Collecting as Critique

duron family collection

A word about the collection from Armando Durón

The Durón Family Collection consists of over five hundred works of visual art by Chicana(o) artists who reside in the greater Los Angeles area. These works have been acquired over the course of the last thirty-plus years. They include paintings, screenprints, drawings, ceramics, photography, sculpture, video, glass and countless multi-media variations. From the figurative and political, to the conceptual and abstract, Chicana(o) artists have been producing great works that highlights the Chicano experience. As Chicana(o) viewers who have shared much of that experience, we have gathered these works under one roof.

Read More of the introduction by Armando Durón

In order to better understand these works and the context in which they were produced we have also collected thousands of invitations and flyers of Latino exhibitions, books, catalogues and brochures, Chicana(o) art posters, artists’ biographies and resumes, letters and notes, and innumerable ephemera. We have attempted as best we can to document and catalogue all of these items so that they can be available not only for our own amateur research efforts but more importantly to scholars and students of Chicana(o) art now and in the future. Too often in the past our Chicana(o) history has been written for us. That is why we have become convinced that it is necessary to have a Chicana(o) perspective about what this art is and what it means, instead of leaving it to others to form that judgment for us.
The process of collecting is necessarily a subjective one. The collector hunts for an unknown object he desires and fulfills that desire when he possesses the heretofore unknown object he sought. Each collector has his or her own process. My process involves looking at art works in community, university and private galleries, museums, private homes, artists’ studios, restaurants, parking lots, warehouses, and garages and in the trunks of cars—wherever I can see Chicano art. Only by constantly looking at works do I believe I can properly assess what is best among what is being produced and whether a work meets its intentions. I also attend shows of other forms of art so that I can compare what is being produced in our community with what is being produced outside it. I read not only the Chicana(o) art books I acquire, but books on general art, art history and art theory, as well as art magazines. I believe this undertaking allows me to make critical assessments, freer from nostalgia and sentimentality, and is necessary in order to maintain the integrity of the collection. Other family members participate in the process when they can, but this is primarily my function. Mary’s support and participation has been just as important to the development of the collection.

The five artists who are included in this exhibition were chosen among dozens of others because they represent some of the deepest and most fundamental aspects of the collection. We have known four of these artists for over twenty years. The earliest work and the latest are by Linda Vallejo. But each of these artists has distinguished themselves with their individual vision and their ability to tell their story—our story. We thank them—Gronk, Barbara Carrasco, Linda Vallejo, Salomón Huerta and Lorenzo Hurtado Segovia—for their art and for their friendship.
We also thank Betsy Andersen and Vicki Winters of the Museo Eduardo Carrillo for this opportunity to share our world in this new medium—the virtual museum. We thank Dr. Karen Mary Davalos for her insightful essay. And most of all we thank you the viewers for allowing us to enter your virtual cortex.
—Armando Durón

Collecting as Critique: Essay by KarenMary Davalos

In popular perception and scholarly analysis, collectors are viewed as narcissistic, an unfortunate misperception that dismisses the important social, historical, and critical work they perform, particularly by those collectors who acquire art largely ignored by mainstream museums, galleries, critics, and historians. Chicana and Chicano art collectors, such as Mary and Armando Durón, are the unheralded preservers of cultural heritage, healers of historical amnesia, and critics of American art discourse.(1)

Read More of the essay by KarenMary Davalos

The Duróns have amassed an impressive collection of Los Angeles Chicana and Chicano art, and this selection presents their notable interventions against American art history, particularly criticism and curatorial practice that excludes as well as includes Chicana and Chicano arts. The first intervention is simple—the Durón Family Collection challenges and exposes the ideologies that support exclusionary practices in mainstream art history. The untenable notions of identity, culture, politics, and universal art (the code word that veils Eurocentrism) have resulted in a variety of gaps in American art museums. The Durón Family Collection fills one such gap. The second intervention is more complicated. Since the Chicano Movement, artists, activists, and scholars of the community have focused on the art of politics and the politics of art, consistently neglecting the multiple styles, approaches to art practice, as well as the various ways that art engages the political realm. Our community-based arts organizations, the legacy of the Chicano Movement, are the producers of important art criticism about Chicana and Chicano art, however, circling nearly every exhibition designed for and by Chicana and Chicano artists is a question about criteria: How is this work an example of Chicana or Chicano art, as if everyone had come to an agreement on the topic. The Durón Family Collection indicates that the Chicana and Chicano art production is richer and more complex than has been imagined. This exhibition challenges the premise of the question and implies that multiple lenses are needed to understand Chicana and Chicano art.

