The at sign in the title of this year’s Mexic-Arte Museum “Young Latino Artists” exhibit is not just a typographical affectation.
The ten artists and one collective in “Amexican@” are millennials or younger, born in the 1980s and 1990s.
Fluent in internet culture, millennials have come of age with access to the entire world and its diverse cultures via the smartphones in their hands, the “@” sign no less readable to them than any letter of the alphabet.
Exhibit curator David “Shek” Vega says that the young artists he selected for “Amexican@” — the 21st iteration of the annual Mexic-Arte exhibit — have a distinct aesthetic.
Vega posits that if an early generation of Latino artists — namely those who emerged from the Chicano movement of the 1960s and 1970s — employed aesthetic strategies that directly messaged politics, rallied a sense of community and defined a minority identity, today’s emerging artists practice something more diffuse.
“These artists deal with identity, but not necessarily in the same way as the Chicano artists who came before them,” Vega says during a recent walk through the exhibit. “We’re Mexican and we’re American and so we’re ‘Amexicano.’”
The artists Vega selected — Vanessa Centeno, Justo Cisneros, Hatziel Flores, Destiny Mata, James Medrano, Chris Montoya, Jaime Muñoz, Zeke Peña, Daniela Riojas, Larry Servin and the Essentials Collective — share a certain exuberance.
They also probe issues surrounding global consumer culture and celebrate the frenzy of internet media. Effortlessly, their Latino heritage either seeps in or stands at the center.
That’s clear in Montoya’s 20-foot-long painting “Hood Rich,” in scale similar to the billboard-size murals Montoya makes. In his critique of advertising strategies, Montoya turns the Chanel logo around, suggesting it stands for “Chicana.”
Ditto with Servin’s LED wall installation “Twenty Four.” It flashes with geometric light patterns that hint at traditional Mexican folk art aesthetics. But it’s also unmistakably a work of digital light art flashing with today’s vibe.
Several artists take up the mantle of earlier generations but do so in very contemporary terms. Riojas enlarges black and white portraits of undocumented Mexican workers to enormous scale for her “Dysplacia” installation. Then Riojas prints them as wheat paste posters, affixing them to large panels that are hung from the ceiling and against a gallery wall.
Vega, 35, is an active San Antonio street artist and founder of Gravelmouth Gallery, a respected venue that features art largely influenced or informed by graffiti materials and techniques. It’s called Gravelmouth because, Vega says, “it has a taste of the street.”
As an artist, Vega is self-taught, like several of those he selected for “Amexican@.” He parlayed his youthful efforts in graffiti and street art into a profession. Now business commissions for large-scale murals keep him busy. Earlier this year the San Antonio Spurs franchise commissioned Vega for an entire visual art campaign.
Vega’s Gravelmouth Gallery garners plenty of buzz, too. And his paintings have twice been featured in previous “Young Latino Artists” exhibits. Many of the series’s guest curators emerge from artists previously featured.
In tandem with “Amexican@,” Mexic-Arte Museum invited Vega to create a mural on the museum’s East Fifth Street outside wall. (For the past two years the museum has invited artists to create murals on the wall.)
Vega has a style that jibes with many artists working out of the street and graffiti art vein: There’s the bold composition, the vibrant colors, the highly stylized line drawings that hint at comic book images.
“Juegala Fria: Play It Cool Austin” the murals reads.
Says Vega: “It’s a good message for everyone.”