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I visited Enrique Chagoya in his Stanford University studio when classes were out for the summer. The bucolic fields outside the building were quiet, other than the rustling of tree branches, and a group of swallows and a hummingbird flying near the roof. When I entered the studio, I suddenly realized I had been there before – about fifteen years prior, when it was the studio of Nathan Oliveira, the Bay Area painter who died in 2010. Chagoya watched me as I recalled that experience, saying, “Yes, there are studio ghosts.”
Chagoya’s work is a consistent acknowledgement of what came before, how it recurs and repeats, how it can be not simply appropriated, but even re-made, in the service of an eyes-wide-open critique of our current political existence. He is a painter as well as an avid printmaker, “forging” and riffing off of Goya and Orozco, Pre-Columbian and non-Western imagery, canonical modernist paintings, and popular culture icons. The work also exists in the tradition of a Duchampian altered reproduction – using humor and challenging ideas of authorship.
His work often functions as biting and witty commentary, in the tradition of satirical political cartoons. He addresses immigration, the government, the economy, and the commodification of art. However, his work simultaneously maintains a reserve, respect, and reverence for the past – all present in his personal demeanor as well. He steers away from spectacle, shock value, and one-liners. He does not usually employ the grand scale of the Mexican muralists, even as he nods to them. He has made over 40 codices, in the manner of pre-Columbian books. His paintings and works on paper employ combinations of text, word, and image that are symbolic rather than quickly digested.
Chagoya was born in Mexico City in 1953, and became an American citizen in 2000. He earned a BFA in 1984 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and pursued his MA and MFA at the University of California, Berkeley, graduating in 1987. In 1995 he received a residency to live and work at Monet’s Giverny gardens in France; and in 1999 had a residency at the Cité international des Arts in Paris. In 2013, he was the subject of the solo exhibition Palimpsesto Canibal/Cannibal Palimpsest, which opened at Artium in Vitoria-Gasteiz, in the Basque Country, Spain, and ended in the Canary Islands at the Centro Atlantico de Arte Contemporaneo. In the fall of 2007, the Des Moines Art Center, Iowa, launched a 25-year survey exhibition of his work that traveled in 2008 to the Berkeley Art Museum and the Palm Springs Museum, California. In 2010, his work was included in the Drawing Mythologies in Modern Times exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, and Re-Imagining Orozco at The New School, New York. He has had several solo exhibitions at the George Adams Gallery, New York, and he is represented by and exhibits regularly with Anglim Gilbert Gallery (formerly Gallery Paule Anglim), San Francisco. He is a Full Professor at Stanford University’s Art and Art History Department.
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Jennifer Samet: You grew up in Mexico City, and you have said that your father’s job was an influence on your artwork. Can you tell me about what he did?
Enrique Chagoya: My father worked for the Central Bank in Mexico, which was the Mint. His office was full of etching plates with forgery designs for currency – not only Mexican bills, but also dollar bills, South American, and European money. He took me to his office when I was ten years old and that left a big impression on me. He was in the Criminology office of the bank, and his job was to catch fraud and forgeries.
My father used to go to the prisons to talk to the forgers, some of whom were artists. My dad was also an artist, and was able to talk to them on that level. San Pietro was the nickname of a French forger who lived in Mexico City. After the Mexican police finally arrested him, my dad asked, “Why did you do it?” He came from a wealthy family; he was a great artist; he went to major art schools. He said he only did it for the thrill.
JS: You moved to the Bay Area after a couple years of working with a Mexican government agency to help organize farmers in the rural area of Veracruz. How did you begin studying at the San Francisco Art Institute?
EC: I studied political economy in Mexico City at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in the early 1970s, right after the massacre in 1968 in Mexico City, before the Olympic Games. That created a revolution of consciousness within the country, which became very politically aware in the following decades. I accepted the work in Veracruz before I finished my thesis. The job was directed by very progressive people, following the methodology of Paulo Freire.
When I moved to the Bay Area, I wanted to continue my studies. I looked into the department at the University of California, Berkeley, but I knew more about economic theory than most of the graduate students. At the UNAM, we studied every theory from a critical point of view. We had a large number of South American faculty who had developed their own economic theories for Latin America, including the socialist movement behind Salvador Allende in Chile; we had aging Spanish refugees from the Civil War who were super-progressive – some of them anarchists. It didn’t make sense for me to study economic theory here. Instead, I began studying at the San Francisco Art Institute. I had been making art all my life, so it was easy to make the transition.
JS: Your early paintings were abstract and based on Constructivism. Was it the political ideals of Constructivism that interested you?
