My artwork is a visual reflection on various, and often opposite, cultural realities that I have experienced during my life, from growing up in Mexico, living a couple of times in France, and becoming a citizen of this country in the year 2000 after being a permanent resident living in the Bay area for 20 years. I integrate diverse elements: from pre-Columbian mythology, Western religious iconography, ethnic stereotypes, ideological propaganda from various times and places, , American popular culture, etc. The art becomes a product of collisions between historical visions, ancient and modern, marginal and dominant paradigms - a thesis and an anti-thesis that end in a synthesis in the mind of the viewer. Often, the result is a non- linear narrative with many possible interpretations. Depending on the specific concept, I choose to work primarily with 2-D in different media: Painting, Drawing, and Printmaking (traditional and digital). Sometimes I work on Public commissions. In general I like to develop different bodies of work that may differ from each other in style, but would have similar conceptual basis.
For example, my codex books are based on the idea that history is told by those who win wars. Previous historic accounts are erased, destroyed or buried in oblivion. A new official story is invented in order to justify the new reality of events. Cultures are transformed and often completely destroyed by conquering ones. The world is endlessly re-mapped and re-named, with new rules and rulers in recurrent holocausts. New "world orders" come and go in the middle of ideological frenzy. The 20th century has been perhaps the most violent in the world's history, and the new Century does not seem to get any better. Human kind is in constant war with itself, perfectly capable of total destruction. This is the raw material for my art.
I depart from the conquest of the Americas ‹ which started in the late 15th century ‹ and the destruction of the written history of ancient cultures in meso-America. Only about 22 pre-Columbian books survived the fire set by the European priests and soldiers on all libraries found during the conquest war. Meso-America was one of the few places in the world in which written language was developed. It was the only geographic area in the continent with libraries like the one in the Aztec kingdom of Texcoco created by the king/poet Netzahualcoyotl. That library was described by indigenous historians as the largest ever created in the ancient world, with books full of historical, medical, astronomical and religious information that shaped the ancient world. Almost all is permanently lost, not only the books but also the written language.
Since from this perspective history is an ideological construction, I decided to invent my own account of the many possible stories ‹ from Cortez to the border patrol ‹ in my own visual language. I mix pre-Columbian mythology with Catholic icons, American comics and images of ethnic stereotypes. Recently I have added even more varied imagery due to globalization, and international wars. My codex books are made with the same bark paper (amate) used in the ancient codex books. I also have a series of large paintings on amate which are based on the same concept described above.
My large drawings (80"x 80") are based on satirical cartoons. With several possible influences (Goya, Daumier, Posada) they are very much developed in my own style. They comment on contemporary issues with humor. They are drawn with inexpensive materials: charcoal and pastel on paper and they are meant to have an ephemeral life in the art world. When I first started the series I did not wanted to make art, I just wanted to exercise my freedom of expression. I thought most of them would end up in the closet. To my surprise they were requested for exhibitions, and most of them have survived the test of time. I made a computer animation of one of these drawings, and sometimes I show it in an installation next to the drawing. I have started a new series of charcoal drawings in the year 2004 reflecting my anxieties about war, and post 9-11 xenophobic wave.
My etching series entitled "Homage to Goya", and more recently “Return to Goya” were started in 1983, and have continued until this year when I made two large prints based on his “Caprichos” and his Desastres”. The prints are almost forgeries of Francisco Goya's 19th century etchings known as the "Disasters of War," and The Caprichios.” Curators often display Goya's prints next to mine to trick the viewer, since they look alike (except for the contemporary elements included in my images, likeTV monitors, space shuttles, famous modern political and religious leaders, etc.). I witnessed a gallery patron going back to double check what he just saw and laughing when he saw that my etchings were not Goya's, but rather contemporary prints. The concept of this work is based on the question: How would Goya have portrayed events in the 20th century if he had witnessed it, if he had traveled in time? My etchings are my own version of the answer, without the pretension to compete with the old master (one of the etchings on this series is a self portrait with my small foot entering a gigantic Goya's shoe).
