Enrique Chagoya is a tall man with wizened black hair, high shoulders and a buoyant giggle that interrupts many of his own thoughts. His artwork employs the symbols of power -- Superman, the Virgen Guadalupe, leading actors of the political sphere -- and teases the emotions we invest in them. A voracious appropriationist, Chagoya's multifarious printworks have a language of their own, graphic and comic and illusory. Preparing for this piece, I picked up his book Codex Espangliensis: From Columbus to the Border Patrol. Reading it in a long line at the Post Office, the woman in front of me soon peered over and asked, "Is that Chagoya?" I nodded. "He's awesome."
That ease of recognition may be every contemporary artist's dream. But Chagoya's work has recently gained notoriety of a different kind. In October of 2010 at the Loveland Museum of Colorado, his print "The Misadventures of Romantic Cannibals" (2003) was destroyed by a woman from Montana, who first had to break the display case with a crowbar. The protests and counter-protests at Loveland were sensationalized in national news, bypassing the artist's intentions as well as those of the museum in exchange for polemical headlines.
Chagoya would like his work to be read more personally, and not as political commentary. Of his occasional use of images that many consider sacred, he says, "I don't critique people's faith at all, on the contrary, I respect that. From my perspective, power corrupts the best ideals."
"Surviving Paradise / A Noble Savage's Guide" (detail), Enrique Chagoya, 2010.
Like Codex Espangliensis, several of Chagoya's works currently on view at Paule Anglim Gallery are constructed after a handful of pictographic codices by Meso-American artisans that survived colonial destruction. As in those historical records, Chagoya's figures float on little or no ground, and are stamped with Mayan numerals, Batman symbols, and the mountain-peaks of stock market reports. In print his craft comes from meshing disparate source imagery into convincing narrative spaces, while other new project -- such as a giant dollar bill whose registration is replaced with a digital readout of the ever-expanding national debt -- are clean-cut conceptual punch-lines.
Most expressive in this show are a series of wall-size drawings in which the small political drawings of José Clemente Orozco have been magnified to great effect. Each bears a central character: a ball of hairy arms, legs and snakes, a skeleton golfing, or a crowd of disembodied mouths on stilted legs. For each stroke of thick, dark charcoal there are four finger smudges pulling the figure outwards into the empty page. One can see reverence for the pathos of the outspoken Mexican muralists, while the absurdist text questions the validity of their ideals. ("grotesque speed and/ the invention in the making/ seemed part of/ the meaning.")
Throughout the show, Chagoya comically weaves Western symbols into the pictorial history of pre-Columbian cultures (he has been known to call it "reverse anthropology," because European artists were prolific appropriators of indigenous imagery). But more than a simple reversal, Chagoya perpetuates the very real, and often violent, conflict over iconography in the Americas. For example, the Biblical character Judas Iscariot appears in many contemporary Mayan rituals under a variety of names. One story of Judas's appropriation, explained to me by David Carrasco, a Harvard historian, holds that the Spaniards, embittered over the indigenous people who refused to convert to Catholicism, took to calling them Judas. The Mayans, who understood Judas to have helped Jesus along his destined path, soon agreed, and embraced him as a saint.1
Like the Mayans, Chagoya refuses a static position. His ludic and inverse perspective endows his paintings with myriad explanations, depending largely on your way of decoding the icons contained within. In "Illegal Immigrant's Guide to the Concept of Relative Surplus Value" (2009) one single panel contains drawings of dodo birds, a mid-nineteenth-century Brazilian woman, and a half-submerged 1949 Mercury station wagon. One might interpret the sinking car as metaphor to the auto industry bailout, but Chagoya calls it a reference to asylum-seeking Cubans. It seems a cruel homage, but sure enough, in 2005 several Cubans fitted their ancient wagon with a flotilla of oil barrels, successfully crossing the Florida Keys before being spotted and sent home.
"Illegal Alien's Guide to the Concept of Relative Surplus Value" (detail), Enrique Chagoya, 2009.
Understanding the tension in the Cuban's story, between humor and misery, between the obsolete American car and it's ill-fated charge, is fundamental to engaging Chagoya's artworks. His stories-within-stories are a plea for a less hegemonic reading of history. They also require we suspend quick judgment, which is so often the root of censorship.
I studied with Enrique for two years. Always insightful, his approach to leading critiques reminded me of the coyote (or trickster) character of Native American myth, doing things backwards in order for them to progress. While others struggled to find words to critique an unexciting drawing, Enrique would chime in: "Well, what I would say is that it is boring. But maybe you want it to be boring. Maybe you want us to be bored. Who knows?" When I ask Chagoya if, as artist or teacher, his reverse logic is a statement or a gaff, he demurs. "I am not writing history," he told me. "I am not writing a social essay. I am merely exorcizing my own demons." That could be the stance of the comedian, or smart political tact. Chagoya is, firstly, an artist making beautiful drawings. If there is anything else to be found in the work, he just won't say.
Enrique Chagoya: Works on Paper is on view through January 29, 2011 at Gallery Paule Anglim in San Francisco. For more information visit pauleanglimgallery.com.
Also: after the censorship of David Wojnarowicz's Fire in My Belly from the Smithsonian last month, the Stanford Art Department is taking the opportunity to open a dialogue on art and censorship. Fire in My Belly will screen at Stanford's Annenburg Auditorium, Wednesday, Jan 12, 2011 at 5pm and will be followed by a panel discussion with Chagoya, professor of Painting and Printmaking, artist Dorian Katz, art historian and Department Chair Nancy Troy, author Petra Dierkes-Thrun, and Berkeley Art Museum Director Larry Rinder, among others. For more information visit events.stanford.edu.
Images courtesy the artist and Gallery Paule Anglim, c. the artist.
1. For more on this see Judas off the Noose: Sacerdotes Mayas, Costumbristas, and the Politics of Purity in the Tradition of San Simon in Guatemala by C. James MacKenzie, The Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology, Vol. 14, No. 2, pp. 355-381.