8 Contemporary Mexican American Art: Themes and Intentions
Mexican American Art:
It was about a year ago when I had gone to visit my mom in California that I took my first trip to the Los Angeles arts district. We had signed up to do a mural walk led by a tour guide to explore all of the contemporary street art in L.A that began during the Muralist movement in the 1930’s when Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo first moved to California from Mexico. Since then, many Mexican artists have migrated to California in hopes of finding a better life full of new opportunities. The history of Mexican art in America is one that is not discussed in traditional art history texts because of the fact that the traditional art history canon excludes art made by women, and people of color. However, the history of Mexican art in American is a very rich one when put into context with the history of brown-America.
At the beginning of the Muralist movement in the 30’s, America was embracing Mexican artists and provided funding for one project in particular that was the beginning and end of publicly funded Mexican art in Los Angeles. “America Tropical” by David Alfaro Siqueros was intended to be a mural representing the lush tropical land in California. However, when the artist instead chose to paint a picture of what life for people of color in America was really like, the work was whitewashed and Siqueros was later deported back to Mexico for an expired visa. It wasn’t until the 1970’s and the emergence of the Chicano Art movement and art collectives such as Asco, that Mexican American artists began to fight back against censorship and oppression. Asco is a group in particular that had a controversial response to Mexican Artists being excluded from galleries such as the LACMA. During the time of the chicano art movement, the art world deemed Mexican art as “not prestigious enough” and therefore not worthy of being shown at the LACMA exhibit. In response to that exclusion, Asco spray-painted their names in red letters outside of the LACMA as a form of protest; they were demanding to be seen. Many other artists that were involved in this movement used their art as a political tool to shed light on a minority that up until then was not being recognized by the art community.
Mexican American art during the 70’s was specific to California because it was, and still is home to many immigrants who migrated from Mexico during the revolution. The Chicano Art movement coincided with the Chicano civil rights movement, which birthed a lot of very political art. Because artists of color were still being excluded from galleries and museums, artists took to the streets of their communities to display their civil rights art.
The interesting thing about street art is that it is hard to avoid and its hard to censor. Giant murals covering the sides of tall building and parking garages stand right in your face while your walking down to street displaying all kinds of messages and politics, and once something gets covered up, something else appears in its place the next day. Many murals from the Chicano Art Movement are still displayed today and they are still just as relevant in regards to our current presidency and the picture white America paints of Mexican-Americans and immigrants. In East Los Angeles there are murals on the walls of housing projects displaying messages like “In Memory of our beloved Friends” in reference to people who have died in gang violence. On the wall next to it is an empowered fist is painted in front of a Mexican flag with the word “Chicano” in big bold letters above it. The Murals created during this time empowered communities and gave them a bigger, louder voice to speak to the world with and inspired a whole new genre of art that remains prominent in popular cities in California such as Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Traditional art history textbooks describe the 70’s as the beginning of a new style of installation art that was site specific. Art history textbooks mention Richard Serra and his public installations that brought about the “aesthetic of varying conditions of light and spatial text” that created an altered site. However, the kind of site specificity associated with Richard Serra’s artwork is very different than the site specificity associated with Mexican American art in California. Miwon Kwon, author of “One Place After Another” defines three types of site specificity: physical site, cultural site, and discursive site. In order to understand the history of street art in Los Angeles one must understand all aspects of site specificity. This section will discuss the aspects of site specificity related to contemporary Mexican American art and how it’s history continues to influence all types of art being created today, especially in light of the Trump era and the oppression that Mexican American’s are still facing today.