Stanford Today Edition: January/February, 1997 Section: Features: The Prince of Darkness and Light WWW: The Prince of Darkness and Light


The Prince of Darkness and Light

Enrique Chagoya combines Mexican and Indian images to create visual dreams - or nightmares

By Diane Manuel

The soundtrack from Fellini's Juliet of the Spirits plays dreamily in the background as Enrique Chagoya glides around the studio in stealth sneakers. * He stops at every easel to concentrate on his students' sketches of a male model who is posing, Norse-like, in the center of the paint-splattered room. * "Try to fill the whole piece of paper first, and save the details until the very last," he says quietly to one sophomore. "While you're painting, move your eyes back and forth between your paper and the model as fast as you can. That's a little secret I'll give to you."

The soft-spoken artist with the flyaway hair can't stop smiling as he makes his rounds, and his wire-rim glasses seem to magnify his delight at finding so much talent in one class.

Chagoya's gentle way with his students - encouraging them with whispered "secrets" about how to fill a background or develop a sense of proportion - offers no hint of the artist who fills his own canvases with wildly swirling clashes of red and black, south and north, new world and old.

Images of Superman and Olive Oyl are juxtaposed with Aztec gods and symbols of Catholic sacraments in many of Chagoya's complex paintings. The Governor's Nightmare, from a 1994 series of acrylic and oil works on handmade Mexican paper, features a gory human sacrifice and a blue-skinned deity seasoning Mickey Mouse with salt and chili peppers. In his 1989 charcoal and pastel study of struggle and oppression, Thesis/Antithesis, a hand and two bare feet attempt to rise from a blood-red sea, only to be quashed by a powerful gloved fist and well-heeled foot.

"Sometimes I don't even know what they mean," Chagoya says of these images. "My works deal with a lot of opposites, and their interaction produces a third element, a synthesis, that occurs in the mind of the viewer.

"I put images together and the interaction creates an imagery that makes its own kind of sense, like a dream - or perhaps a nightmare."

The Mexican-born painter and printmaker began teaching studio art at Stanford in September 1995. His appointment as assistant professor is the first of several faculty hires that signal a major shift in the traditional focus of the university's art department.

"Chagoya's appointment is part of an effort to think of art in more socially conscious, socially engaged terms," says department chair Richard Vinograd. "There's a political edge to his art, as well an inclusion of popular, contemporary culture."

When artists in the United States formed a national coalition in 1983 to protest American involvement in El Salvador and Nicaragua, Chagoya drew a giant editorial cartoon for an exhibition at the San Francisco Art Institute. It featured President Ronald Reagan, in Mickey Mouse ears, scrawling "Russkies and Cubans out of Central America" in a red ink the color of blood.

"I wanted to do an image of a politician, but I didn't want to make an evil-looking monster with traditional shark teeth," Chagoya says. "Instead, I preferred a harmless look because that's the way politicians represent themselves to the public - always with the best face. And Ronald Reagan, to me, was a Mickey Mouse kind of character."

Steven A. Nash, associate director and chief curator of San Francisco's de Young Museum,praises Chagoya's work for its "deep political consciousness and its daring excursions across cultural, historical and artistic boundaries."

The recipient of a 1993 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, Chagoya had three solo shows scheduled last year - at Gallery Paule Anglim and Galeria de la Raza in San Francisco, and at Wichita State University.

He has curated exhibitions in San Francisco at the Museum of Modern Art and the Mexican Museum - his works are part of both institutions' permanent collections - and at the Drawing Center and the Alternative Museum in New York City.

The mix of cultures that emerges in Chagoya's work reflects his cosmopolitan upbringing in Mexico City, where he read DC Comics from north of the border and listened to the ancient folklore of his Indian nurse. Art also permeated the house. His father painted landscapes by night and held down a day job at a bank to put his children through school.

"He gave me my first lessons in color theory when I was 8, and taught me how to sketch," Chagoya recalls. "But I never even dreamed of becoming an artist, because if my father could not make it, I thought I wouldn't be able to."

Instead, Chagoya studied political economy at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico. His professors, many of whom were former deans of Latin American universities who had been targeted by military dictatorships, encouraged him to read a wide range of economists.

"We criticized Karl Marx and John Kenneth Galbraith equally," he says with relish. "We especially liked to criticize Marx because he was very Eurocentric and never cared for studying Latin America."

Chagoya worked for several years as leader of a rural-development team in Veracruz. After marrying an American woman who was doing research on immigrant labor in Mexico, Chagoya moved to the United States in 1979. But he was disappointed with the political scope of economists, mostly from Harvard and the University of Chicago, whose work was considered worthy of study here. His interest in theory began to fade and he gradually resumed painting.

"I decided to take a chance," he says. "I thought, 'I'm going to try to do something I really love.' So I enrolled at the San Francisco Art Institute, and it turned out to be the most nurturing experience I'd ever had."

Chagoya went on to get his M.F.A. at the University of California-Berkeley, and taught at California State University-Hayward and the San Francisco Art Institute before coming to Stanford.

