Imaging Aztlan: Printmakers From Chicago’s Mexican


at Betty Rymer Gallery,

through January 31

By Bertha Husband

Reading curator Jose Andreu’s lengthy catalog essay for “Imaging Aztlan” reminded me of a question I’ve been asking myself a lot recently: why do we in Chicago overcontextualize when writing about Mexican art? Reviews and essays become long ruminations on Mexican politics and cultural history rather than discussions of the work on view. Perhaps this trend can be partly explained by a critical emphasis on cultural identity, a reaction against another trend, a move toward global cultural sameness. But the emphasis on identity can be reductive, pushing so-called minority artists into the cultural ghettos of exhibitions based solely on nation, race, or sex. The dominant culture is left in control of the universal, and everyone else is relegated to the particular. And “authenticity” is probably a concern of the market rather than a concern of the artist. As the Pakistani artist Rasheed Araaen has put it: “Why should one carry one’s own culture on one’s shoulder in order to be able to distinguish oneself? Why should the non-European artist alone be burdened with what seems to be an essentialism?”

For Mexican artists in the United States, the burden of cultural history seems to be particularly heavy, but it also seems that many choose to bear it with pride. The title of this exhibition points to two aspects of the “Mexican” identity. One is artistic: Mexico is known internationally for its printmakers–in addition to its muralists, of course. The other is political: the concept of “Aztlan” is crucial. Andreu describes Aztlan as “the indigenous name given to the North American midwest, the land north of modern-day Mexico, within whose legendary borders lies the City of Chicago.” He goes on to say, “It is from Aztlan that the Aztecs, one of the Nahuatlacos migratory tribes, migrated south and established Tenochtitlan, today called Mexico City. It is to Aztlan where the Mexican laborer returned.” Unlike other immigrants the Mexican is not really immigrating but coming home and can, in fact, lay claim not only to the U.S. southwest, which was part of Mexico until the mid-19th century, but to the midwest. From this point it’s only a short step to defining the Mexican community in the United States as an internal colony with nationalistic aspirations. Tradition and memory become essential to this collective identity. As Jean Genet said of the Palestinians, “What I saw at once was that every ‘nation,’ the better to justify its rebellion in the present, sought proof of its own singularity in the distant past.”

Andreu has assembled 33 very different artists spanning three generations in the service of this national remembering. But to what extent does his curatorial approach reflect the concerns of the individual artists? Andreu sets out to establish in the first two prints, executed in the 1940s and now in the Art Institute’s collection, what he sees as the art’s political and historical antecedents. The artists, Alfredo Zalce and Leopoldo Mendez, were founding members of the Taller de Grafica Popular (Popular Graphics Workshop) in Mexico City in 1937, and showed their work in Chicago in the 40s.

Zalce’s lithograph Incident of Forty-Two Migrant Mexican Workmen was inspired by a contemporary occurrence. Workers returning to Mexico from California after the harvest were sealed in the hold of a cargo ship for two weeks without food, enough air, or any light. The print depicts the terrible moment of their arrival in port, when the survivors were assisted from the ship. Many died, and many others lost their minds. If this print depicts a historical event witnessed by the artist, Mendez’s wood engraving That Which Must Not Come illustrates a political idea: resistance to fascism. The artist has portrayed himself lying facedown and drawing on a sheet of paper. Above and behind him, dominating much of the space, is a vast cross with the Mexican eagle hanging crucified, a shape resembling a swastika. A snake, which on the Mexican flag is being eaten by an eagle, here is grown huge and winds its tail around the eagle, while the rest of its body moves along the ground. The snake’s head is transformed into the Mexican god Quetzalcoatl, from whose wide-open mouth an army of Nazi soldiers are marching. Mendez suggests that national symbols can be used emotionally to unite a country–not only to resist an outside oppressor but also to install fascism, with its internal repression and empire building. The work can be read as a warning against the dangers of relying on flags and symbols, even though Mendez uses them himself. This is a beautifully rendered print, but its purpose was to make a clear statement about a particular time. An antifascist message in the 30s and 40s, it must now be seen as a historical document. No doubt the story it tells is obscure to today’s youth and nostalgic for the old: it’s a reminder of a time when political positions were simpler and clearer.