Because the Durón Family Collection exposes and challenges concepts within American art history and Chicana/o art history, I focus on two themes, aesthetics and emplacement, which allow for a rethinking of these two subfields of art history. These two themes in the exhibition function as important interventions. Aesthetics has been a driving topic of Western discourse from philosophy to anthropology. Yet, because it is narrowly defined, particularly to suit European and Euro-American notions of beauty or the sublime, Chicana and Chicano art is rarely examined for its aesthetic qualities. Equally responsible for this omission is the broad rejection since the 1960s of art-for-art’s sake or the modernist approach to art. Chicana/o art history has focused on the socio-political context and meaning of the work, leaving aside a discussion of line, color, composition, and style. However, Chicana and Chicano art has always been invested in aesthetics, both Euro-American notions and culturally-informed ones, such as rasquachismo, the improvised popular pleasure that originates in working-class survivance, or indigenous aesthetics—to name two of many. As a topic of discussion, aesthetics allow us to place Chicana and Chicano art within global trends.

The second theme, emplacement, a form of belonging obtained through attachment to a specific place and spatial claims to sovereignty, could be recognized as more organic to Chicana/o art discourse and practice. Portraiture and landscape are two forms of emplacement that have special meaning for people not typically rendered in the national narrative of belonging. Emplacement is more than territorial identity, however, as it is implies self-determination and the ways that home-places reflect and inform the self-care needed under conditions of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and other subordinations that limit human experience. This theme expands our understanding of Chicana and Chicano art because it draws attention to struggle and resistance; it connects Chicana/o art practice to global liberation movements.

Rather than create discrete groups to represent each theme, I propose that several works fall into both thematic areas. I have idiosyncratically chosen particular works to illuminate the themes. Moreover, none of the works here are parochial, and each parallels trends in American, Latin American and regional histories of art.

Aesthetic Pleasure

Culturally constructed and generated from a socio-historical position, aesthetics are always provincial. Yet the local notions of beauty can resonate across cultural groups, especially since culture is open and porous. For example, the West is not the only region to find beauty in the line of a pencil or stroke of a brush that flawlessly reproduces reality. The combination of exquisite technical mastery and compositional authority is awe-inspiring; it is a form of magnificence when an artist superbly renders his or her world. Another form of the sublime is achieved when reality or awareness of reality is heightened, intensified, or enhanced.

Like most art historians trained to appreciate Renaissance and baroque, paintings, I find beauty in the folding and draping of cloth. Linda Vallejo’s early work, Madonna con Columnas de la Humanidad (1975), visually echoes the paintings of El Greco and Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, which she studied in Madrid as a teenager.(2) The Madonna’s gown adorns her body like a jewel. The shadow and light moving across the fabric conveys spiritual knowledge, maternal love, and authority—and in this movement and depth lies beauty. Typically, Vallejo’s explorations of beauty focus on the landscape and the inner divine, as seen in Los Cielos (1996). Yet, this early drawing brings to our attention Vallejo’s interest in the blending of cultures, as she literally surrounds the Madonna with humanity’s structural supports, which are embedded with primordial script. Also superbly made is Barbara Carrasco’s line drawing Frida Kahlo y Yo (1985), which depicts two beautiful women with delicately rendered hair. It’s the hair that provokes aesthetic pleasure—interlacing strands, brushed and braided, gently embrace Kahlo and Carrasco. Indeed, Carrasco is known for her ability to produce realistic locks of hair. Exquisitely rendered hair is also found in Salomón Huerta’s Cabeza (1996) in which flesh raises and lowers the short-cropped hair on the back of a man’s head. Flopping skin likely produced by extra fat is not typically considered beautiful in Western art history, but the wrinkled cabeza, with its undulating skin and hair remind me of the draping cloth found in Renaissance and baroque paintings. Here western and rasquache aesthetics blend, and the use of chiaroscuro to depict a buzz-cut on the back of a beefy male’s head is simply beautiful. Chicano culture does not include royal subjects who sit for portraits that commemorate their power and authority, but Huerta has captured the aesthetic of lo cotidiano.

