Drawn Out

Political Satire Doesn't Make Up for Unoriginal Commentary In New Chagoya Retrospective

Photo: Hands Up. The Enrique Chagoya retrospective opens this Wednesday at the Berkeley Art Museum.
Berkeley Art Museum/Courtesy
Hands Up. The Enrique Chagoya retrospective opens this Wednesday at the Berkeley Art Museum.

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Noble intentions surely motivated Enrique Chagoya to produce the work of this 25-year retrospective that the Berkeley Art Museum opens Wednesday. However, the art itself is often (to be as crude as its repeated bloodletting) exasperating, bold, poached sign language. Of course, that's the point. Chagoya's recurring argument revolves around an idea of art as cannibalism: All art is a rehash or a redeployment, of the cultural history that produced it. This is art as Ouroboros. The details in Chagoya's larger frescos look like an attempt to short-circuit any reading one may generate (dig those peasants' speech bubbles about Marxist theory), but the problem remains: These are the same (old) arguments about colonialism, Others and pop culture that Edward Said and Roland Barthes taught us. But none of the paintings are as smart as Said, nor as witty as Barthes. (Or, for that matter, as striking as Chagoya's obvious artistic ancestor, Francisco Goya.) At its worst, "Borderlandia" is boring and facile, its finger-painting delirium dwarfed by buckets of red paint. At its best, as in the painting, "Liberty Club #1," Chagoya's politics are subsumed by form: Here a knife-work wave dominates the canvass in blocks of grayscale, pushing a baby blue car-boat underwater; instead of Ouroboros we have art as a wash, an affective force of nature.

More often than not, though, politics stand front and center (Chagoya admits his preferred medium is the political cartoon). And a great number of the works-if not all of the works-operate as editorials and not, in a basic sense, as works of art, as something inspired by life; not something designed to point a finger at, to belittle life. Given this exhibit's proximity to last season's Tomas Saraceno bubble constellations, it's easy to spot Chagoya's slightness, despite his skill. Mickey Mouse may as well be a white elephant, not a big black hand poised to punt a little girl. (George W. Bush definitely fits the bill with those cartoon windmill earlobes.)

Worse than the politics is the oppositional structure Chagoya employs. Everything is a dig, a sign, a referent of the evil intentions of the world. Instead of restructuring the historicity (say, the power) of the art world, as appears the goal, these works rather reiterate the same old argument in an opposite (negative) vocabulary. The coin is flipped but it's the same coin.

The closest Chagoya gets to extracting himself from this value-dichotomy is in his codex pieces. Reading right to left is a simple inversion, but each panel does its best to deny meaning, to push the icons and idols in as well as out of the frame, to dissect and explode myths. But then Superman punches a blank page, next to loud block letters, and you're back to that safe skewer of the American poster boy. If Chagoya wants to celebrate Mexico, he should celebrate it, not keep it marginalized.

Satirize Ryland at [email protected]

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