Enrique Chagoya Packs Elusive Meaning and Acerbic Humor into Wild Pastiche

Enrique Chagoya, Detail of 'Illegal Alien's Guide To Critical Theory,' 2007. (Collection of the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation)

It's difficult to write about Enrique Chagoya’s art. Much of the San Francisco–based artist's work is seemingly narrative, and Chagoya’s rich imagery and text provide numerous jumping-off points. But these narratives aren’t always linear (even when presented in the form of seven-foot-long manuscripts), avoiding obvious beginnings, ends and sometimes even consistent internal logic. Meaning is particularly elusive in the body of work on view at Reno’s Nevada Museum of Art in Enrique Chagoya: Reimagining the New World.

A hallmark of the exhibition is a wild pastiche of iconographies, languages and cultural signifiers. Chagoya's Escape from Fantasylandia: An Illegal Alien’s Survival Guide, a 16-panel print that resembles Aztec and Maya codices, epitomizes this approach. Mesoamerican motifs are present throughout, and an 80-inch rendition of the god Quetzalcoatl runs the length of the print. Intricate illustrations populate the panels: skeletons, the devil, serpents, Fantastic Four’s The Thing, Astro Boy and a tertiary character from the Saturday Evening Post comic Little Lulu.

Full comprehension of the constituent stories in the codex doesn’t appear to be Chagoya’s goal. The text in Escape from Fantasylandia, for example, appears intermittently in Spanish, Japanese and English. And while many people can read all three languages, that’s a narrower viewership than the artist likely intends.

Enrique Chagoya, 'Escape from Fantasylandia: An Illegal Alien's Survival Guide,' 2007.
Enrique Chagoya, 'Escape from Fantasylandia: An Illegal Alien's Survival Guide,' 2007. (Collection of the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation)

Likewise, in much of Chagoya’s work references from popular culture are instantly recognizable, but equally prevalent are the difficult-to-identify characters. These images are more powerful for the broader cultural associations they elicit, instead of simply referencing the specific media from which they originated. Little Lulu represents 1930s and 1940s Americana, and American pop culture in general, even for the art critic who needs to conduct research just to determine the comic’s origin.

Non-Indigenous artists often appropriate Indigenous imagery in such a way that the artists detach signifiers from their historical contexts, erase their meaning and use the appropriated material as exotic adornment. In Escape from Fantasylandia, Chagoya reverses this process by freeing American and Japanese signifiers from their meaning and incorporating them in a text created from and for an Indigenous or Mexican perspective. For those accustomed to their culture’s international dominance, it can be disorienting to construct meaning from familiar imagery cleaved from its significance.

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Another piece in the exhibition, Histoire Naturelle des Espécies: Illegal Alien’s Manuscript, simultaneously takes the form of a Mesoamerican codex and an Enlightenment-era encyclopedia, but the language of this taxonomy of “species” is most at home in a contemporary comparative literature or art history textbook. The codex is a series of humorous classifications: for proto-socialists, an illustration of a brontosaurus; for situationists, a woodpecker; for editors, some kind of millipede; for cultural anthropologists, a bison; a gun-toting bandit represents museum directors; a caged man-headed bird stands for printmakers; and art critics manifest as a less-than-flattering stag beetle.

Enrique Chagoya, 'Histoire Naturelle des Espécies: Illegal Alien's Manuscript' (detail), 2008.
Enrique Chagoya, 'Histoire Naturelle des Espécies: Illegal Alien's Manuscript' (detail), 2008. (Collection of the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation)

In the lithograph, the critical theorist “species,” resembling a man from Assyrian sculpture, proclaims a cryptic fragment: “an expression of free-wheeling non-linear thought in which discrepancies, oppositions and reversals take the place of coherence and resolution.” This seems to be both a tongue-in-cheek description of the artwork itself and a mocking of just-vague-enough-to-make-sense academic speak. Similarly, many of Chagoya’s taxonomic pairings make intuitive sense, but they're also absurd enough to warrant caution. After all, are art critics really akin to grotesque, easily squashed beetles who feed on rotting fruit?

Viewed as a field guide for “illegal aliens,” this piece seems to serve as a warning, especially for those who might interact with the art market or academia. A tower labeled “International Oblivion Fund” stands at one end of this long codex, housing hedge fund managers, economists and mortgage brokers, all represented by conniving, sinister and laughing skeletons. At the other end is a tower housing “the School of Social Sculpture,” performance artists and situationists. Do these towers represent antithetical forces or two sides of the same coin?

Enrique Chagoya, 'Road Map,' 2003.
Enrique Chagoya, 'Road Map,' 2003. (Collection of the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation)

The quixotic and elliptical nature of Chagoya’s work isn’t a defect. The artist could surely provide a robust reading list of cogent anti-colonial texts if that’s what he so desired. But that wouldn't make for much of an art practice. Instead, his mélange of images, texts and designs is a visual confrontation with popular media, institutions, appropriation and dominant culture in general. If meaning is difficult to pin down in Chagoya’s work, it is because it is in the process of being reconstructed.

'Enrique Chagoya: Reimagining the New World' is on view at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno through July 8, 2018.

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