In 1965 Mel Casas (1929-2014) was driving along San Pedro Ave when he noticed the screen of a nearby drive-in cinema. Projected upon the screen was a close up of a woman speaking. As her face peaked above the urban landscape, she appeared to be “munching” on the trees in the foreground. Casas would respond to this experience by creating a series of large-scale, cinematically inspired paintings he termed “Humanscapes.” Between 1965 and 1989 he painted over 150 of these “Humanscapes” with themes that ranged from sex, cinema, art, and politics.
On Friday, June 5 at 6 p.m., the Casas retrospective, “Getting the Big Picture: Political Themes in the Art of Mel Casas, 1968-1977,” opens at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center. It is curated by Ruben C. Cordova and is the first exhibition of its kind to focus on the politically themed paintings from the “Humanscape” series. It runs through October 24.
“Getting the Big Picture” includes some of the artist’s most recognized paintings; many which have appeared in major traveling exhibitions such as “Ancient Roots, New Visions” (1977-1978), and “Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmations, 1965-1985,” (1991-1993). It will also include works that have been rarely exhibited.
Cordova hopes the exhibition will expand the public’s familiarity with the range of Casas’s political work.
“He’s well known for having five or six paintings that have some kind of Chicano theme or Chicano iconography like the United Farm workers,” Cordova explained. “So with this exhibition, I wanted to show the whole range of his political paintings. Some of it deals with Nixon era politics; some of it is anti-war. Because of the Vietnam War, there was widespread protest against the draft. People were questioning whether the president was being truthful about winning the war.”
Casas, a disabled Korean War veteran, made his feelings about the war and the president known.
“Humanscape 41” from 1968 is one of the earliest paintings to treat the subject of war. Here, large text in the painting’s background reads: “War is profitable, invest your sons.” Several female figures stand in the foreground holding their infant children; each child with a different number on his back. In “Humanscape 69” from 1973, Casas paints an unflattering portrait of Nixon as Mickey Mouse standing between the legs of a larger-than-life female figure.
“There is a really complicated and open-ended symbolism in his work,” Cordova said. “He utilized visual and verbal puns in a very complex manner.”
Casas was born and raised in El Paso. He received his bachelor’s degree from Texas Western College and a master’s degree from the University of the Americas in Mexico City. As president of the Chicano art collective Con Safo, Casas emerged as one of the seminal figures of the Chicano art movement in the 1960’s and 70’s. He taught at San Antonio College for 29 years and was the chair of the art department for nine of those years before retiring in 1990. As reported by the Express-News, Casas battled cancer for two years before finally passing at the age of 85 in November of 2014.
“As an artist, as a theorist, as a teacher, a mentor, and group leader, he wore many hats, and he was important for all of these things,” said Cordova. “I think that to some extent he’s pigeonholed as a Chicano artist, and maybe there is a half dozen paintings that most people are familiar with, but he did more like 800 paintings.”
Towards the end of his life, Casas had withdrawn from exhibiting his work choosing instead to focus on painting. Cordova believes this to be the main reason Casas fell out of public view. His last one-person show was “Mel Casas: Scopophilia–Enjoying Looking” at Joan Grona Gallery in 2002.
“He made some very fundamental paintings that are central to the cannon of Chicano art,” Cordova said. “I think he’s somebody that should be in major museums, and deserves to be in major museums, and I hope these exhibitions can bring him to fuller attention.”
“Getting the Big Picture” is the first of four retrospectives curated by Cordova that will open throughout the city this summer. Each retrospective will treat a different area and time period from the “Humanscape” series.
The upcoming Casas retrospectives include:
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June 11-Sept. 27:
“Mel Casas: The Southwestern Cliches, 1982-1989,” at Texas A&M Educational and Cultural Arts Center, 101 Santa Rosa Ave.
June 25- Aug. 22
“Sex and Cinema with Mel Casas, 1965-1968,” at FL!GHT, 134 Blue Star.
“Mel Casas: Art about Art, 1975-1981,” at San Antonio Central Library, 600 Soledad
*Featured/top image: Mel Casas standing in front of “Humanscape 68” (Kitchen Spanish) in February 2010. Photo courtesy Ruben C. Cordova.