EC: Yes, I read the “Productivist Manifesto” by Boris Arvatov, which consolidated a lot of the ideas of Constructivism – the idea of utopian transformation of society through art, and the interchange between design and art. It was about designing the new society integrating art and life without the need of museums. Similar ideas were found in El Lissitsky, and many other artists. The use of red and black in my cartoons comes from the influence of Constructivism.
JS: How did your work become more overtly political and representational?
EC: I was at the San Francisco Art Institute from 1981-84, during the years of US. intervention wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador in Central America and the presidency of Ronald Reagan. I did cartoons, mostly out of protest, like big charcoal drawings of Ronald Reagan as Mickey Mouse and Pinocchio. I didn’t want to make art to sell; I didn’t want to make beautiful things. I was interested more in activism, and was doing solidarity work with Nicaragua and El Salvador. The Constructivist ideals got translated into a different format, which was cartooning, large format drawing, and etching.
The San Francisco Art Institute was great for this transition, because it was a place where anything goes. I decided anything goes for me, and not to be limited by the idea of abstraction as the end-all of painting.
My full exploration of political imagery was also triggered by an exhibition organized by Lucy Lippard in 1984. It was called “Artists Call Against Intervention in Central America.” The exhibition took place in different cities, and I was included in the local chapter. They collected money to be sent to the literacy campaign in Nicaragua, and the students and many local artists raised some money here through the SFAI Humanities Department. Then I met other artists who were involved in politics. That left a permanent mark on my work.
JS: You did your graduate work at the University of California, Berkeley. Joan Brown was one of your teachers there. I’m curious what she talked about.
EC: Joan Brown was my advisor in the graduate program, so she critiqued my work. We had amazing exchanges about mythology. She used to travel to Mexico to the Mayan territories. We talked about pre-Columbian mythology, books, history and culture. I began to do some little boxes with pre-Columbian imagery and she loved them.
JS: Can you tell me about your early teaching jobs and curatorial work for the Galería de la Raza?
EC: I taught art at the San Francisco County jail. Going to the prison was an intense experience – everything is more extreme inside, including racism. The teachers would have to go through searches, and I had to count my supplies, like pencils. But, it was great, and I did it for two or three years.
From 1987 to 1990 I was the artistic director of The Galería de la Raza, which was founded in the 1970s by a group of ten Chicano artists. It had a big influence in the San Francisco murals scene of that period, and helped artists fund all kinds of projects including trips to Cuba. It is a small space, still very active, in the Mission District.
The first show I organized was “Art from Jail.” I showed some of my students from the County Jail, and managed to get the San Francisco Sheriff to grant them permission to come to the opening. We did several group political shows with artists from all backgrounds, including the members of Art against Apartheid, where I had volunteered a year before. Although the focus was Chicano/a art, we included exchanges beyond the local community. I showed a small installation by Gabriel Orozco (before he was so famous). I invited Silvia Gruner and Chilean artist Eugenia Vargas to do performance installations. I organized a solo exhibition of the photographer Graciela Iturbide. We did a Day of the Dead exhibition with very diverse artists, not just Latinos.
JS: You have referred to some of your work as “Reverse Modernism.” What does this term mean?
EC: Modernist artists appropriated imagery, art, and concepts from former colonies. I believe that Picasso loved African masks and understood to a good extent where they came from. The same is true for artists like Henry Moore who did sculpture based on Chacmool, the Aztec seated sculpture associated with the god of rain, or Frank Lloyd Wright, who designed houses in Los Angeles based on Mayan Aztec architecture. So, I thought, “What would happen if “primitive” artists appropriated European art in the opposite direction, and perhaps with the same reverence? So I made paintings like the one of Picasso’s self portrait being eaten by an African sculpture in the middle of the Giverny pond, or my “Cannibull’s” soup cans (2003) after Andy Warhol’s. I love the European and Western artists I appropriate – from Goya to James Ensor to Monet, to Warhol.
JS: How did the idea of “forgery,” inspired by your father’s job, become an element of your printmaking?
EC: I did my first “forgery” in a history of printmaking class, which took place at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor. They have the Achenbach collection, a huge print collection. I fell in love with the Goya prints. I thought, “How hard would it be to make a print that looks exactly like a Goya print?” I decided to do my best, with the childhood memories of my dad’s office. However, I substituted Ronald Reagan for one of Goya’s demons. It was not a forgery then, but the rest looked like a forgery. That was my first one, and I haven’t stopped since then.
JS: How did you start making Codices? How many have you made?