Of the contemporary Chicago artists in this exhibition, it is Carlos Cortez who truly belongs to this tradition of political agitation, a tradition that started long before Mendez, at the turn of the century, in the period leading up to the Mexican revolution. The best-known artist of that era of political broadsheets and newspaper illustration was Jose Guadalupe Posada, and in a sense his ghost hovers over a number of the artists here, of whom Cortez is only the most political. His woodcut De la tierra somos, no somos ilegales! (“We Are of the Earth, We Are Not Illegal!”) illustrates better than any other print here the political concept of “Aztlan”–Cortez opposes the designation of illegality in one’s own land. The work is made up of portraits of three Mexicans–a man, a woman, and a child–in front of a pyramid and an ear of corn. According to Andreu’s catalog essay, one argument that the midwest was once the home of the Aztecs is that the Cahokia mounds in southern Illinois resemble the pyramids of Teotihuacan, Mexico. The ear of corn no doubt refers to the pre-Columbian religious significance of corn.

It might seem paradoxical that such a nationalistic image should be the work of a lifetime member of the Industrial Workers of the World. But this print was, I believe, made as an act of solidarity with undocumented Mexican immigrant workers. In his printmaking and his poetry Cortez has consistently adhered to the idea of art as a propaganda tool in the working-class struggle; this consistency has made him a living legend in Chicago. He’s honored in Eufemio Pulido’s linocut A Carlos Cortez (“Homage to Carlos Cortez”), which represents Cortez as a calavera or skeleton, recognizable by his mustache, clothes, and unmistakable wide-brimmed hat. Pulido’s image refers directly to Posada, who is most famous for his calaveras, satirical drawings of clothed skeletons. There’s no satire in Pulida’s print, however; the calavera merely tells us that Cortez is Mexican and a printmaker in the popular tradition of Posada. Attached to Cortez, this symbol is affectionate, even sentimental. Another work here that resembles Posada’s but not in a political way is Joel Rendon’s Windy City. Reflecting the earlier artist’s lighter, wittier side–the Posada of strange beasts–it shows a creature emerging from Lake Michigan, which is being whipped up by a storm. Over the Chicago skyline people are being blown around like clouds.

Posada’s view that many people lead half-dead existences is apparent in Nicolas de Jesus’s vision of Chicago as a city teeming with calaveras. (De Jesus came here for a long visit in 1990, to help found the Taller Mexicano de Grabado, or Mexican Printmaking Workshop, which in the context of this exhibit is a descendant of Zalce and Mendez’s 1937 Popular Graphics Workshop in Mexico City.) In de Jesus’s etchings it is always night, and always lit by a moon that is either full, as in The Barrio, or crescent with a profile face, as in Chicago. Certain characteristics of his works are common to much art referred to as “naive,” a term used in art criticism to describe the artist who works from his own life experience rather than the traditions and conventions of the art school. In de Jesus’s work the viewpoint is above the scene depicted, which is so congested with people, traffic, incidents, and intricate details that there seems no space to breathe. It’s a memory perspective, the collective representation of many walks at night stored up in the artist’s head, then poured out onto the etching plate.

The result is hallucinogenic, a charming nightmare: charming because de Jesus’s prints always have that quality, and nightmarish because one senses that this is how he experienced Chicago on his arrival–as a living hell. To understand this facet of his work, one must know that de Jesus doesn’t live in Chicago: he’s a Nahuatl Indian from Ameyaltepec, an isolated spot in the mountains of Guerrero, who now lives in Mexico. And another de Jesus print here, Procesion al cielo (“Procession to the Sky”), may well be inspired by his birthplace. Hundreds of people–in the flesh, not calaveras–are ascending a mountain path; the sky is spacious and moonlit. Since cielo also means “heaven,” Ameyaltepec may be heaven in memory, as Chicago is no doubt hell.

