This Middle Finger Is Pointed At You

Reach out and touch someone: Mel Casas's 'Humanscape 63'
Mel Casas

Inside the Weisman Art Museum, the click-clack of high heels reverberates throughout the hushed gallery's hallways. Words, if spoken at all, are usually whispered in this Frank Gehry-designed monolith of high art, and it's doubtful that the highbrow aspects of lame-brained buddy flicks are an everyday topic of discussion here. But on this October day, Cheech Marin is slouching in a high-design wicker chair in one the gallery's conference rooms, ruminating on the pot-smoking droopy-eyed character he once played alongside his partner in crime, Chong. "They were sophisticated characters in a naive setting," he says of the Up in Smoke duo. "We were winking at you."

Inside the gallery's main rooms, a neon image of a worm-nippled owl woman hangs alongside paintings depicting cars topple from freeways in the sky, violent images of the 1943 Zoot Suit Riots wave above a checkerboard background, and a hand winks at you with its middle finger. These are works from Marin's personal collection, and it's not so unusual that he would amass and promote such a vast array of Chicano art: Like his onscreen alter ego, these images embody a unique blend of naiveté and sophistication, he says.

The 26 artists in Chicano Visions: American Painters on the Verge eschew the predetermined conceptual and pop boundaries of modern high art in favor of creating publicly accessible images that illustrate an everyday reality. But Visions also tells a larger story about the Chicano movement. Less than 15 years after the U.S.'s "Operation Wetback" repatriation project of 1954, which on its first day of operation snapped 4,800 illegal and legal Mexican immigrants from the streets of their new Southwest homes and brought them back to Mexico, and a few years after Congress finally repealed the Bracero Treaty, which brought millions of Mexicans to the United States to work on farms for extremely low wages from 1942 to 1963, the movement emerged amidst the political dissent of the late 1960s. Organizations like the Mexican American Youth Organization (MAYO) and the G.I. Forum gained momentum as artists José Montoya and Esteban Villa expressed their activism through the Sacramento art collective Royal Chicano Air Force. Around the same time, in 1970, Visions curator Rene Yáñez founded Galeria de la Raza (Gallery of the People) in San Francisco.

Much of the early art in Galeria de la Raza was borne from el movimiento, and celebrated Chicano life through city mural projects and cultural heritage celebrations. Visions, which spans paintings from the late '60s onward, evokes a similar sense of community through individual expression. Yet the work on display here is so aesthetically and contextually wide-ranging, it's nearly impossible to create a working definition of Chicano art.

Humanscape 63 (Show of Hands) by Melesio Casas--who, at 75, is now one of the oldest artists in the Chicano movement--features hands in various poses extending from the lower half of the 1970 painting as if they were invading its canvas. An enclosed power fist, a hand posed in an okay sign, four hands spelling out "love" in sign language, and a finger and thumb clasping a joint sit alongside a giant chalk outline of a middle finger that engulfs the painting's center. Above the hand symbols is a graphic, monochromatic refiguring of Michelangelo's The Creation of Adam from the Sistine Chapel. Here, the naiveté of the image is rooted in its emotional rawness and the artist's willingness to juxtapose the sacred with the vulgar. Every hand gesture looks equally powerful as the middle finger tickles the fingertips of God. And, naive or not, the middle finger looks fabulous on the pristine walls of the Weisman.

Instead of redefining the sacred, Texan César Martínez redefines stereotypes by making them sacred. His 2001 painting Hombre que le Gustan las Mujeres (The Man Who Loves Women), for example, features a portly, red-faced man wearing an unbuttoned shirt that reveals a rough-hewn naked-woman tattoo and a haloed Virgin Mary on his chest. But by featuring a disdainful character with features so flawed they're cartoonish, Martínez transforms him into something wholly unique and deeply human.

Not everything in Visions is ironic or even didactic. Glugio "Gronk" Nicandro's abstract, surreal images explore love and death through chaotic paint swirls, while Patssi Valdez's vivid renderings of place and space look like colorful representations of childhood dreams. During the 1970s, both Gronk and Valdez were part of the L.A. artists' collective Asco, which is the Spanish word for "nausea"--the effect produced by the flowing images. In Valdez's paintings, the outside world connects to the inside one through open doors and windows that reveal different stories. The objects within them float and fluctuate until they're a part of each other, as if to show that identity shifts within a community in flux. In one painting, a young girl appears almost faceless in a glowing yellow dress as the sidewalk crumbles beneath her feet--a reflection of the cultural tension mounting in East Los Angeles during the 1970s.

Many of the paintings in Visions also explore Chicano spirituality, traditions, and Mexican history. In Wild Ride and Los Muertos, Leo Limón uses Aztec imagery and explosions of rich blues, pinks, and purples that glow like the afterlife. And Texas-born Carmen Lomas Garza explores family in 2001's Quinceañera, a folk-art-inspired snapshot of the celebration when a girl traditionally reaches womanhood. By creating a vibrant art community of their own, the artists in this exhibit give a big, chalk-outlined middle finger to the mainstream art world that denied them recognition. The museum where they're currently displayed may not be at the heart of the Twin Cities' burgeoning Latino culture. But from its origins, the intent of the Chicano movement was to educate a misinformed world about their culture--to become, as Marin might say, sophisticated characters before a naive audience. And walking through the Weisman's echoing rooms, you get the sense that the artists are winking so hard you can hear it.

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