Other work series are a visual play on issues of good and bad taste as an expression of social class and cultural bias beyond subjective preferences. In one series I did some painting and drawing directly on fifty original 19th century European prints used for educational purposes with the biographies of the artists. I got them from an old book infected with fungus. I saved the good pages and gave them a “second life”. I overlaid on top of the engravings images of very diverse class and cultural origin, from pre-Columbian art to American popular cartoons, drawings for tattoos, etc. A byproduct of this experience is a sense of what I would call reverse anthropology or reverse Western art history. Instead of a European artist appropriating artistic expressions by cultures from former colonies (i.e. Picasso "appropriating" African sculptural forms to develop his cubist style like in the Mademoiselles D'Avignon, or Henry Moore "borrowing" from Aztec sculpture (Chac-Mool) to develop many of his pieces, or Frank Lloyd Wright "inspired" by Mayan architecture in some of his designs, to give just some few famous examples, and not to mention "high" art inspired by "popular" art) I ask the question: What kind of art would have been created if the opposite had happened? I have explored this concept with few other paintings on hand made paper, and a set of cans depicting “cannibal’s soup” including various recipes such as “Curator’s Liver,” Museum Director’s Tripe,” “Artist Brains With Rice,” Models Meat,” “Anthropologist With Noodles,” etc.
My latest works have been a series of paintings exploring issues of illegal immigration, racial stereotypes, and xenophobia in a post 9/11world. Focusing on this theme, I have a traveling survey of my work from the last 24 years organized by the Des Moines Art Center in Iowa. The title of the exhibition, “Borderlandia,” is a mix of Spanish and English words that reflect my ongoing preoccupation with the borders people build amongst each other (political, social, cultural, ethnic, etc.). A comprehensive catalog of the show was published by the Art Center. The exhibition will travel to UC Berkeley Art Museum in the Spring, and ended at the Palm Springs Art Museum in Southern California
American, Born 1953, Mexico City, Mexico / Lives in San Francisco, California
Drawing from his experiences living on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border in the late 70’s, and also in Europe in the late 90’s, Enrique Chagoya juxtaposes secular, popular, and religious symbols in order to address the ongoing cultural clash between the United States, Latin America and the world as well. He uses familiar pop icons to create deceptively friendly points of entry for the discussion of complex issues. Through these seemingly harmless characters Chagoya examines the recurring subject of colonialism and oppression that continues to riddle contemporary American foreign policy.
Chagoya was born and raised in Mexico City. His father, a bank employee by day and artist by night, encouraged his interest in art by teaching him drawing and color theory at a very early age. As a young adult, Chagoya enrolled in the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, where he studied political economy and contributed political cartoons to student and union newsletters. He relocated to Veracruz and directed a team focused on rural-development projects, a time he describes as “an incredible growing experience…[that] made me form strong views on what was happening outside in the world.” This growing political awareness would later surface in Chagoya’s art. At age 24, he immigrated to the United States and settled in San Juan, Texas. After eight months working as a union organizer for farm workers, Chagoya moved to Berkeley, California, and began working as a free-lance illustrator and graphic designer. Disheartened by what he considered to be the narrow political scope of economics programs in local colleges, Chagoya turned his interests to art. He enrolled in the San Francisco Art Institute, where he earned a BFA in printmaking in 1984. He then pursued his MA and MFA at the University of California, Berkeley, graduating in 1987. In 1995 he won a residency to live and work at Monet’s Giverny gardens outside of Paris, France; and in 1999 he had a residency at the Cité international des Arts in Paris. In 2000 Chagoya became and American citizen. His work has been shown nationally and internationally. In the fall of 2007 the Des Moines Art Center in Iowa launched a 25 year survey exhibition of his work that traveled to the Berkeley Art Museum, and the Palm Springs Museum in California.
Chagoya is currently a Full Professor at Stanford University’s Department of Art and Art History. His work can be found in many public collections including the Museum of Modern Art in New York; the Metropolitan Museum; the Whitney Museum of American Art; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco among others. He has been the recipient of numerous awards such as two NEA artists fellowships; a Tiffany Fellowship; an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; a President’s Award for Excellence from the San Francsico Art Institute; and a grant from Artadia, to mention a few. He is represented by Gallery Paule Anglim in San Francisco, CA; George Adams Gallery in New York, NY; and Lisa Sette Gallery in Scottsdale, AZ. His prints are published by Shark’s Ink in Lyons, Co; Segura Publishing in Pueblo, AZ; Trillium Press in Brisbaine, CA; Magnolia Editions in Oakland, CA; Electric Works in San Francisco, CA; ULAE in New York, NY; and Smith Andersen editions in Palo Alto, CA.
 Enrique Chagoya quoted in Steven Nash’s, “Borders of the Spirit,”Triptych (October/November/December 1994) 24.
Jean-Baptiste Simeon Chardin
Photo credit: Scala / Art Resources, NY
Silk, paper, plexiglass, lights, electronics, 2800 bug pins
A film by Jamie Meltzer
Courtesy: Joshua Forney