“(My work) is based on the idea that history is told by those who
win wars. . . . The world is endlessly re-mapped and re-named, with new
rules and rulers. . . . I decided to invent my own account of the many
possible stories—from Cortez to the border patrol.”—Enrique Chagoya
Mickey Mouse meets Aztec gods and Francisco Goya meets Jerry Falwell in Enrique Chagoya: Borderlandia, the first major museum retrospective of the work of Mexico-born, San Francisco–based artist Enrique Chagoya, on view in Galleries 2 and 3. In the more than seventy works in the exhibition—paintings, charcoal and pastel drawings, prints, and mixed-media codices (accordion-folded books)—Chagoya intermingles icons and cultural references spanning hundreds of years and thousands of miles to create fantastic images and scathingly funny satires. Chagoya has described this universe of hybrid influences as a place where “all cultures meet and mix in the richest ways, creating the most fertile ground for the arts ever imagined.” Putting it another way, the artist has also said, “Humankind is in constant war with itself, perfectly capable of total destruction. This is the raw material for my art.”
Chagoya’s subject matter draws on his personal history and reflects his abiding interest in the complex, overlapping cultural histories of Mexico and the United States. The artist recalls, “We used to go for picnics to the pyramids of Teotihuacán . . . (where) my dad’s family is from. And then we were going to (Catholic) church. At the same time, I grew up with Mickey Mouse and Superman and all the comics. All the American programs from the sixties and seventies were translated into Spanish. You name it; I saw it, all the way from Rin Tin Tin to Zorro to the Lone Ranger.”
For Chagoya, cultural hybridization is part of a complex political process. A consistent focus of his work is the manner in which powerful nations have dominated others and appropriated their resources, both natural and cultural. For centuries, Western artists have used Indigenous and folk art as a source for their work: for example, Pablo Picasso’s use of African tribal masks in his Cubist paintings, or Frank Lloyd Wright’s incorporation of Mayan architectural forms and motifs in his designs. Chagoya inverts this practice in a process he calls “reverse anthropology,” placing icons from the dominant American culture within Indigenous or colonial settings, so that Superman faces off with an Aztec god, or cannibals run amok in Monet’s gardens at Giverny.
Chagoya both borrows from the canon of Western art and pays homage to the tradition of political satire, adapting Francisco Goya’s Disasters of War (now on view in the museum’s Theater Gallery) and Poor Richard, Philip Guston’s series satirizing Richard Nixon, to lampoon the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations. Drawing as well on traditional Mexican art-making, from ancient codices to retablo painting, and on the rich tradition of Mexican political prints, particularly those of José Guadalupe Posada, Chagoya’s intelligent and witty narratives send up and, at times, celebrate the complicated cultural and psychological consequences of more than 500 years of contact and influence between worlds.
Born in Mexico City in 1953, Chagoya studied political economics at the Universidad Nacional Autonóma de México before moving to the United States in 1979. In 1984 he enrolled at the San Francisco Art Institute, where he created the powerful work that begins this mid-career survey exhibition. In 1986 he completed an M.A., and in 1987 an M.F.A., at UC Berkeley. Chagoya has taught printmaking at Stanford University since 1995. His work is included in the collections of many major museums, including the Art Institute of Chicago; Centro Cultural de Arte Contemporáneo, Mexico City; Library of Congress Print Collection and the National Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles County Museum; Philadelphia Museum of Art; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, Museum of Modern Art, and Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.