EC: With the 1992 commemoration in the West of the quincentenary of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas, I decided to make my version of pre-Columbian books from Central Mexico’s ancient cultures. Most of those books were burnt. All of the Aztec books were burned in 1521 during the Spanish conquest of Mexico City. Only three Mayan books survived, and nineteen from the Mixtec-Zapotec cultures from Oaxaca. I have done about 40 painted codices, and 15 lithographic printed codices, following the format of the pre-Columbian books.
JS: How do you develop and arrive at the complex imagery in your paintings?
EC: Any idea that makes me smile or laugh becomes raw material for a painting or a print project. I did a cartoon of George Bush as Dopey, and one with Condoleeza Rice as Snow White with the whole set of seven dwarfs, represented as people in the Bush administration. Right after the 2008 election, I made a cartoon of Obama as Atlas, carrying the planet, for his inauguration. He is on top of a carnival car, with horses, and a lot of people whipping the horses. But the car has no wheels. It is not going anywhere. Next to him is Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden and Michelle Obama.
“Illegal Alien’s Guide to the Theory of Everything” (2007) is based on a photograph of Cuban refugees who adapted an old car into an amphibious vehicle. It has a little comic book image painted in the middle with Pilgrims wondering what happened to some relatives that were kidnapped by “artists” — originally it was “Indians.”
JS: You combine different types of pictorial language – text, symbol, image, to make statements in your paintings. Can you tell me about this?
EC: For me, it is a form of visual language that I mix to make visual sentences, which are not necessarily phonetic. But they have fairly precise meanings. I’ve refined that concept from reading about Pre-Columbian books. They were not literary books, because they did not use phonetic or alphabetic systems. It was pictorial mostly. Other linguists say the language was just as precise as any non-phonetic language we use today, like traffic signs or signs in airports.
I still believe in the dream of being a citizen of a borderless world, even if it never happens. Using a language that incorporates symbolic elements from all cultures is a way of addressing that diversity and crossing boundaries.
I try to express my own personal anxieties in my work. When I address the idea of corruption, I corrupt sacred imagery with non-sacred imagery. Sometimes I use comic books that have a lot of soft porn imagery, and I put a religious icon on top, and that creates an explosion.
JS: Is this how you saw the image of Jesus from your Codex, which created a controversy in Colorado — as a corruption of a religious symbol?
EC: Yes, exactly. That was about combining something spiritual and something non-spiritual. To me that is creating an image of corruption. One of my Codices, “The Misadventures of the Romantic Cannibals” (2004), among other pieces, was exhibited in the Loveland Museum, Colorado, as part of a group show of work printed by Shark’s Ink Press.
The exhibition was held during election season in 2010. A man from the Tea Party in the city council decided to boycott my show. He called local religious groups and started a picket line. He alerted Fox News, who showed pages of the Codex, with a blur, although there is no nudity in the whole book, and not one sexual interaction, either. The image they objected to was a combination of a woman’s body in a pornographic setting with an image of Christ derived from a Colonial painting in Mexico. I wrote to Fox to explain, but the more articulate I was, the more hate mail I got. The violent threats I received were very scary.
A pastor from the town, Jonathan Wiggins, called me. He told me that his congregation wanted to join the picket line, and he didn’t know what to tell them, so he asked me to explain my meaning. I explained that it was about the pedophilia in the church, the homophobia, and that it was not against Christ. He wrote back to me, saying, “Thank you for your thoughtful explanation. If you ever come to Loveland, it would be an honor to meet you.”
The Loveland Museum refused to take down my work. Because they took the heat from the protest, a woman drove all the way from Montana, and used a crowbar to destroy the book. She got tackled by some of the museum attendants, was arrested, and became an instant heroine for the Tea Party.
Soon after, the pastor wrote me and asked me if I would be willing to do a painting of Jesus for his church. I wrote to him and said, “I am not religious, but if your congregation takes it from me, I will do it for free.” The congregation accepted with a standing ovation. I researched Dutch paintings and Mexican colonial imagery for the depiction of Christ, and I showed him carrying a banner reading, “Love.”
It was installed in their new church building. The pastor invited me to come to Colorado for a celebration. Considering all the death threats, I was scared. But, a while later, I accepted. I had probably the greatest experience of my artistic career. No one talked about God or Jesus. The congregation was grateful, and introduced me to their families. I spoke and thanked them for being open-minded. I got out of my art bubble, and the pastor got out of his own bubble.
JS: Do you think art has the power to effect political or social change?
EC: No. I think at the most it is thought-provoking, and creates discussions and dialogue, which helps. But social change has to come from activism, from people working to change the economy and political systems. Art is a way to express your concerns.