This exhibit is about being Mexican-American, but it will make things happen for you whatever your ethnicity
I’m Mexican-American, but I don’t know exactly what that means anymore. It seems to refer to the fact that my family is from Mexico. It also seems to have something to do with my skin color. The fact that I’m brownish definitely seems relevant to my Mexican-Americanness.
Mexic-Arte Museum’s “Young Latino Artists 21: Amexican@” touches on these things, but it also hits on stuff I don’t have anything to do with. Religion, for example. Take Vanessa R. Centeno’s series of prints, video, and sculpture. Saint Thing I and Saint Thing II are photos of becloaked women wearing dramatic makeup, metallic facial gear, and wild halos of what look like brightly colored sea worms. The images have thick, golden borders, like futuristic altarpieces. I’m Mexican, so I guess I’m supposed to care about Catholicism. Doesn’t matter. These alien saints talk to me, and anyway, Centeno isn’t through. Her video, the freaky Paint Thing, shows one of these saints rolling around in a funky glow. The undulating and throbbing, plus the twirling halo/sea worm crown, is starting to get to me. What’s Mexican about that? It still has the Catholic thing going on, I guess, but things go berserk with Keep It Up, a massive sculpture that takes the halo/sea worms to a bountiful level that goes beyond traditional iconography to a place that may need a fresh language just to understand. It’s a body surrounded by light, a bursting jelly sack. Looking at this, I could give a shit about “Mexican.” The series is ecstatic, organic, confident, and confused. It’s complex. Forget race for a moment. The series feels like a life.
But James Medrano’s El Barto, okay, it’s a guy making some graffiti, I get it, because Mexicans are into graffiti. We like to tag stuff. Now that’s some barrio shit, and I grew up in the barrio on Austin’s southeast side, so I know what I’m talking about.
Only this guy ain’t normal. He’s wearing a Bart Simpson mask, but the mask is going hallucinogenic. Multiple exposures. Now we’ve got this blurry cartoon face with the big eyes and wide mouth creeping me out like Centeno’s woolly blob. The graffiti guy is kneeling and painting “El Barto” in gold on a wall (it drips gold paint), which if you don’t know, that was Bart Simpson’s tag. The guy’s maybe a cartoon man, but his hand is rendered naturalistic with veins, and kind of dark, so maybe brown like me? I can’t say why he’s jacking Bart’s tag, why his face is all twisted up, but something about it, the piece is active, the piece is mean, like culture is mean, like tag is mean, like art is mean. Maybe the artist is mean, too. He’d have be a little mean to make such mean work.
As a Mexican-American, I come into this show thinking maybe I’ll learn something about myself. Because when I think how I’m Mexican-American/Chicano/Latino/Hispanic, all kinds of things happen. I get floppy like Centeno’s saints; I get mean like Medrano’s El Barto; I get beautiful like Chris Montoya’s Hood Rich; I get sicko like Essentials’ design. I’m going to bet most people, whoever they are, whatever ethnicity or whatever zip code they represent (’44!), that they get all those things, too.