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CFA Hosts Enrique Chagoya

Artist to talk about crowbar attack on his satirical piece

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Enrique Chagoya

Enrique Chagoya says that the dominant theme of his work is conflict. “However,” he says, “the resolution of conflict does not have to be violent.” Photo by Linda Cicero

Enrique Chagoya is known in the art world for his whimsical, satirical paintings, prints, and illustrated, codex-like manuscripts reflecting a world in dizzying political and cultural flux. His work has always had an unapologetically irreverent edge. But Chagoya’s worldwide reputation was ignited one fall day in 2010, when a Montana woman took a crowbar to The Misadventures of the Romantic Cannibals, a multipanel lithograph depicting a sexually suggestive image of Jesus that had drawn feverish protests when it was shown at a museum in Loveland, Colo.

The Mexican-born artist, 57, a professor of art and art history at Stanford University, will be at the College of Fine Arts Concert Hall tomorrow at 6:30 p.m. to discuss and show a video about the attack on that work, a commentary on the Catholic priest sex abuse cases that was dismissed by Chagoya’s detractors as “sacrilegious pornography,” and its unexpected aftermath.

Chagoya is one of this year’s featured artists in the sixth season of the School of Visual Arts Contemporary Perspectives Lecture Series. He was invited as part of CFA’s inaugural keyword initiative, which focuses on the theme of violence.

The Mexico City native immigrated to the United States in 1977 and has works in the collections of many major museums, including New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, and Whitney Museum of American Art, as well as the Art Institute of Chicago and the Los Angeles County Museum. BU Today recently asked Chagoya about the Loveland incident, the cultural divide, and the notion of “reverse anthropology” as it relates to his work.

BU Today: You’ve been invited to CFA as part of its keyword initiative, violence. Is this the dominant theme of your work?

Chagoya: Violence is just one of the themes that applies to my work, but I would say the dominant theme is conflict. Violence is only one expression of conflict. I think conflict will always be part of human history because we are a very diverse, rich, and complex network of societies, and within each society there are more differences: class, cultural, ethnic, gender, language, religion, political affiliations, sexual orientation, national identities, etc. The resolution of conflict is the way everything evolves. However, the resolution of conflict does not have to be violent. In fact, violence exacerbates differences, polarizing opposite views, and it only delays the resolution of conflicts. In my art I express my concerns about conflicts we experience in contemporary society.

You’ve said that your work is inspired by Francisco Goya. How?

I have been into his work since my late teens. I think his portrayal of superstition and war brings light through the dark side of the human experience. Formally, I think he was perhaps the first modern painter, anticipating expressionism and surrealism.

Tell us about the notion of “reverse anthropology” that you’ve mentioned in reference to your art.

It is the opposite of the modernist strategy in Europe and the West to appropriate art from colonial cultures, or the idea that so-called primitive cultures were like the childhood of humanity (like the surrealists expressed with admiration). I try to imagine what the art would look like if Europe had been conquered by a “primitive” culture, which then appropriated European/Western art and gave it a touch of “primitivism.” I like to question the division of the world between “civilization” and “barbarism,” which was first used by the Greeks (every culture outside Greece was considered barbarian), and then by European colonizers, creating stereotypes that are very alive today—just look at the fears toward the Southern and Eastern cultures and religions in Europe and in this country. I like to disarm stereotypes by including them in my codices and other works with my own sense of humor. At the end, I hope people realize we are the same human species across borders in spite of our differences.

The Headache by Enrique Chagoya

You’ve said that “man’s constant war against himself” provides the raw material for your art. How are today’s wars influencing your work?

Clausewitz, in his book On War, views war as the continuation of politics by other means. For me, it is the opposite. It is the disruption of politics, not the continuation. It is the end of dialogue by genocide and culture-icide, the law of might is right. We are the most violent species ever to emerge on this planet, perfectly able to destroy our world and most, if not all, life many times over with our nuclear power. Tyrannosaurus rex was nothing compared to us. This influences my work tremendously since it creates existential questions in my mind (as a human being and as a member of a society engaged in constant wars) that I need to get out of my system through my artwork.

How does your works’ diverse subject matter influence your choice of medium?

I think the idea of “reverse anthropology” works better in my codices, prints, and some works on paper. Humor, like editorial cartooning, expresses itself better in some of my charcoal drawings. Lately, I have been doing some “ghostly meditations” that express themselves better in drawings on transparent vintage book pages (from rotten, moldy old books I found in flea markets). I look for the best interaction between form and content I can find.

You expected your large charcoal and pastel on paper cartoon-inspired drawings to “end up in the closet.” Explain the difference between creating these and making art to be exhibited.

