Born in Mexico City, Ilona Katzew came to L.A. 13 years ago to assume a role at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as an associate curator of Latin American art. At the time, Latin American art was a component of a larger museum department that also included Modern and Contemporary Art.
While training at New York University's Fine Arts Institute, she bolstered her academic pursuits with curatorial work that focused on a broad swath of art history, and Latin American art history in particular. According to her, Pre-colombian societies and their highly developed art forms did not end with the Spanish conquest. The general notion that Aztec and Inca civilizations were dead or over didn't really reflect the truth, she says. An exhibition entitled "New World Orders: Casta Painting and Colonial Latin America," which she curated at the Americas Art Society Gallery in 1996 got her noticed by the New York Times. Her book on the subject of "casta" or "race heirarchy" paintings was later published by the University of Texas.
In her rather well-informed opinion--as a native of one of this hemisphere's preeminent pre-Colombian capitols and as a widely published art historian -- the onset of a Spanish preeminence precipitated a process of negotiation, accommodation and subtle, subversive resistance. The older cultures blended with the new both physically and in the art that was produced, while adopting and adapting the techniques and forms imposed by European standards.
L.A.'s formidable status as a nexus for Chicano art is simply one manifestation, she says, of that still on-going blurring of identity and a process that is part of a living, breathing culture that surrounds us. Religious art and religious iconography are further examples of this artistic marriage. It is no secret that many Catholic icons have origins in Pre-Colombian symbols, beginning with the Virgen of Guadalupe.
A significant part of her work, now as curator and co-department head of LACMA's Latin American Art department, a department established formally in 2006, has been to "tease out" those underlying connections across the ages with exhibitions and acquisitions. This month, LACMA celebrates the soft opening, or "re-installation" of its Latin American art galleries as a way to quietly introduce Angelinos to a vision that has, at its root, a dynamic understanding of the city's demographic shift.
Fabian Debora stood on the railing of a busy I-5 Freeway, just beyond Hollenbeck Park, watching the cars zoom by. Blood spewed down his mouth and onto his water-soaked shirt -- consequences of the manic escape from his mother's home where she had discovered him doing meth.
Haunted by his children's faces and the hurt he had caused, he fled in shame to this spot, where he planned to end his life. Voices shouted in his head, beckoning him to do what he had come to.
"The voice said, 'You worthless piece of shit, kill yourself,' and it's starting to sound scary and its sounding like a demon...and it's getting louder and louder and I just said 'Ahhhh I don't want to hear this!' I ran across the freeway. First lane, second lane, third lane. There was no turning back."
Debora's story nearly ended that day. It is a story laced with sadness and loss, tragedy and regret. But most of all it is a story about an artist's mission to heal himself, help his community, and bring attention to the forgotten area of Los Angeles -- his home neighborhood, Boyle Heights.
None of these cultural icons escape the humorous, thoughtful hand of artist Linda Vallejo for her show "Make 'Em All Mexican" at George Lawson Gallery. Opening this past Saturday, the exhibition gives recognizable images a funny twist as Vallejo has turned the characters' skin tan, often adding tattoos.
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Some were amused when Los Angeles filmmaker Jon Reiss' timely, 2007 documentary about the reignition of hipster interest in global street art, Bomb It, identified New York in the 1960s and '70s as the genre's ground zero.
Sure, the likes of Taki 183, Cornbread and, later, Futura 2000 helped pioneer and popularize street art via their subway tags and bulbous spray-can trips. All hail that, indeed.
But Mexican-American youths were glorifying their names and neighborhoods decades before that, in letters just as large and fantastic -- and they were doing it in Los Angeles.
It's no coincidence that L.A. is the art form's new capital. It was the old one, too. Here, Eastside street gangs dating at least to the 1930s, including White Fence and Maravilla, marked their turf with corresponding graffiti.
On a Saturday night last year, 99 theatergoers sat in chairs that were a bit too small, with those flip-up school desk attachments dangling from the sides. Jay McAdams, the executive director of the 24th Street Theatre, took to the stage to introduce La Razón Blindada, a two-person play about Argentine political prisoners, which was named Production of the Year at the L.A. Weekly Theater Awards in 2011.
But McAdams speaks "pretty bad Spanish," he says, and the translator for his speech couldn't make it that night. So he asked if there was a Spanish-speaking audience member to help him. The volunteer evidently wasn't enthusiastic enough for McAdams, a former actor on Days of Our Lives and a theater producer for the past 20 years. McAdams tried to amp things up. "We're excited!" he said, pumping his fist. Then McAdams' cellphone rang. It was an actor backstage, asking if they could start doing the play already.
In 2000, members of the Zapatista Air Force launched an attack on Mexican soldiers stationed in Chiapas. Before this, no one knew the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, notoriously ill-equipped and mainly made up of indigenous people who lived in self-governed rural communities, even had an air force. But how they acquired planes was no mystery: they made them out of paper, folding leaflets with messages and poems written across, then snuck up close enough to send a fleet of hundreds into an army encampment.
Six years earlier, in 1994, when the Zapatistas first became known as a movement, they had donned black ski masks ("so that we would stop being invisible") and staged a largely non-violent revolt against the out-of-touch government, taking control of cities throughout Chiapas. No lives would have been lost if not for the Mexican Army's retaliation. "We didn't go to war to kill or be killed. We went to war in order to be heard," said their leader, Subcomandante Marcos. He also called poetry a "favorite" weapon.
The artist Rigo 23, who made the work for his new exhibition at RedCat in collaboration with Zapatista artists, was in San Francisco when the Zapatistas first revolted. He stole a copy of Yo, Marcos, writings by the Zapatistas' leader, from the Stanford Library and devoured its poetic politics. "It was quite attractive, irresistible even," Rigo now remembers.
For UCLA professor Chon Noriega and his team of art historians-cum-curators, PST represented an opportunity to de-shroud the historical record and posit the legacy of Mexican-American cultural and artistic production in this city as a viable, significant part of what makes L.A. an art capital.
Beginning last fall with "Asco: Elite of the Obscure, A Retrospective,1972-1987," a LACMA show that offered the first major look at the '80s conceptual and performance art collective that called itself "nausea" in Spanish, L.A.'s oft-overlooked Chicano art legacy is finally being acknowledged. While not one of the five "L.A. Xicano" exhiitions, the Asco show was an officially sanctioned part of PST, and it handily anticipated what could best be described as a banner season for Chicano art, with about 80 artists exhibiting their work across L.A. in some of its most prestigious institutions.
Tony Dominguez is a 3-D kind of guy. Most people look at a photo and see it only in two dimensions. Dominguez looks at a flat image and sees its geometry in three. He can spin it around in his head. He senses its depth.
As a maker of giant Dia de los Muertos puppets, he is well served by this talent. Lately, though, it seems as if three dimensions aren't nearly enough.
Hours before the public inauguration of two major Pacific Standard Time linked exhibitions of Chicano art at UCLA's Fowler Museum, friends and long-time collaborators of the self-professed "activist art historian" gathered in the Hollywood union hall to celebrate the life of a pioneer in the field of contemporary Latin American art history and a tireless warrior who often stood on the front lines of peace and justice protests even as she help birth a field of academic study that had gone largely ignored by art institutions until she came along. Her death on September 11 at 85 from Alzheimers concluded an important chapter in the cultural life of Los Angeles, a period when art and artists on the margins began taking center stage.