Latino, Chicano, Hispanic, or any other term associated with Americans of Latin American and Spanish origin engages a polarizing discussion of identity within the contemporary art world. Never to suggest a right or wrong in a situation of self, terms that define personal heritage are often misconstrued with stereotypes perpetuated by popular culture. Whether these stereotypes debase or reinforce a cultural heritage in an increasingly saturated world is a conversation of opinion, but in the 20th installment of Young Latino Artists 20: WITHIN REACH, curator Ricky Yanas encourages a broad living.
Through works that re contextualize the ubiquitous and everyday, ephemeral, and pseudo spirituality, the exhibition has a calm breath reminiscent of intimate moments in a South Texas evening. That stated, the artists involved in the exhibition present a wide multidisciplinary background, dynamic outside of any labels.
I had the pleasure of interviewing curator Ricky Yanas and pose questions about conceptual context surrounding the exhibition.
In the exhibition statement located on the Mexic-Arte Museum website the statement is made “a possible future free of corrosive mainstream influences.” What specifically are you referring to?
I guess what I am talking about is a structure of values and opinions commonly held by the general public that is highly influenced by the coercive methods of advertising and public relations agencies working for profit driven industries in the United States and increasingly in the rest of the world. These values and opinions operate against our collective interests to blind us from witnessing ourselves as part of a commons, but drive us to make a few people very wealthy. These values and opinions are taught to us, and distributed by a complex network of images and messages manifested by the news and entertainment industries. The European avant-garde art collective of the 50s, the Situationist International, called this nebulous mechanism/entity “the spectacle.” Others have called it “normative culture,” “dominant culture,” bell hooks calls it “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.” Whatever you call it, its history and function have been very well described and reacted to by a number of very important artists, writers, and intellectuals throughout the 20th Century for instance: Walter Benjamin, bell hooks, Slavoj Zizek, Jean Baudrillard, John Berger, Edward Said, Stokely Carmichael, Malcom X, KRS-ONE, Angela Davis, Gloria Anzaldúa, etc. I would encourage you to read any or all of these people — it’s very exciting to get such precise articulations of such a complex idea.
What is your opinion of the phrasing “Chicano” artist and your overall opinion of the cultural classification of artists? Do you believe the labeling of individuals based on the cultural heritage of their birth is a positive or negative asset in the 21st century?
A positive, but the problem is that we think this is a limitation or that it should define the kind of work we make. It’s maybe a capitalist tendency to see things as brands within markets, as if once we have accepted this “label,” this “categorization,” then we must subscribe to it. But being humans, we are organic matter, fluid entities that shift and reform, and reclassify constantly. I was “Mexican-American,” now I feel more “Chicano.” These classifications and signifiers don’t have to be rigid containers, but maybe markers.
The label of “Chicano” is one of many labels we have. I am also an artist, a worker, a “team member” (employee), a renter, a contract laborer, adjunct faculty, a San Antonio native, a Philadelphian, etc. I use all of these at different times, in different contexts, to describe myself; sometimes I will use all of them in my artist statement. All of these labels contain some idea of who I am, but also act as a point of contact with another group of people. None of these say everything, but each can mean something significant.
I think it is more important now than ever to see where you come from. Global capitalism would have us think that stories of progress and individual success matter more than the smaller more delicate interrelations of communities and families working together to solve problems everyday. We forget the work of the people around us because the highly iconic images created to slang products are so powerful, manufactured and distributed with limitless budgets. It’s hard to see the heroes we meet daily, the figureheads of our family, and the leaders of our immediate communities. To recognize and embrace one’s familial or specific cultural heritage can be a greatly empowering thing especially in this society. We can draw power from our family histories that offer legitimate antagonistic material to the status quo. Could decency, hard work, integrity, honesty, transparency be radical resistance? Collective responsibility as avant-garde art practice? But to move this way, we must see what we have in common with our base, the people we know and feel. I think global thinking, that is, the aspiration to be recognized in a global market, can eradicate a foundation for actual movement. It’s ok to have your head in the clouds, but you need your feet in the ground. Right? That’s what my parents taught me and their parents taught them.
When making the selections for the artists who would be involved in the exhibition, based on the statement provided, they can be perceived as works that deal with the reconstitution of personal identity through the physicality of process and materials. Do you believe that topic and method of making could be a reaction within minority groups to post-colonialism and gentrification within America?