Continuing this attention to the ordinary, Huerta depicts the painful moment in which a stray bullet reaches the right shoulder of a Mexican-heritage child. Unfortunately, gang warfare, while reduced, continues to plague low-income communities of color. Drive By (1992) combines the movement of hair and the folding of fabric to generate a powerful aesthetic response in juxtaposition to the narrative. Lorenzo Hurtado Segovia also focuses on contrast to evoke sensual pleasure. In Papel Tejido #29 (2011), Hurtado Segovia replaces the conventional media of fabric with repurposed prints that are woven to create a two-sided massive construction reminiscent of traditional textiles of the Américas. When the eye determines that the wall hanging is not tapestry but repurposed prints, the work simulates a sensual pleasure because of Segovia’s ingenuity and exquisite eye-hand coordination.

Visitors familiar with Gronk’s oeuvre might wonder how I will discuss his work as an example of aesthetic pleasure. Certainly, the artist has achieved technical competence in composition, line, and color, and the photograph, Hamlet (1977) is clearly a bewitching portrait of a headless young man walking alone in an alley. If the title of the work is a metaphor for fatherless Chicano youth who lack masculine direction, then the photo heightens understanding of a lamentable social experience. However, Gronk’s body of work is similar to Jaspar Johns, Jackson Pollack, and other American abstract artists as well as Dada-ists and conceptual artists who are less invested in questions of universal aesthetics. Gronk’s work, even the glass construction, Brainfreeze (2004), circulates outside of pre-1945 notions of beauty. As with most of Gronk’s creations, Transient (2006), Little Broadway (2005), and Three Finger Exercise (2012) reinforce local and rasquache aesthetics sensibilities. Gronk plays with street calligraphy, better known by the weighted word “graffiti,” as the style through which to depict human figures, nature, and space. His attention to crowded compositions, multiple perspectives, organic forms, and two-dimensional or naïve-line drawings requires other sensibilities—at least one that finds pleasure in the pace, rhythm, or cadence of his hand. It is the sonic resonance of the work that produces aesthetic pleasure—but one that is purposefully expanding notions of art and the sublime.

Emplacement

Centuries of art history have witnessed the imperialists’ portrait or the colonizers’ vision of uninhabited landscapes, two common modes of claiming space in order to reify power. Chicana and Chicano artists expose these visual gestures of authority, control, possession, and so-called divine right by creating images of the colonized and dispossessed or the places they inhabit. In short, while emplacement is an old visual practice, it has new meaning when enacted by those displaced by the structures of power and the historic traumas of colonialism, racism, sexism, and homophobia. Here Chicana and Chicano arts visualize emplacement in two ways, by registering the power of place and by conceptualizing social location.

Linda Vallejo’s Sacred Oak (2002) and Los Cielos are powerful and utopic images of landscapes made meaningful by Indigenous values and relations. Sacred Oak depicts the life-force within the tree and its value within Native and Xicano communities.(3) These images bear witnesses to Indigenous presence in the landscape. Rather than uninhabited spaces that lack cultural history and meaning—the tradition of American landscape painting, Vallejo paints Indigenous places and their grace and dignity associated with those locations and the living beings and life-giving energies dwelling there. The paintings are lessons, instructing viewers to reorient their relationship to the land by rejecting notions of ownership and possession.

