I have never been to Mexico City, but I grew up in Taipei and believe that all colonial cities share a certain family resemblance. They have the same architecture, the same bones -- broad flat allées to welcome triumphant conquerors, squares and plazas modeled on European antecedents, baroque administrative buildings with formal gardens, botanical gardens and zoological parks -- and the same hodgepodge of languages, borrowed and native.
Enrique Chagoya, the star of the Berkeley Art Museum's Borderlandia, was born in Mexico City, an environment that, as the show's curator writes, is "filled with the 'parallel experiences' of disconnected cultures."
Chagoya's subject matter -- kitschy images of Superman mingling with Catholic, Aztec, and Mayan imagery -- belongs to the realm of feverish nightmares, and is most powerful on an intimate scale, as quick visual pulses reminiscent of late night channel surfing. The hapless viewer might uncover a disturbing mix of tele-evangelism, action movies, infomercials, and forgotten old movies starring long-dead stars. So, too, in Chagoya's codices, we might encounter a voluptuous maiden and a Mayan god, locked in some strange and inexplicable visual embrace.
On Borderlandia's opening night, the Berkeley Art Museum was filled with Berkeley's old guard. Tweedy professors mingled alongside well-heeled museum donors, and art dealers circulated through the galleries. They took in Chagoya's critiques of capitalist ideology and imperialism, while nibbling on paté and foie gras. Above the crowd, I could see a single Chagoya charcoal of a little girl cowering beneath a massive gloved hand.
I like Chagoya best when he works on a small scale. A fine draftsman, he can draw with a delicate and sensitive line, and his codices (book-size accordions, based on Aztec illustrated books) showcase his skill with color and line. Chagoya's color palette is at times vivid, almost lurid, and at times so quiet as to be grisaille. These codices reward patience and sustained attention.
The larger images move too quickly, lacking the layered richness of the codices. We can write volumes of theory around Chagoya's work -- taut hybridity, globalization, and all kinds of other hip phrases spring to mind -- but the large pieces are emotionally and aesthetically unsatisfying. The codex format allows Chagoya to write in paragraphs, creating inventive relationships between various iconic images. The large paintings focus on one or two symbols (Mickey Mouse, Ronald Reagan, skulls, cowboy hats), and feel more like catchphrases.
For those of us who grew up straddling cultures, Chagoya's Adventures of the Enlightened Cannibal (2002) or his Codex Cosmovisionarius (2006) simply formalize our strange visual milieu. For us, there can be no pure "core," no culture untouched by another. As a child, I leapt, confused, from Odysseus to the Monkey King to Superman to the Terminator, caught in a mishmash of names and cultures. I imagine that Chagoya must have had similar experiences. As children of the borderlands, do we ever know who we are, or what language to speak? Chagoya describes this state, not as tragedy, but as farce.