Chagoya has explored various media and developed a signature style. His work has been influenced by the painters of the French Revolution, the Russian constructivists and other politically motivated artists. But he identifies most closely with Francisco Goya. * The Spanish painter who portrayed his homeland at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries was a "visionary artist reacting to his times with the passion of his art," Chagoya says. * The ravages that Goya describes in his etchings Los Desastres de la guerra (Disasters of War) are infused with what Chagoya calls an inner "claro-oscuro" that mirrors Goya's "constant effort to find light through what is dark." Most important, he says, Goya's work offers "a profound contrast to the nihilism of the late 20th century."

"To me, he represents the first of the modern artists because he broke up the rules of painting," Chagoya says. "He was exploring the unconscious and dealing with dream imagery all the time. He had a horse carrying a woman who is smiling and people living on top of a tree at night, with 20 of them crowded on a tiny branch - and you can only wonder why the woman is smiling, and why the branch is not breaking."

In his own works, Chagoya appears to respond to the same kind of inner light that he admires in Goya. Social consciousness may delineate his themes, but for all the political exploitation and cultural imperialism he portrays, his paintings also are full of energy and buoyancy. They comprise, says critic Maria Porges, "a body of work whose emotional tone is remarkably complex: a mixture of sadness and beauty, rage and laughter."

"Art-making is very unpredictable because it is an exploration of your subconscious, or your most irrational ways of thinking," Chagoya says of his work, extending his arms in a broad arc over his head. "My guess is that musicians have to whistle a song before they write it down, and that they have to improve the tones or sounds in their minds to make a harmony or a lack of harmony.

"The same thing happens with visual art. We kind of whistle our art work, and we don't know whether it's going to be all right or whether we're going to end up with a disaster. Sometimes you get a good idea right away and score a home run, and sometimes you have to keep changing it until you feel happy with it. We never know what's going to happen - and that's the exciting part of it."

In recent years, Chagoya has found a new sense of identity as a result of his own experience as an immigrant. He moved to the United States because his wife, from whom he is now divorced, had become seriously ill in Mexico. In the intervening 17 years, as anti-immigration sentiment has grown in the United States, he has come to believe that the immigrant experience is "probably attached to everybody."

"Immigration is not a change of residency or a change on the map," he says. "Immigration is an inner experience, almost a spiritual experience. You travel inside and you change inside, according to the kinds of experiences you have. And at a time in history in which masses of people in the world are moving, I think everybody is some kind of immigrant who has left something behind very dear to that person."

As a result of feeling not quite at home in either his homeland or his adopted country, Chagoya says the immigrant artist develops an intuitive sense that impels creativity. "In a way, you have a distance from reality, which gives you a good critical eye for your own culture, as well as the local culture."

"For me, it's very important to understand the relationship between art and society," he adds. "I get a lot of insight from understanding the social conditions in which art is created."

Perhaps because he no longer lives in Mexico, Chagoya says he also has been drawn to the history of his country's indigenous peoples - a history he first heard in the stories his Indian nurse told. He reads constantly about pre-Columbian anthropology and loves to discuss the theater, herbal medicine and astronomical calculations of the ancient Mesoamericans.

Although the magnificent libraries of Neza, Aztec ruler of the Texcoco kingdom, were incinerated by Spanish conquistadors and priests, some 70 ancient codices, or documentary paintings of religious and cultural life, survived and today are a testament to that once-thriving culture.

Since 1992 Chagoya has been borrowing images from those original Aztec codices to produce his own contemporary books, painted on a paper that for centuries has been made by hand in the mountains of Mexico. Interspersed with pre-Columbian Indian warriors and priests are a cast of contemporary American cartoon figures and European images that offer a prophetic commentary on today's increasingly multicultural world - and the social clashes that often accompany it.

It is a project that consumes Chagoya, and his passion for his work is clear to the students enrolled in his studio course, with whom he shares his painting techniques - and expectations.

During a recent studio class, Orien Richmond stepped up close to his easel and bent his wrist at an exaggerated angle, jamming his paint brush up against the canvas. * "That's what Professor Chagoya distinctly does not want us to do," Richmond said, stepping back and relaxing his tense grip. "Instead, he wants us to be loose and free when we paint. He says what we're feeling as we work is much more important than the details of the painting."

Jeannie Chang, a human biology major, nodded in agreement at the next-door easel.

"Enrique encourages us to paint quickly, to get the essence the first time we pick up our brushes," she said.

Chang was working at an impressionistic version of the Native Alaskan totem pole that was erected in the grove near the Art Gallery. She decided to paint it when Chagoya took the class on a field trip around campus to point out some of the landscape possibilities.

"He tells us lots of stories about artists - like the guy who painted with his own blood, and the woman who worked on one canvas for seven years and layered on tons and tons of paint," Chang said. "Despite the criticism of her friends, who thought she was crazy to spend all that time on one painting, in the end she was really happy with it. And that's Enrique's point - that he wants us to feel good about our art, too."

When students ask Chagoya about the prospects for becoming full-time artists, he is candid but encouraging.

"The thing I try to convey to them is that if you have a passion for art, you will make a living at it, one way or another," he says. "If you aren't able to sell your work, then you can work in related jobs in museums, or teach, or plan community projects. The important thing is that you have to trust yourself and have faith in yourself.

"As we grow up, we develop all kinds of self-censorship for our own creativity. The logical side tells us we cannot do something very new to us and we should be afraid to try.

"But the other side - the intuition, the rebel in us - says we can do it and we have to trust ourselves to try." ST