To make art about the Chicano experience, Carlos Frésquez borrows from a dizzying range of influences, including pop, cubism, expressionism, and abstraction. His exhibition Sangre Colorado, on view at the Center for Visual Art at Metropolitan State University of Denver, questions what defines a “red-blooded American” — sangre is Spanish for blood and colorado translates to red-colored. Frésquez can trace his family roots to the 1600s in what is now New Mexico, and he says in the exhibition catalogue that his family never crossed a border: “the border crossed us.” Frésquez’s ancestors lived at the foot of the Rocky Mountains long before the Spanish conquistadors arrived, before they were transitioned to Mexican rule, and before their land rights were questioned within a new American territory. Therefore his work critically frames American as an abstract and malleable concept. For his knowledge of diverse Latino experiences, Frésquez has also become a contributor to the Smithsonian Archives of American Art.
Frésquez grew up in Denver’s North Lincoln housing projects. Eventually his family moved, but he continued to stay there with his grandparents during summers. In an interview in the catalogue, Frésquez recalls walking to St. Cajetan’s church with his grandmother, who would call out “Hola, Vecina!” — hello, neighbor! Because of her beckoning, his family would often arrive at the church steps with a group of 20 people. Today, the Lincoln projects are gone, and in its place stands the Auraria Campus, home to three institutions of higher education. Frésquez is a faculty member on that campus, teaching in the art department of Metropolitan State University of Denver for the last 28 years. St. Cajetan remains a student event space, just outside Frésquez’s office windows.
Frésquez’s roots extend well beyond the borders of Denver. As a teenager researching a school project, Frésquez found a retablo, or devotional painting, attributed to artist Pedro Antonio Fresquís. The similarity of the surname to his own led to what he calls a “culture quest,” and Frésquez’s research extended his family tree beyond Fresquís to two brothers that arrived in Santa Fe from the Spanish Netherlands in the early 1600s. Retablos originally referred to paintings placed behind church altars, but by the 12th century, the term referred to any painted work associated with a sacred image. Santos, created by santeros, typically include a holy figure framed by curtains — a design, Frésquez told Hyperallergic, that seems theatrical.
The diptych painting “Missing You” (1990) vibrates with color and energy in a neo-expressionist style. The solid structure of the San Francisco en Ranchos church occupies the central position among foothills, admired by a couple that stands in the foreground, nearly merging into one figural silhouette. Near the couple, a strange figure is roughly delineated with fine lines of bright color, next to a rooster. It is possibly a curandero: a healer responsible for blessing dry land and ailing bodies.
The entire scene is framed with curtains raised from the surface of the painting, and an immaculate heart at the top. “Missing You” is a version of a retablo, but the holy family is replaced with a holy land, Aztlan. Aztlan is more than the mythical origin of the Aztecs. The Chicano movement of the 1960s and 1970s reintroduced Aztlan not only as a geographic area, but more importantly, as a term for a collective experience and a homeland for identity.
In an exhibition that includes 40 years of work, Sangre Colorado reveals Frésquez’s versatility working with multiple styles and materials. The timeline also highlights how a painting made a decade ago often assumes new meaning today. The timely assemblage “Salon de los Illegales” (2005) contains 34 found framed idyllic landscape paintings occupying the outline of the continental United States. In every scene is the silhouette of a family running. In our conversation, he said:
When I was traveling along the US-Mexican border near Tijuana and San Diego there was a road crossing sign with a family running depicted instead of an animal, like, ‘Look out for this family, so you don’t hit them.’ I thought I would use the idea of a readymade painting to insert this family into someone else’s landscape.
From Mount Rushmore to The Southernmost House on Key West, the anonymous family seems to build empathy with the viewer and lend new complexity to beautiful backdrops.
The historian and Dominican monk Bartolome de Las Casas wrote about the cruelty indigenous people endured under Spanish control in A Brief Account of the Devastation of the Indies (1542). He described the Spanish “not only stabbing them and dismembering them but cutting them to pieces.” In “Los Manos qué Curan” (1994) Frésquez documents this violent scene with a simple blue outline of forms against a white background; he superimposes a detail from Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” (1937) in red. Interrupting the torturous vision, a grid of 9 small black boxes contains milagros of hands. These small tin Mexican charms historically depict body parts that could be left at shrines as a last resort to remedy the represented body part. Layering the distortion of cubism with historical accounts and folk art, Frésquez presents a surprising petition to heal the affliction of colonization.
Frésquez’s body of work is not about the border — it is a border space, negotiating multiple perspectives and languages to communicate a more nuanced understanding of identity and place. Artistic movements and iconic references are not preciously locked in the past: for Frésquez they are dynamic vehicles to critically discuss community and personal history. It is his way of calling out to his neighbors — “Hola, Vecina!” — on a pilgrimage toward understanding and possibility.
Sangre Colorado: Carlos Frésquez Mid Career Survey continues at Center for Visual Art, Metropolitan State University of Denver (Denver, CO) until March 24, 2018