The artists who comprise the exhibition Chicano Visions: American Painters On the Verge — which opened last weekend at the Indiana State Museum — are becoming increasingly recognized for their contributions to the visual art canon, not just the Chicano visual art canon. Just as Native American artists are recognized in efforts such as the Eiteljorg Museum’s Fellowship of Native American Fine Art, these artists are brought to our attention in order to reveal a sensibility that is unmistakably unique. Further, these artists afford us the opportunity for cultural self-awareness and reflection — not to be taken lightly if we are to avoid the collective mistakes of our past.
Gronk ‘Perdita,’ from the ‘Chicano Visions’ exhibit at the ISM.
Actor and entertainer Cheech Marin, who spearheaded the effort to bring recognition to the Chicano school of painting, has collected Chicano art for more than 20 years. Largely culled from Marin’s collection, Chicano Visions is a stunning display — two galleries full — of Chicano art made in the past two decades. Rene Yanez curated the exhibit, which makes its first Midwest stop here, after which it will continue its national tour closing in 2007 at the L.A. County Museum of Art. What, indeed, makes this art significant? In a word, the art is stunning. Chicano artists utilize the effective tools of classical painters and time-honored styles — impressionism, abstract expressionism, photorealism, color field painting, graffiti art and muralism among them — and create imagery through the lens of their unique Chicano experience. As Max Benavidez writes in the essay “Chicano Art: Culture, Myth and Sensibility” in the Chicano Visions catalogue, “To take from one’s own culture, add elements from the American and European mainstream and avant-garde, and create something new is the hallmark of modern Chicano art.” Chicanos, as distinct from the larger term Latino, carry with them the unique experience of an already mixed culture, including their Aztec ancestors and the conquering Spaniards. The Southwestern U.S. is considered the land of Chicanos; but Chicano culture continues to spread its influence far and wide. (Marin loves to point out that salsa has superceded ketchup as the No. 1 condiment.) The art in Chicano Visions explores this tension of cultures, with hints of existential angst alongside cultural solidarity, and yet there’s a refreshing lack of self-consciousness here. Instead, the richness of the Chicano experience, from the rich Catholic faith to the zoot suit culture to violence in the barrio, is expressed in metaphorical bright lights and bold, sometimes surrealistic, imagery. Influences of well-known Mexican artists such as Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo are present here, but the contemporary experience of the artists drives the art and the passion behind it. To see it is to appreciate it truly. Chicano Visions: American Painters on the Verge and Chicano Now: American Expressions are on view through May 5 — Cinco de Mayo — at the Indiana State Museum in White River State Park, 650 W. Washington St., 232-1637 or www.indianamuseum.org. A variety of Chicano related special events are also planned at the museum and at other cultural venues throughout the city. Contact the ISM for details. For a complete list of artists in Chicano Visions and more information about the exhibition, visit www.chicano-art-life.com.