Watch out, there are dinosaurs in the living room. In fact, in Enrique Chagoya's drawing "YTREBIL" -- liberty spelled backwards -- the fully rendered, charcoal dinosaurs are the only things of substance in the living room; the rest of the furniture exists only as outline, a well-ordered backdrop occupied by a raging tyrannosaurus and some of its mellower relations. An allusion to the debate over immigration, YTREBIL (both the drawing and the show) is a distilled version of the rest of Chagoya's body of work: funny and, depending on your political leanings, provocative. It's not as comprehensive as the retrospective that the Berkeley Art Museum offered a few years ago, but it's a good place to start.
Chagoya is known for work that mixes European art historical references with those of American pop culture and pre-Columbian mythology, usually satirically. Most of his major hits are on display in YTREBIL, including selections from his print series "Return to Goya's Caprichos" (1999) and "Homage to Goya II: Disasters of War" (2003). Outside of photography, there are few formal techniques that can capture shadow and light as well as etchings, and the play of darkness and luminosity that occurs across these works is not just beautiful, but chilling, especially when the content is taken into account. For example, Chagoya remakes "Se Repulen" ("They Spruce Themselves Up") as an image of Jesse Helms clipping the talons of a demon Jerry Falwell while a Teletubby grins ghoulishly in the foreground and replaces the deluge of winged demons in "El Sueno de la Razon Produce Monstruos" ("The Sleep of Reason Brings Monsters") with images of bombs and military planes.
YTREBIL includes some newer works as well: large lithographs like "Illegal Alien's Guide to Critical Theory" (2007) and "Illegal Alien's Guide to the Concept of Relative Surplus Value" (2009), a 5-foot-plus long codex. "Surplus Value" combines a chaotic backdrop of ink splashes with a multi-colored, more detailed ocean foreground on which a variety of figures try to stay afloat. There's an infinite number of visual references, including the Incredible Hulk, the Titanic and various Egyptian boatsmen, as well as cartoon bubbles with sentence fragments like "recalls ominous moments of urban experience while subverting the relation between fantasy and reality." The codex is full of personal and cultural symbols, and yet its general themes (grasping at stability in view of immanent disaster) aren't too hard to grasp. One can choose to get lost in the details -- which makes the work more interesting -- but it's not necessary.
This is both the beauty of Chagoya and his Achilles' heel: the ease of just sticking with a surface read. The layers of humorous and pointed art historical, personal, and political references in Chagoya's work give viewers the option of plenty of food for thought, but nothing about the work forces you to go there. Perhaps another way of putting it: lazy viewers need not apply.
YTREBIL is on view at Galería de la Raza until August 28, 2010. For more information, visit Galería de la Raza's website.