Certain trade-offs seem unavoidable. Taking time off from work yields more free time, but what good is time without money? A new car rarely needs to see a mechanic, but instead of repair bills there’s a monthly payment to the bank. The encounter with art is an intimate and personal experience, but except for wealthy collectors it’s likely to happen in a large, usually alienating museum gallery, often elbow-to-elbow with a pressing, rushing crowd, and requires that killer of all romance: the fee paid up front. For those into contemporary art—the ebb and flow of experimental efforts by the artists of their own time—the commercial gallery is an accessible alternative, but still not without problems. Most galleries are businesses, and as such have their own priorities that may conflict with the viewer’s. The roles of host and guest are rarely clear up front.
Enter the public art space. Designed to cater to the amateur’s desire for the intrinsic experience of a work of art, rather than the professional’s interest in extrinsic qualities, public galleries come in many forms. There’s the non-commercial, publicly funded institution, like Salt Lake’s Art Center or Ephraim’s CUAC. Some corporate offices and doctor’s suites display collections that would have done a Renaissance palace proud. And then there’s Mestizo: a community center with ambitions to forge alliances between scattered and often disenfranchised individuals, a coffee shop with principles, and an art gallery built on the belief that all art is created equal.
For a few more weeks, Mestizo’s gallery is featuring a multipart exhibition honoring César Chávez. Participants include photographer Georgina Alvarez-Gutièrrez and painters Jose Carrasco, Brittney Flores, David Maestas, and Veronica Perez; but what transforms a small show into an event equal to the task of honoring Chávez is the involvement of several hundred participants of a recent Salt Lake City public school program to recall and celebrate him.
Chávez was probably best known to mainstream Americans as the organizer of the Delano Grape Strike, a labor action with historical parallels to the Montgomery Bus Strike organized by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Like King did for African-Americans, Chàvez had a unique ability to create public awareness of the existence and condition of those he spoke for. But, also like King, he was equally important to those he spoke for, as a role model and inspiration among the workers and within the community he organized. Though only one of many charismatic leaders in an era that overflowed with them, Chávez as public speaker was in a class by himself. While he never displayed the nervous energy or the sense of vulnerability that characterized King and Bobby Kennedy, Chávez’ self-possession, humor, and challenging manner as he stood, planted like a tree amidst swirling crowds of ardent supporters and those who weren’t so sure, left no doubt that this was someone to reckon with. He was, in a sense, someone who could only be captured adequately in art.
Due to its didactic and celebratory goals, the work being shown at Mestizo inclines toward the representational and narrative. At the straightforward representational end of the spectrum is Jose Carrasco’s oil pastel portrait of a campesino at work in the vineyard. Carrasco attempts a challenging task: to convey the hard work and harsh conditions of farm work. Viñero is most successful in showing a worker who has not been provided a uniform adapted to the conditions of the job. Instead of a respirator, gloves, eye protection, or snag-proof overalls, he wears the same clothes he wears every day: his cowboy hat to keep off the sun, the sleeves of his plaid shirt rolled up to keep them out of the way. Instead of supporting life, his labor attempts to displace it. Georgina Alvarez-Gutièrrez focuses on the node-point of her dual citizenship: the interrupted path connecting Tijuana to San Diego.|1| Her photos capture the contrast between concentrated living on one side of a fence and vacant land on the other. Just as a freeway or a city dump creates a margin of desolation, a “no-man’s land” for its fringe, so the international border reveals its toxic effects in this sterile strip. Alvarez-Gutièrrez is currently focusing on the loss of El Parque de la Amistad—Friendship Park—where friends and families divided by the border could, until recently, line up along a fence and visit through its wire mesh. That the Federal government has chosen to close this window leaves one to wonder if the purpose is security in a time of increased threat, or shame that such a travesty was needed in the first place.
Other works partake more directly in Latin American visual culture. In recent years a number of artists have revisited Lotteria, a popular card game built on powerful, uncanny graphic symbols depicting everyday objects, creating more topical signs. Veronica Perez here offers three: “La Mano (Don’t Bite the Hand That Feeds You),” “La Botella,” and “La Bandera.” Each combines strong visual statement with an ironic message. Whose is the hand that feeds me, if not the farm worker’s? The label on the bottle reads “Gallo,” the largest California wine maker and a frequent target of labor action. The banner carried by striking workers and their supporters, declares “¡Si se Puede!” reminding us that decades before it was adopted by the Obama campaign, “Yes We Can!” was originally a slogan of the United Farm Workers. Brittney Flores draws on the Latin American tradition of symbolic imagery that began with the Maya, flowed into the twentieth century Surrealism of Diego Rivera and Remedios Vara, and eventually contributed to psychedelic imagery and magic realism. Working intuitively from non-visual sources gives her work a speculative or shamanic aura and a spontaneous technique related to graffiti, tattoos, and outsider art. “Heart of the Land” was inspired—the word here takes on an urgency it rarely has in a time of artists with MFAs—by her research into Chávez’s as history, in much the same way Mayan and Aztec cosmology inspired Ingredients to Grow.
I was about to call David Maestas the most “western” artist here, meaning closest to mainstream European–American tradition. But Maestas is a real westerner, from New Mexico. His statement refers to Abstract–Expressionism, saying he prefers “painting from raw emotion rather than illusion.” But it’s too late to be an Abstract–Expressionist (as he knows) and his abstraction draws on visual memories and impressions in just the way I’ve taken to calling “abstract realism.” Both his large canvases here are landscapes that draw on the vast natural space of the Southwest. Spanish Trail, the more literal, invokes the omnipresent feeling of a great, pre-historic stage on which historical events are forever playing out. On its realistic side, “The Cross and the Sun” uses atmospheric phenomena, like the column, rings, and band created by high altitude ice that pass through or circle the sun and create sundogs. Its more abstract, geometric qualities reverse cause and effect, so that crossing bands generate squares of gold, silver, and copper foil. These metals, while symbolic since the Alchemists, are also key players in a history that stretches from Chile up the West Coast to Alaska, linking indigenous peoples in a drama of spirituality and exploitation.
Ruby Chacon, a prime mover of this exhibit and its accompanying events, would be offended if viewers ignored the students who hang alongside the professional artists and represent the future. Take Elizabeth Kim, whose portrait of Chávez took Grand Prize at the high school level. Kim places a photo of Chávez in an ornamental frame that also makes him the core of the earth: a seed from which grows a tree-like vine that spreads overhead, protecting and uniting the people who tend and celebrate it. The ground they stand on, in turn, is a checkerboard, invoking the look of crops, but also continuing the theme of interaction between indispensable partners: we care for that and those that feed us; we are all equal in the grand scheme; some truths are still self-evident. It’s an ideal that César Chávez lived and fought for, and if it remains an incompletely realized dream, so long as it lives in the hearts of artists and children, it is not lost.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.