Mexicali Blues

Latino artists explore border and race issues with very different styles.

For some artists, a sense of heritage leads to personal imagery based on family or self; for others a sense of heritage provokes political imagery linked to personal experience or identity. Although Luis Jimenez and Alfred J. Quiroz's Latino heritage has led them both to make artwork about politics and cultural identity, their imagery is strikingly different. Their current two-person exhibition, Davis Dominguez 25th Anniversary Exhibit, reveals the ways they tackle Mexican-American border and identity issues as well as other matters of interest to each individual artist.

Jimenez, a New Mexico artist who is renowned for his monumental fiberglass sculptures, contributes lithographs and one bronze sculpture to this exhibition at the Davis Dominguez Gallery. Many of Jimenez's lithographs are from the 1990s. "Tan Lejos de Dios, Tan Cerca de los Estados Unidos" ("So Far From God, So Close to the United States"), a 2001 lithograph in scratchy black and white, depicts a Mexican-American border scene that is poignant and wild.

Despite the helicopter and airplane circling overhead, a group of Mexicans who are carrying their possessions and even their children on their backs keeps moving toward the barbed-wire fence. Meanwhile, the armed "coyote" who led them this far watches as one woman lies dead on the ground and another runs screaming like a woman fleeing the dogs of hell.

The image of Mexicans with strong muscles toiling onward with heads cast down and burdens on their backs recurs in Jimenez's work. This image persists as a symbol of the enduring spirit of the Mexican people and of their ability to survive against all odds and against all oppressors. Although Jimenez presents many historical Mexican and Aztec figures as monumental icons, his entire body of work is not simply a glorification of Mexican people and culture.

Quiroz, a Tucsonan, does not deal with Mexican-American border issues in terms of human suffering, but in terms of their economic roots. Quiroz's "Border Is-Shoes" is a gigantic map of the United States made of wood and mounted so that it stands out from the wall. The map is painted in Quiroz's typical bright colors and cartoon-like style. The center of the map is dense with corporate logos: GE, Exxon, Wal-Mart, Kodak, Mattel and dozens more. At one end of the map are stereotypical Canadians wearing stocking caps. At the other end are Mexicans wearing Aztec masks. Presiding over it all is a Canadian Mountie holding a North American Free Trade Agreement handbook and a gun-toting American Border Patrol agent who has just killed one of the Mexicans. It's clear from his fantastic vision who Quiroz thinks is going to benefit from NAFTA. The Canadians are dreaming of American dollars while the Mexicans are dreaming only of American cents.

Mexican-American issues are only a part of Quiroz's career-long commitment to political content. Back in 1984 when he received his M.F.A. at the University of Arizona, Quiroz's artwork dealt with the Vietnam War, a subject with a personal resonance for him as a Vietnam veteran. Most recently Quiroz has centered his work on the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center.

"Taliban Taxi Man," like many of Quiroz's artworks, runs the fine edge between using stereotypes for political humor and engaging in racism. The large charcoal drawing is one of three pieces here that use stereotypes for political commentary. In "Taliban Taxi Man," a taxi driver, who wears a turban and sports a long, pointy beard, leans out of his cab window apparently swearing at someone nearby. The point of the image is Americans' increased fear and resentment of immigrants since September 11. The pervasiveness of Arab and Pakistani cabbies in New York used to be a joke, but now many Americans are wary of anyone of Middle Eastern descent, and immigrants suspected of terrorist activity can be held indefinitely without being charged.

The difficulty with an image like "Taliban Taxi Man" is the old Archie Bunker question. If an artist creates an image based on racism (or any other kind of prejudice), can the audience read it? In "Here to Serve You," Quiroz's commentary on foreign-made goods, the parody is clear--a Chinese soldier serves up a hamburger. But in "Taliban Taxi Man" I suspect that the image will do an Archie Bunker, with some viewers thinking it feeds racism while others will accept the parody.

Jimenez uses both stereotypes (the drunk and the whore) and iconic images (the skeleton and the skull) from Mexican culture in his work. Jimenez's 1992 lithograph "Entre La Puta y La Muerte" ("Between The Whore and The Dead") combines several of his classic figures. A skeleton and a woman hold a drunken man up between them. Not surprisingly for Jimenez's work, the prostitute's breasts show through her blouse, but interestingly the skeleton has a woman's breasts, too. The two women are dragging the drunk along, everyone's legs rising together in a dance of the living, the dead and the nearly comatose. What a life it is.

"Abuela" ("Aunt") depicts a woman brushing her long hair before a mirror. The reflection in the mirror captures her face, her breasts and the shadow of a skull with a mustache. A dead husband or lover is watching the woman. A liquor bottle and other things are placed on the vanity like a memento-mori tableau. Reminders of the presence of death in life are omnipresent in Mexican art and culture with its Day of the Dead rituals, but in Jimenez's images death is saturated with alcohol and sexuality.

It is ironic that an artist who uses a medium as contemporary as fiberglass sculpture should draw with the style of an early 20th-century artist like Mexican José Guadalupe Posada. It's a pity that the exhibition does not include more of Jimenez's recent works, so that viewers can get a better sense of how his work is evolving. As for Quiroz, he's got a style that puts some people off with its cartoonish look, and he's always ready to get himself into a bit of trouble with his imagery. This exhibition is no exception, and that's a good thing.