There’s a myth that Posada was a self-taught artist, which is not strictly true. But as Antonio Rodriguez wrote, “He was a peoples’ artist because he shared their hopes, exalted their struggles, and recreated their life in his prints.” I would suspect, however, that very few artists in this exhibition fall into the self-taught category. Certainly some here prefer not to carry their culture on their shoulders. Many artists, when they’re first exposed to reproductions of artworks, don’t consider the nationality of the artists. Children know that all knowledge belongs to everyone. As the Argentinean artist Guillermo Kuitca said of his artistic influences in an interview: “I thought of these artists as being Argentinean in as much as I thought about what ‘Argentinean’ meant–I did not know that Picasso wasn’t Argentinean.” With the gaining of knowledge and the corresponding loss of innocence, we learn that a lot of the world doesn’t “belong” to us. Artists born in Mexico, the United States, and a few European countries discover that they come from the handful of nations that have produced top names in conventional histories of modern art. But artists from many other countries are not so fortunate. Their national artists are often relegated to a minor, even invisible role by the international art market. Influences, however, do not respect borders: an English artist can be influenced by Diego Rivera, and a Mexican by Francis Bacon.

One wonders what Alfonso Lopez Monreal’s print is doing in this exhibit. His work generally is full of assimilations and quotations from art that is not Mexican, and he’s said, “Nationalism has nothing to do with my work. Nonetheless, I have to respond to the realities of the place where I come from.” He is represented here by the only example I know among his prints that directly quotes Mexican culture. The title of Las Dos Juanas refers to an old woman, a veteran of the Mexican revolution, whom the artist used to see on the streets of Zacatecas when he was growing up. Juana appears twice in the print, on either side of the artist, shown working at his easel. There is also a small quote from Posada, a tiny calavera dressed as a mariachi musician with a guitar. Lopez Monreal, who lives in Ireland, has no connection with Chicago beyond the fact that he’s exhibited here a couple of times (and this print is from a private collection in Chicago). Maybe the reason he’s in an exhibition of “Printmakers from Chicago’s Mexican Community” is nostalgia. Andreu states in his essay that “Aztlan is in the heart. It is a place where one belongs, home.”

One print here treats memory in quite a different way, however: it doesn’t illustrate or explain anything. This is the work of one of only three women among these 33 artists–which surely calls into question women’s position in the category of nationalistic art. Dawn Martinez’s untitled photolithographic and mixed-media work, a diptych, doesn’t describe, explain, or illustrate a particular memory. Instead it manages to evoke memory in the viewer. Each of the two separately framed prints contains a torn fragment of a photograph in the center of a section of wallpaper with a design of small flowers that in places has been torn into strips or scratched. It’s difficult to say exactly why this piece is so evocative: it has nothing to do with the images in the photo fragments, because it’s impossible to decipher them. They seem to be parts of the body in close-up–a blurred image of hands seems present in the left photograph, though I can’t be sure. The combination of obscure images, the photographs and wallpaper, and the way they’ve been worked on hints at as well as hides a past experience.

Andreu has assembled works by artists whose reasons for making art and whose concepts of art are very different. The only point of unity is that all of them are Mexican, either born in Mexico or in the United States of Mexican descent. Only a city like Chicago, a city of nations isolated from one another, could produce an exhibit like this, where such dissimilar artists are exhibited in a mainstream institution as representative of their community and culture. This exhibit must also be accompanied by pages of text describing the art’s roots and genealogy, to explain these things to an otherwise ignorant public.

All art (unless it’s merely art about art) comes from the particular life experience of the artist, which is made up of many components: nation, race, sex, class, the books the artists reads, the movies he watches, and numerous other indefinable particulars. But when an artist expresses well a unique vision, the work of art crosses all borders. Hidden in Andreu’s text is one sentence that reveals his uneasiness with his curatorial commission: “Perhaps the concerns of these artists are not much different from many other contemporary artists.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo / Jose Andreu.