In Enrique Chagoya's parody of Josef Albers' noted painting "Homage to the Square," Chagoya places comic-strip-style thought balloons amid the layers of yellow rectangles. The young Mexican boy positioned on top of the painting's center tells himself, "It ... was ... just ... a ... dream ... in ... English ... only." Near the top, a tiny Bart Simpson surveys the boy's revelation.
Chagoya explains that he has appropriated the work of a Western master to make a political statement -- in this case, an attack on former California Gov. Pete Wilson's ill-conceived English-only ballot initiative. The painting, like so many of Chagoya's, can be seen on many levels. The conservative governor is the "square" (as in uncool), receiving "homage" in biting satire, and Albers, Chagoya explains, was -- like Picasso, Henry Moore and Frank Lloyd Wright -- apt to "use the work from former colonies without being interested in understanding the forms you are borrowing; you just make something very formalistic, and that's it." Bart Simpson, inspiration to flummoxed students everywhere, chuckles at the predicament.
Chagoya specializes in juxtaposing images of pop culture with tokens from extinct Meso-American and Latin cultures. The Mexican-American artist has brought Little Lulu and Little Black Sambo to the ancient Aztec world and superimposed Snow White and Rat Fink over Goya etchings. For many, his work is not easy to comprehend at first glance, but his sense of humor usually pierces the veil.
"I don't like to be preachy, too melodramatic about serious issues," he says, "and somehow to me, humor is a door that gives access to complex ideas rather than presenting something too scary to even think about. André Breton defined the surrealist sense of humor as the triumph of pleasure over pain in the worst conditions for pleasure."
Chagoya's joining of native Central and South American references with modern comics characters is not done simply to make us laugh. He intends to make us reflect on the course of history and the way the victors have lifted ideas from the vanquished. In particular his codices, lengthy fold-out works that imagine unrealized histories told by victorious Aztecs, Mexicans and Chicanos, reverse the roles of "savage" and "civilizer."
"The conflict between civilization and barbarism is a construction of history -- it started with the ancient Greeks. For them, everybody outside of Greece was a barbarian. Eventually, everyone outside of Europe was considered a barbarian. Then they imported that concept to North America. I'm reversing that model to put a mirror on history. I reverse the role of the victim and the victimizer and make some kind of a fictitious history."
By imagining the reversal of influence and derivative, Chagoya implies that history and the art canon are fictions that are not wholly honorable and could have transpired otherwise. In the process, he generates dangerous laughter.
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