In 1971 Enrique Chagoya, as an 18-year-old student in Mexico City, participated in a student demonstration against the repressive regime and barely escaped a massacre by the police which, like the mass murder of 1968, killed hundreds of students. This was near the site where human sacrifices were performed by the Aztec priests before the Spanish conquest. Chagoya, in his paintings, codices and prints, fuses the depravities of the past with those of the present and does much more.
In 1979, after having studied political economics at the University of Mexico, he moved to Berkeley and studied art at UC. Among the earliest works in the compelling exhibition are a series of 20 intaglio prints, grisly nightmares, locating Goya’s Los Caprichos and Disasters of War in the present. In Against the Common Good (1983), for instance, we see a smirking President Reagan as King Ferdinand VII in Goya’s print. He is equipped with bat wings and reads the new constitution which was considered a dangerous canker on the body politic of Europe, not dissimilar to Reagan’s effect on American policy. In another intaglio print, entitled Goya Meets Posada, Chagoya presents his homage to two artists who inspired much of his own work.
These prints were first exhibited in a show at the San Francisco Art Institue in a show, “Artists Call Against U.S. Intervention in Central America” in 1984. In the same year Chagoya painted Their Freedom of Expression ... The Recovery of Their Economy. Here as in many of his works, he appropriated Mickey Mouse as an ambassador of American popular culture. Reagan, sporting the Mouse’s ears, paints the message “Ruskies and Cubans out of Central America” on the wall, while Dr. Henry Kissinger, the smaller Mouse, graffities “By the Way Keep Art out of politics.”
The exhibition is subtitled “Borderlandia,” and the logo of the show is the painting When Paradise Arrived (1989). Here the border clash looms large in a nearly seven-foot square charcoal and pastel on paper: Mickey Mouse’s gigantic thrusting hand, with “English only” written on its middle finger, is poised to flick an innocent little Latina out of the picture, out of the country. The girl with a bleeding heart evokes the image of the virgin of Guadalupe. In The Governor’s Nightmare (1994) he fuses Meso-American culture with the political situation in California during Pete Wilson’s governorship: The Aztec Lord of the Dead sits on a pyramid, sprinkles salt on a terrified Mickey Mouse and exhorts his people to cannibalism as they devour the governor’s organs. In this picture we also see devout Christians drinking the blood of their god in a reproduction of a Spanish colonial painting of the Allegory of the Sacrament.
There is a fine sardonic series of drawings, Poor George (2004) in the show in which our current president is irreverently mocked. This group was done in respect for Philip Guston’s caricatures of Nixon in the Poor Richard series of 1971. Goya, Posada, Guston: Chagoya has a deep reverence for kindred spirits in the history of art, who, like him, commented on mankind’s atrocities and follies. During recent years the artist also produced a number of Codices. Done on amate paper, as in pre-Columbian times, and in a way similar to the ancient text of which so many were burned by the invaders, they deal with ancient, past and current history. Chagoya’s Codices are not straight narratives. They are filled with paradox and are convoluted as well as playful at times and are charged with political and visual information.
One large painting in the show pictures an elegant black-trousered leg and well-polished shoes stepping on upside down bare red feet that emerge from a sea of blood. Taking his cue from Hegel, Chagoya named it Thesis/Antithesis (1989). In his Artist’s Statement, he writes that his art is “a product of collisions between historical visions, ancient and modern, marginal and dominant paradigms—a thesis and antithesis—in mind of the viewer. Often the result is a nonlinear narrative with many possible interpretations.”
Through May 18 at the Berkeley Art Museum, 2621 Durant Ave. Open 11 a.m.- 5 p.m. Wednesday - Sunday.