Hidden histories and revealing futures are on view in two simultaneous exhibitions opening Thursday at Centro de Artes.
Paintings, prints, photographs, sculptures, and installations by 34 artists from around the country fill the first floor for Xicanx: New Visions, curated by San Antonio artists Suzy González and Michael Menchaca, who make up the team Dos Mestizx.
On the second floor are more than 130 works by three legendary local Chicano artists, in Los Maestros: Early Explorers of Chicano Identity, curated by Malena Gonzalez-Cid, executive director of Centro Cultural Aztlan. The show features more than 50 paintings and drawings by José Esquivel, more than 50 paintings by Jesse Almazán, and nearly 30 works in various media by Rudy Treviño, with assorted ephemera from their early days as artists.
“These are true hidden histories right here, true hidden treasures that nobody knows about,” she said. “We could call this phase one, the early guys that were part of the movement, and became the movement, and then decided to create an identity within the movement in San Antonio.”
In the 1960s and 1970s, artists like Esquivel maintained “both a profession and a career,” said Gonzalez-Cid, having to work day jobs while facing lack of opportunities to show their artwork.
Centro Cultural Aztlan, started in 1977 as a platform for Chicano artists, laid the groundwork for Centro de Artes as a City-sponsored, Latinx-focused gallery, and helped pave the way for younger Chicano, Latinx, and “Xicanx” artists like González and Menchaca, said Gonzalez-Cid.
“In some senses, it hasn’t changed. They encountered many obstacles,” she said of early Chicano artists. “I think it was a harder path for them than it is for us today. But we still see them as the trailblazers that carved a path for the rest of us.”
González and Menchaca first mounted a smaller version of Xicanx at The Clemente cultural center in New York. The show ended in January, and artists were added for the expanded version at Centro.
The exhibition begins with prototypical symbols of Chicano art history, Menchaca said, including a large-scale photographic sculpture by San Antonio artist Mark Anthony Martinez. The sculpture is a cut-out image of the artist’s fist, which Menchaca identified as “a strong symbol for for brown power and unity.”
And yet, González added, “he’s got this Band-Aid on it, which is beige and doesn’t match his skin. It’s speaking about the whiteness of art spaces,” she said.
Both said they were intentional in countering a perceived lack of inclusion of artists of color and non-binary gender identity in traditional art spaces. “We’re seeing a lack of representation” generally González said, with Menchaca taking up her thought, “even within the Latinx communities,” he said. “It’s one thing to have a lack of Latinx representation in general, but even within Latinx community art shows, there isn’t inclusion of indigenous representation, or African ancestry, or LGBTQIA+ [artists].”
The two included artists representing the new generation of ‘Xicanx’ artists, who identify across a broad spectrum of ethnic and gender identities. In order to be transparent about their process, they conducted a survey of the artists, asking how they preferred to be identified.
The artists range in age from 20s to 40s, and are from multiple locations including California, New York, Minnesota, Wyoming, Maryland, Oregon, and France. Less than half identify as heterosexual, with most as LGBTQIA+ or “no labels/not sure.” Eighty-one percent identify with the term Latinx, 89 percent feel their work is motivated by social justice issues, and 73 percent do not see themselves represented in the art world.
Their work takes similarly diverse forms, from a fabric woodcut by Celeste de Luna, to the playful cake frosting-like acrylic paint piping of Yvette Mayorga, to a snaking floor installation made in part from lava rocks, marble chips, and tumbled obsidian by Audrya Flores.
“We’re trying to say these emerging artists, they’re doing great things,” González said.
Upstairs, the 84-year-old Esquivel spoke of the evolution of Chicano art, through the earliest days of Con Safo in 1967, when establishing a Chicano identity was the imperative. He described a painting on paper, just acquired by the City of San Antonio, that represented his tile setter father, who freely decorated their family home at 1638 Perez St. with colorful castoffs from his profession. Esquivel said he’s proud of the personal content of his work, which came after a collective insight by the Con Safo artists, which included Almazán and Treviño.
“We came to a realization that what it had to be was our own experience, and our own environment,” Esquivel said. “We had to look deeply into where we grew up, what is it we heard, what did we see.”
Comparing the early days to the younger artists downstairs, he said, “That was the period when this thing was evolving, to this time now, to where now you have young artists doing installations, doing other things that relate to the rest of America. … I’m all for it. I mean, the fire’s here going on.”
Xicanx: New Visions and Los Maestros: Early Explorers of Chicano Identity open with a public reception Thursday, Feb. 13 from 6-9 p.m., and continue through June 28. Admission to Centro de Artes is free.