Both Gronk and Salomon Huerta have made significant examinations of the subaltern, further enacting emplacement. Disrupting the conventions of Western portraiture, several images are anonymous or archetypical characters, such as Transient (2006) by Gronk and Sin Dios (1993) by Huerta. Individual portraits come to symbolically represent collective experiences of the impoverished, forgotten, and erased. These previously invisible people dwell in the United States, and it is their home. Huerta has been consumed by irreverent portraiture for decades, drawing figures without attention to facial features. Also depicting the historic trauma of racism is Barbara Carrasco’s Self Portrait (1984), a serigraph that narrates the social brutality experienced by Mexican-heritage artists in Los Angeles whose work is whitewashed from the community’s walls or American art history’s pages. Like Huerta, Carrasco does not shy from the grotesque. Another self-portrait directly engages the most haunting topic—death—by placing her self-portrait inside a coffin or by depicting a couple in skeletal form as in Love Fires (2003). These portraits rupture Western traditions of figuration, but they also intend to locate the lives and experiences of people deprived of their land, heritage, and life-ways.

Linda Vallejo extends the challenge against Western portraiture and its symbolic emplacement by recoloring the very images that have come to represent the West, its authority and its ability to displace non-white people. For the series, Make ‘Em All Mexican, she produces Salome (2013) from a repurposed Hollywood still of the 1953 movie starring Rita Hayworth as the dancing, temptress who requests the head of John the Baptist. Vallejo repaints the seductress as Mexican by making her skin, hair, and eyes brown, reformulating the symbol of beauty and feminine power. This snarky reorganization of the gender and racial hierarchy that has unwritten the presence of Mexican women is a provocative visual strategy against representation, authenticity, and belonging. With Salome, Vallejo takes the series a step further by making a Spanish-descent actress into a Mexican, exposing Hispanic roots that were hidden throughout Hayworth’s career. Vallejo places the actress into the non-white category in which she was born. Yet, because this series is based on the simple maneuver of painting things brown, Vallejo also exposes the myth of biology. Racial identity is a social construction, and although meaningful, can be manipulated by anyone.

Hurtado Segovia is also working with repurposed images to achieve new senses of belonging and identity. Linking to a specific place and time, his two works “By Deborah Caldwood” (IV) (2008) and “By Deborah Caldwood” (XXXIV) (2009) unravel the Western fascination with the original and the author-genius as he appropriates his wife’s childhood drawings into the realm of fine art. These works and Plegarias (2006), a photograph of a work of art housed in an orphanage, further challenge ownership, and in doing so, resist the rhetoric of colonialism and its emphasis on possession of people and land to establish authority as well as universal aesthetics. Similar to Vallejo’s emplacement of the under-recognized, Segovia locates a previously underrepresented or misrepresented group of people into the national narrative of belonging.

This visualization of emplacement indicates that Chicana and Chicano art is expansive and complex, and thus, suggestive of a broader analysis. For example, some images locate the subject in two places, as does Carassco’s use of pop colors and día de los muertos icons. The matte color-scene originates in US graphic arts and imagery of skeletons migrates from Mexico. Emplacement is not about national identity but a grander sense of community and belonging. As such, it can support a coalition across subaltern communities, the working-poor, people of color, indigenous groups, women, and LGBTQ residents.

In this way, the private collection amassed by Mary and Armando Durón is itself an act of emplacement as they take a stand about the place of Chicanos in the nation and the world of art. It is a collection that documents how artists individually and collectively are more expressive, more creative, more complex than previous art criticism has envisioned. The diversity of styles alone is enough to call into question the dualistic method in Chicana and Chicano art history—political vs. commercial, traditional vs. popular, or collective vs. individualism, while the sheer artistry of the work calls into question the validity of mainstream arts institutions that do not collect, exhibit, and preserve Chicana and Chicano art.

1. KarenMary Davalos, “A Poetics of Love and Rescue in the Collection of Chicana/o Art,” Latino Studies 5, no. 1 (2007): 76-103.


2. Linda Vallejo, interview by Karen Mary Davalos, August 20 and 25, 2007, CSRC Oral Histories Series, no. 2 (Los Angeles: UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center Press, 2013).


3.  Using the indigenist spelling for “Chicano,” I reference the aboriginal sensibilities of some artists and activists. This political and linguistic maneuver refuses the immigrant representation of Mexicans living in the United States and insists on a longer historical memory of place that pre-dates US and Mexican nations.