I could start with the idea of “rasquache,” which is a Spanish term of Aztec origin, used to describe artworks primarily by Chicano artists, that have a crude, makeshift quality to them, usually with an ironic or humorous tone. This kind of art making is not at all relegated to Chicano/Latino artists (see: Arte Povera, Neo-Dada, “Unmonumental: The Object in the 21st Century” (New Museum, 2007), etc.), but it has a particular significance in a culture of lack. If you do not have money for bronze, oil paint or academic art training, the result is an aesthetic of what’s available and what’s cost effective. I like to see the idea of “rasquache” as a kind of talking back a response to state approved signs, symbols, and art making.
Teresa Cervantes, Grimaldi Baez (who is Puertoriqueño), Isaiah Carrrasco, and Lauren Moya Ford all have a tendency towards an impromptu quality in the things they make. These quick and impulsive, the imperfect, and somewhat satirical tendencies are very much “rasquachismo.” Some of their works take American/Global capitalist messages and icons and flip them on their heads, or just straight up do not conform to any ideal of a perfect art object. Moya Ford asks important questions about the museum and about the Austin Latino community on two playful window paintings on Mexic-Arte’s exterior. “IS THIS OUR PLACE” (2015) and “ARE WE HERE NOW” (2015), both produced in-situ for the exhibition, are open-ended questions but resonate deeply depending on who you are. If you are a Mexicano business owner on the east side of Austin, depending on who your landlord is, even if you pay rent — it is never your place (see: Jumpolin, east Austin ). This makes certain labels important: if you are a renter, no matter how long you have lived in your home or occupied your business, you are not an owner. If you are an owner, you might not be able to afford your property taxes.
But, in my selection, this was not the overall determining factor. It was important for me in the selection of the artists to not only show a variety of techniques and methods of making works of art, but also to press the idea of a spectrum of work. In many ways where one artist’s practice ends, the other, across the room, fills a formal or ideological gap. Take for instance: Grimaldi Baez’s work may embody a pure Rasquachisimo practice, gnarly visceral, and emphemeral for the sake of it, while Ashley Thomas’ large-scale highly worked graphite drawings, operating on the other end of the spectrum, connect in may ways to the legacy of Mexican mural paintings in their epic scale and permanence.
As a curator, you’re physically and conceptually placed into a dialogue with artists and makers. While having to place considerations to the artists involved, how do you balance your personal vision within this process? And what do you believe is the role of a curator in the 21th century?
On my drive to Austin from Philadelphia my mother and I were reading an essay by Chicana, acitvist-poet Gloria Anzaldúa called “How to Tame a Wild Tongue.” The essay drifts back and forth from Spanish to English, quotes from other authors, Mexican sayings, Tex-Mex slang, cultural history and personal musings. Many of her essays, even the historical works, clearly show the “hand of the artist.” My mother said that she did not particularly identify with every cultural contradiction Gloria states in her essay. I said that is OK. Gloria Anzaldúa, even in her essays on border history, although well researched, does not feign an objective perspective. Unlike a state sponsored American history book, she wears her opinion on her sleeve. Her own history and particular perspective is not hidden behind a flattened academic language. How often do you know the person writing the history books’ age, race, economic status? — all of which will skew a person’s opinion and what ideologies he or she identifies with.
With that said, my hand is very present in the exhibition. Intentional formal decisions abound in the exhibition. The black and white color scheme was designed to push and pull the size, scale and density of the space. In some areas design creates a stage set, in one area a laboratory/work space. The idea was to create a vibrant space in which each work can play off of the other work, while shining with significance on its own. Plus there are plants brought in by the public in order to create a warm, organic element to the exhibition. There is no objective curating like there is no objective history.
As far as what’s the role of the curator in the 21st century…well that depends on the curator. We are all curators with our mix-tapes and our blogs — but what is the message we want to distribute through our selections? I want to exhibit artists who have a sense of a graspable future who don’t complacently acknowledge the end of the world as a fact.
The nuances of identity reflected within the works exhibited at Young Latino Artists 20: WITHIN REACH, whether through conscious or subconscious decisions, suggests a rich heritage of each artist involved. In conversation with curator Ricky Yanas it is clear that ones personal history is an element of constant dialogue and evolution. While the current state of the contemporary art world elaborates and clarifies based on heritage, gender, period, genre, etc., it can be a philosophical/political quagmire on the absence of the phrasing “Caucasian” or “white” artist. Nevertheless, it is the artists prerogative to define themselves and how it relates to their work.
As a South Texas native who will soon be leaving the state, the influence of my social and physical environment onto my works appears all the more essential. In a commercial/contemporary art world that arguably waivers on its opinion of the cultural connotations of individuals, I encourage all to visit the exhibition and revel in the energy of young artists.
Young Latino Artists 20: WITHIN REACH will continue until August 23, 2015.
Last modified: August 4, 2015