Hot, Hot and Not
Ah, September. The start of art's regular season. What with Gallery Walk coming up this weekend and all the local bigwigs rolling out the rug, I figure it's time to take a gander at some oft-overlooked venues.
And what venue is more overlooked than the University of Texas at Arlington's sleepy little campus gallery? Hell, wander into the wrong side of UTA's fine arts building, and the folks in the communications school can't even tell you where it is (the answer: around the corner). 'Tis a shame, for they know not what they overlook; until October 5, The Gallery at UTA is featuring the work of a relatively well-known and justifiably celebrated Chicana artist, Celia Alvarez Muñoz.
As some may recall, a decade or so ago, around the time of the groundbreaking Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation, 1965-1985 exhibition (better known as CARA), Muñoz, who describes herself as a "conceptual multi-media Texas artist," had a brief moment of fame. Her work was featured in the CARA show and written up favorably in venues from The New York Times to The New Yorker. She was showered with NEA fellowships, mentioned in obscure tomes on Chicano art, included in the 1991 Whitney Biennial, collected by major museums. She was hot, hot, hot. Now she's not, not, not. Since about 1995, she seems to have mothballed the formal wear and ceased making the rounds at awards banquets. Not that she's entirely out of the public eye; during the last few years, she seems to have been busy doing what celebrated Hispanic and Conceptual artists have long done, large-scale public works projects.
UTA's exhibition, titled Stories Your Mother Never Told You, doesn't do much to show us what she's been up to in the last decade. The show, consisting of 23 works, could well have been subtitled "Muñoz's Greatest Hits"; most of the works date from 1982-1992, and many have been written about extensively. But with Muñoz, that's almost forgivable, for 20 years later, the work is so strong, it's well worth seeing again.
By and large, Muñoz uses photography to tell stories from her past, mostly her childhood. The result is a series of stories of remembered trauma. Like all "remembered" childhood trauma, the stories are probably largely invented, but who cares? In the end, the tales bear the same relationship to actual events that Muñoz's carefully posed, fictional tableaus bear to reality--that is, they contain little objective truth and a great deal of psychological verity.
The theme of the show is summed up in the title piece, "Stories Your Mother Never Told You," a mixed media work consisting of a cabinet whose drawers are filled with family secrets, stories and dental molds. These themes are also explored in the "Enlightenments," a series of photographic essays illustrating childhood stories. In all the works, we see the world through a child's eyes, an ideal setup for examining the dissonance between the tales a child is told and what the child observes. And out of the mouth of this babe comes a serious examination of fables, myth, folk wisdom and adult lies. Most of the work contains a wicked sense of humor barely tempering the sharp edge of justifiable anger.
As always with Muñoz, the personal--her story--is overtly political. Yet, as a Chicana, Muñoz's politics are a complex mixture of feminism and minority concerns, and sometimes difficult to discern. In some works, like "Ave Maria Purisima," an openly bitter recollection of the way a child learns to be ashamed of her body, the meaning of the parable is pretty clear. In others, the interpretation is largely in the eye of the beholder. Take, for example, "Enlightenment #4: Which Came First?" one of Muñoz's best works, consisting of five photos in which the author recalls her frustrations trying to learn English and the facts of life from chickens. The Hispanic feminist critic Alicia Gaspar de Alba has interpreted "Enlightenment #4" as "primarily a critique of the educational system that crams English down our throats." Well, maybe. But it sure seems of a piece with the other works, which together critique the cultural factors--religion, folklore, gender stereotypes, shame, secrecy, disinformation--that conspire to keep Hispanic women in their place. (Note to ward off hate mail: I do not mean to imply that these factors, or cultural misogyny, are by any means exclusively Hispanic phenomena.)
Muñoz's mixed media pieces, like "El y Ella" and "Ya," are less successful, in part because the artist is covering ground so well-furrowed that it's impossible to produce any response in a viewer other than a weary déjà vu. In the photography-based work, however, Muñoz manages to transcend the boring ineptitude of much conceptual art. The good news extends to form as well as content. Unlike many hip shutterbugs, Muñoz can create an interesting and truly original image on Cibachrome. A fine example is "Sancho Claus," a triptych consisting of three photos, two of shiny Christmas-tree balls, the third of a cue ball. Upon examination, the Christmas-tree balls reflect back a truly bizarre tableau. Ditto for "Furia," a large Lambda digital photograph dating from 1998, full of arresting symbolic images superimposed to create a sort of third-world psychic map. This is truly interesting territory.
If there's anything rarer than a good conceptual artist, it's a good self-taught artist. And Chelo Gonzalez Amezcua, now the subject of a show at Southern Methodist University's Pollock Gallery, was definitely not one of the latter.
For some reason not readily apparent from the work itself, the Pollock Gallery is touting Gonzalez as a "vastly under appreciated [sic]" 20th-century "master of American art." The problem isn't in her technical skill, which is certainly no worse than many a celebrated "outsider." The problem is in her head. The chief virtue of naïve art is its ability to take us into interesting worlds, to reveal fascinating if quirky visions and passionate beliefs. Frankly, Gonzalez's visions just aren't any more compelling than your average corporate-meeting daydreamer; her flesh was willing, but her mind was weak.
One suspects that this may be a case of multi-culti run amuck. Gonzalez, who died in 1975 at the age of 72, was born in Piedras Negras, Mexico. At the age of 10 she emigrated with her parents to Del Rio, Texas, where she lived until her death. In the style of "self-taught" artists the world over, her pencil-and-ink on mat board drawings are dense, feverish visions brimming to the margins with stars, moons, doves, eagles, flowers, scrollwork, fans, wedding-cake castles and geometric designs. Her imaginary world also contains a host of fantastic personages: princes and princesses, gurus and enchantresses, angels and queens, all with the same generic, Barbie-doll pretty faces.
If there is one thing that this exhibition does illustrate, it is the fallacy of the "outsider artist" label. Despite Muñoz's degrees from American universities, and despite the recognition Muñoz has received from the gringo art establishment, Muñoz is in a real psychological sense more an "outsider" than Gonzalez. While Gonzalez's scrollwork-and-feather motifs give her work the feel of traditional Mexican crafts, other elements seem thoroughly American. A number of drawings have a stylized, art-deco feel. And while Gonzalez's vaguely mystical-religious scribbling contains the mysterious capitalization and occasional misspellings that are de rigueur in this genre, they also suggest that Gonzalez was relatively well-educated and more at home with English than with Spanish.
Worse, Gonzalez's personal concerns never rise to the political; with Gonzalez, the personal is just half-baked. Thus we are treated to 41 doses of vaguely spiritual-sounding platitudes about art and religion and life after death and American holidays and who-knows-what-else. Despite the best efforts of the Pollock director and the Webb Gallery--which lent most of these drawings--the late Ms. Gonzalez doesn't seem a prime candidate for consignment to the history books, not even in the suspect and commercially driven category of outsider art.
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