KarenMary Davalos is a professor and chair of the Department of Chicana/o Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

Text © KarenMary Davalos, all rights reserved.
Artwork © the artists, all rights reserved

 

GALLERY

Linda Vallejo: Inoperable Vision

Gronk: Our Own Picasso

Barbara Carrasco: Chicana Self-Portraiture

 Lorenzo Hurtado Segovia: A Tapestry of Thoughts

Salomón Huerta: Visual Sociology

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5 thoughts on “Collecting as Critique

  1. One of the most striking images from this collection is the painting titled “Make ‘Em All Mexican, Salome”, by Linda Vallejo, from 2013. This portrait of an exotic women reclining on a Roman chaise is evocative of the ways that Chicana art has incorporated and then transcended many other styles in fashioning this painting. The red contrast is at once reminiscent of different skin colors as well as hearkening to Rita Hayworth, an early Hollywood sex symbol, who was also Mexican. Her languorous pose and seductive clothing remind us of Salome, she of the seven veils, who asked for the head of John the Baptist. This title is not only an evocation, but a warning. She is a femme fatale, as Salome was, but her embrace is deadly. Yet the seductiveness of the pose, along with the box of jewelry carelessly open at her side, make this woman very hard to resist. By titling it “Make ‘Em All Mexican, Salome” Ms. Vallejo is sending a clear message that to accept a single form of identity is to miss the dangers that this implies. In order to understand the modern world it is necessary to avoid a mistake in identification. Chicanos are not Mexicans, per se, but people of Mexican descent. Salome, in the painting, is a potential colonizer. She wants everyone to be Mexican. But this is just as destructive as everyone believing that, despite their Mexican heritage, that they are Americans. This strong, yet ambiguous painting, is a powerful acknowledgment of history, of the history of the art, and of the many ways that it is possible to incorporate many different trends and styles into a contemporary painting.
    Another powerful painting from the Duron Collection is by Gronk, titled “Transient”. This very crowded, very abstract study in yellows, browns, blues, and ochers evokes a poor man and a poor woman. Their bodies are sketched in skeletally, while they are surrounded by messy, seemingly dirty, smudges, swirls, and loops of various kinds. There are no clearly defined, recognizable images, and the artist seems to expect the viewer to fill in a lot of the blanks. His subtle introduction of two human figures here seems to indicate the equally ambiguous role actual humans have in a world that is messy, trashy, and confused. The painting is reminiscent of Picasso, as the Collection describes, especially his painting “Guernica”, which was also seemingly-confused, though it was about a real event. This painting’s evocation of that one is, I suspect, no accident. “Guernica” was about a town bombed from the air, and these “transients” look like refugees from a war.
    In “Love Fires” (2003), under the category of Chicana self-portraiture, Linda Carrasco has painted a couple embracing and kissing over the map of the world. There are fires highlighted in different parts of the world, perhaps symbolizing the wars and disasters in those places. They include Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as parts of eastern Africa. The painting is perhaps evoking the wars in those places that began in 2003. In any event the fires on the map match the fiery red hair of the woman who is kissing the man in the foreground. Though the two human figures seem cartoonish, they also seem to be responding to reports of wars and their attendant destruction around the world with the opposite of war: love. This is a powerful image on its own, but juxtaposed against the wars of the world it is very forceful. By posing these contrasting figures against each other – the couple kissing while the world is at war – Carrasco has made a subtly powerful statement about eternal human needs (love) and eternal human folly (war).
    In his painting “by Deborah Caldwell”, Lorenzo Hurtado Segovia manages to make a childhood painting of his wife’s a symbol of all the small things that are sucked into the net of the media (the words ‘The Opra Will Start In 15 Minutos’) and re-packaged for re-sale. But the things themselves, reminiscent of Spongebob Squarepants, look frantically around trying to avoid the net. They seem to be named Romlo and Juliet, and they are moving towards each other as the net is being raised under them. Their romance is doomed to become another re-packaged story, inhaled by the modern media machine that grinds everything into dust for re-assembly at the convenience of the media masters.
    These powerful, evocative, and sharp paintings all suggest that there are ways that the individual has of escaping this corporate media/art machine, which reduces art to easily-swallowed bite-sized bits out of all their original context. Through originality, invention, and a shrewd understanding of the messages inherent in art, the artists have all staged their own rebellions against the powers that be in these works, and done so successfully.

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