The Smoking Mirrors exhibition makes some bold statements about the power of frescoes and the artists who create them. He gets the important things right.
Featuring two dozen of the region’s most prolific artists, this show brings murals back to their roots and reminds us that great public art has a purpose. At its best and most important, public art serves as a forum for political and social statements. It gives a loud voice to people who might otherwise go unheard.
The show harks back to the days when 20th-century civil rights activists associated with the Chicano movement used public art to make a name for themselves in the region. Murals painted on walls, buildings and bridges where everyone could see them often borrowed the colors, symbols and forms of traditional Latin American art and culture, informing everyone that this country is home to people with roots from all regions, including including from Mexico and places further south.
These frescoes demanded recognition and justice for all and won respect for an art form that was sometimes considered folklore. Rarely has art played such an important role in civic progress.
The “smoking mirrors” at the Museo de las Americas until February 26 take place at a time when murals are back in fashion, but when the populist credibility that Chicano artists (and later graffiti artists) have earned for them is fading. everything but loss. Today’s murals—often funded by government agencies or businesses that use them as decoration to sell new apartments or malls, or to attract tourists—often turn into beautiful decorations with zero meaning.
All those images of birds, flowers, and giant bears, all those too-beautiful geometric patterns appearing in Denver, use the “street authority” of the murals of the past, without taking the risks that these works require.
On the face of it, this exhibition celebrates contemporary artists who continue to use their art to advance the interests of Hispanics.
On a deeper level, this is more like a call to all artists who paint big to use their extreme “canvas” to honor the audacity of the muralists who came before them and take on more important topics.
He also supports the core mission of the exhibit’s organizer, the Chicano/Murals of Colorado Project, an organization that works to preserve important murals that already exist in the urban landscape but are threatened by gentrification. These frescoes are historical monuments and we must protect them whenever we can.
In addition, the project’s website, chicanomuralsofcolorado.com, has a wealth of information and background information on the best of these decades of art. This is of infinite value to the cause.
Certainly this is not a lost cause for the artists on this show, who range from art pioneers to newcomers. With their two- and three-dimensional works, they continue the legacy of the Chicano.
From a curatorial point of view, Smoking Mirrors is dedicated to the Mesoamerican mythical figures Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca, who, as the text on the wall explains, represent the opposing forces of light and darkness. Their blending is a metaphor for duality, a theme that underlies the work of all artists whose objects explore multiple personalities.
Although all works are recent, they refer to many periods of Latin American history. Artist Jerry Vigil, for example, presents his ceramic piece Identity, a recreation of an ancient Mayan burial site. This acrylic on aluminum wall sculpture by David Garcia is an abstract depiction of the Aztec figure Tezcatlipoca.
This story is updated throughout the 1500s and beyond with works such as Emmanuel Martínez’s Malintzin, an acrylic portrait of a real historical figure, also known as La Malinche, who began life as a slave but ended up becoming the companion of a Spanish conquistador. Hernan Cortes. And then through Carlotta Espinosa’s Our Lady of Guadalupe, dedicated to one of the most important religious events in the history of the region. And also through “La Llarona” by Alicia Cardenas, which features the timeless figure known as the “Weeping Woman”.
Leo Tanguma’s portrait of “Emiliano Zapata” political hero advances the action towards the 20th and 21st centuries, leading to the presence of contemporary figures captured in works such as Jody Herrera’s Soledad, spray and latex painting in honor of Chicana Soledad activist Jovita Trejo . Martinez.
The geometry of changing indigenous identities is expanded upon by other writings that refer to people and events in what is now the United States. There is Virgil Ortiz’s Po’Pei wood and clay sculpture that recalls the mid-1600s rebellion against the conquistadors in New Mexico; and Gregg Deal’s Height of AIM, a canvas painting made with spray paint, acrylic and ink that serves as a tribute to the Native American activists who were part of the Red Power movement in the 1960s and 1970s.
While subject matter and media vary almost to the limit, the exhibition fits together beautifully in the way it shows how artists explore their own identities and captivate the public on their journey. It is, in a sense, the story of much of the Latin American art produced in the American West over the last half century: seeking to uncover personal and shared stories from both past and present, sometimes lost through acts of migration, assimilation and discrimination, and then presenting to the world developed and often mixed racial and ethnic identities.
There is something accomplished here in a plethora of ideas, a thread of artistic creativity is evident, and many of the legends, ideas and moments mentioned in the show constitute a crash course in Latin American history.
But there is also something lost. Objects in the tradition of “public art” or “street art” always fit awkwardly into formal art galleries like the Museo de las Americas. The radical, individual actions they refer to are tamed in a white cube setting. They become precious and elitist when they really should be populist and accessible. Art museums are not always the best place for art.
The museum charges $8 per person. It’s not like it’s in the spirit of the work, which aims to “honor the Chicano/tradition of using public art and murals to serve people and communities that are historically dehumanized and oppressed in American society,” as the exhibit describes. his goal.
The Chicano muralists taught us all that European ideas about what makes art important—that it should be displayed in a museum and sold as a commodity—are false. All art made with purpose and skill is the same. Their art was valuable because it was free and because it was not seen as something to be separated and deified.
I’m not saying that the art in Smoking Mirrors doesn’t belong to an elite museum where people have to pay to see it. I say maybe it deserves something more.
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