The first time I made a charcoal drawing based on editorial cartooning, Their Freedom of Expression/The Recovery of Their Economy, 1984, 84” x 84”, was for an exhibition at the San Francisco Art Institute that was part of a national campaign organized by critic Lucy Lippard against U.S. intervention in Central America. I made a drawing of Ronald Reagan as a Mickey Mouse writing graffiti with blood, saying, “Ruskies and Cubans out of Central America,” and a little Henry Kissinger mouse writing, also with blood, “By the way keep art out of politics.” I thought that people who did not like Reagan would not like seeing him in the walls of their homes, and the people who supported or sympathized with Reagan would not like to see him the way I had drawn him. So I expended the least in art supplies (paper and charcoal and pastels) because after the exhibition I thought nobody else would be interested in that work. So it did not feel like making art—I was just expressing my feelings with a low-brow cartoonish imagery that was not art in my eyes. To my surprise, it became popular (now it is in the permanent collection of the San Jose Museum of Art), and I made more drawings like that one as recently as last year.

As a U.S. citizen born in Mexico, in what ways do you feel like an American and in what ways will you remain Mexican first? How do both influence your art?

I love being an American, and I love my Mexican roots. However I feel like a borderless citizen, no longer belonging to Mexico, which has changed tremendously since I left in the late ’70s, and not totally belonging here—the constant xenophobic waves created by extremist media, politicians, and their bases don’t help. Nevertheless, I feel like I belong everywhere at the same time. Since I lived a couple of times in France, and I am constantly traveling in this country and abroad, I realize that we are all the places we experienced and keep experiencing, the cultures we adopt and love, the friends and family and pets we relate to, and whatever we love to do. It feels more complicated than having a national identity. All of that affects my work. Where we are born is an accident, the rest is a choice, when we are lucky enough to have a choice.

Enrique Chagoya

Artist Enrique Chagoya in his studio with Diego the cat. Photo courtesy of Enrique Chagoya

You’ve recently integrated technologies such as computer animation into your work. What other media would you like to explore?

I dream about writing a novel, or a book with many short stories and my artwork as a complement to the stories, not illustrating them necessarily. I have quite a bit of narrative and multilinear narrative ideas that would translate better in writing.

Are you at all squeamish these days about people getting close to your work?

No, I don’t feel squeamish about people getting close to my work. Except for my paintings and large drawings, most of my works are framed for archival purposes, otherwise I would prefer to show them without frames or Plexiglas.

What were your feelings about the Loveland Museum incident?

The Loveland Museum incident was a result of context. I showed the same work at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver in the same traveling exhibition some months before and nobody complained. It was also exhibited twice in solo exhibitions in the Bay Area a few months before and in Washington, D.C., and in none of those places did anybody complain. It was a surprise to me to see how local politics and a local situation became global (it was time for elections and the work was shown in a conservative town). I made The Misadventures of the Romantic Cannibals in 2003, after the pedophilia scandals in the Catholic Church had hit the news the year before, and eight years later I almost forgot I had done it. The vast majority of my work does not even include any religious content, so it was weird to have so much attention addressed to one old work.

Did the incident affect your art? What was your reaction to the global media coverage?

It made me realize how context may affect what can be shown anywhere. It made me remember the exhibition Degenerate Art, where Hitler ridiculed modern art and artists for not being “naturalistic” and even a Nazi artist like Emil Nolde was expelled from the party because he did an expressionist crucifixion. Similar things can be said about places ruled by theocracies like Iran or ruled by bureaucracies like China and the former Soviet Union. It is unsettling to think that that kind of experience can happen randomly here. I don’t take our First Amendment rights for granted. They are constantly under threat in this country. I still include in my art whatever goes through my head without any self-censorship. However, I realize I may not be able to show it in places that are not open or cannot provide protection to free expression. The global media coverage is something I seriously did not welcome. I had to make a huge effort to correct major distortions by powers bigger than me.

Do you find anything instructive in the art versus “smut” debate? How did you feel about the protestors, and did you ever confront them?

I have nothing to say to people who react with violence to something they disagree with, particularly when they are completely misinformed by ultraconservative media and cannot see anything outside their bubble. I was just expressing my feelings about the permissive pedophilia in religious institutions that lasted decades, in contrast with their self-righteous homophobia and policies against birth control. There was no nudity nor any sex act in the print, and no real depiction of any religious icon (it was a collage). None of that was mentioned in Fox News or ultraconservative blogs and radio stations. However, there was honest and curious questioning of my work by many respectful Christians that I welcomed and answered, ending in my friendship with Pastor Jonathan Wiggins, from the Resurrection Fellowship in Loveland. I made a large painting of a resurrection for his church, and I met his congregation in person last August. He understood that I was not attacking anybody’s faith, and in a sermon he addressed the issue of the pedophilia in the church. His congregation gave me a standing ovation. I was really touched by the experience. At the end I made more friends than enemies.

The School of Visual Arts Contemporary Perspectives Lecture Series presents Enrique Chagoya tomorrow, Thursday, November 17, at 6:30 p.m. at the CFA Concert Hall
, 855 Commonwealth Ave. The event is free and open to the public. Call 617-353-3371 for more information.

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Susan Seligson

Susan Seligson can be reached at sueselig@bu.edu.

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