded with Aztec symbols. A black under painting provides good contrast for the layers of lightning and un-described action. The depth is brilliant. “Mas Juegos” belongs to the Cheech Marin Collection — Marin has been an avid supporter of the arts.

The 1960s and ’70s were rife with demands for social change and political activism. Sociopolitical organizations formed to achieve equality, economic justice and civil rights. Civil Rights icon Cesar Chavez inspired change in the labor movement.

Militant support toward effecting a change is depicted by Mark Vailen, whose realistic figurative painting titled “La Causa” (“The Cause,” oil on canvas, 2011) depicts a young woman wearing the uniform of the brown berets, a Chicano militant group who rebelled against social and political injustice toward the Mexican American community. With her profile in the foreground, the young woman gazes at the viewer through her mirrored reflection. Not more than a teen, she is fastidiously uniformed in a white blouse, sporting the patches that represent her cause. A neat, long braid organizes her hair to accommodate the symbolic brown beret.

Vailen’s work is academically excellent in its representational quality. He is inspired by the pre-20th-century practice of using art to comment on and document history.

Art became a collective voice for change. Mexican American artists became master muralists, printmakers and photographers, using public spaces to publicize their protest, celebrate their faith, preserve their culture and record their history. Persistence and excellence have expanded the possibilities for Mexican American artists, who today exhibit in some of the finest museums and galleries in the world.

TERRI MARTIN is an art historian and art critic for Marquee.


What: “Adelante! Mexican American Artists: 1960s and Beyond”

When: Through Jan. 1. Open daily except Mondays, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Where: Forest Lawn Museum, 1712 S. Glendale Ave., Glendale

Cost: Free

Contact: (800) 204-3131 or

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