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Museum show updates street art aesthetic

Wed, Jan 23, 2013

Chaz in his studio, 2008. Courtesy of Keegan Gibbs

The National Museum of Mexican Art has opened Chaz Bojórquez: From the Streets To The Cloud, an exhibit celebrating the work of the eponymous artist. This show is the first of its sort outside of Los Angeles. While it may not be exceptionally large, it is a comprehensive look at Bojórquez’s career to-date and a controversial and fascinating artistic aesthetic.

Street art has gained popular favor recently with the rise in notoriety of public works by artists like Banksy, Invader, and Shepard Fairey. Fairey’s poster featuring the word “Hope” and the face of then presidential candidate Barack Obama in blue hues became one of the most recognizable images of 2008. Like graffiti, much of street art defaces private, commercial or government property, making it a highly controversial as well as ephemeral art form. And while the street art phenomenon has gained more respect from both critics and casual viewers, graffiti artists remain contended, associated with rebellious youth and those involved in gang culture. As people move to intellectualize street art, it only makes sense that the graffiti aesthetic be reexamined for its artistic merits.

While artists like Keith Herring and Jean-Michel Basquiat incorporated graffiti-style designs into their work throughout the ’80s, the paintings and designs of Chaz Bojórquez feature more direct and unapologetic references to “traditional” styles of graffiti. Growing up in East Los Angeles in the 1950s, the artist saw graffiti in his neighborhood and found himself drawn more to the art of the streets rather than those in traditional galleries. This background inspired him to create the iconic image of Senor Suerte, which encompasses the Chicano Day of the Dead, the 1970s film Superfly and the Zig-Zag man. A class in Oriental calligraphy at the Pasadena Pacific Asia Museum led him to integrate those themes with the traditions of Cholo graffiti culture to create his own style and in the late 1970s he shifted to work on canvas.

Año Loco XIV92 Por Dios y Oro, 1992, Acrylic on balsa wood, Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo: Chaz Bojórquez

The museum refers to graffiti as a “language that acquires territory” and this is something Bojórquez’s work does literally. He brings the graffiti aesthetic into an institutional environment for it to be reconsidered as a legitimate art style. He also “mainstreams” it by applying the aesthetic to shoes, T-shirts, and skateboards for commercial sale. These works of design are on display in the gallery as well.

One work called Año Loco XIV92 Por Dios y Oro features a graffiti-style painting on an Aztec-inspired sculpture. In this piece, Bojórquez creates a jarring, but unexpectedly complementary image. A placard mentions how graffiti “defines culture, while disposing of another.” Bojórquez links a bygone ancient Mesoamerican culture to the present with what he refers to as a “Cholo” writing-style. The term Cholo may be one some U.S.-born Chicanos some find offensive due to its association with “gangster” culture, but Bojórquez’s work embraces the distinct styles of this group – of dress, tattooing, and language – as an act of reclamation and to force a recognition of its aesthetic beauty. In a real world context, the paint on the Año Loco XIV92 Por Dios y Oro piece would appear to deface the sculpture, but in the gallery it comments on how cultures communicate visually and how those methods change over time. It legitimizes the graffiti writing by directly comparing it to the kind of artwork held as historically significant.

Señor Suerte with veteran roll calls. Taken in the Arroyo Seco river, L.A. 1975. Photo credit: Kathy Bojórquez

Another interesting painting that stands out in the show and that references familiar cultural imagery is Golden Boy (1997). By cropping the image to only a torso and dropped head, this painting of a man outstretched recalls the imagery of both crucifixion and of a victim of urban violence. Paintings like this illustrate Bojórquez’s skill as a detailed painter. Graffiti is typically thought of as rushed work done under the cover of night. In the gallery, the control of the line work and attention to detail are remarkable. In paintings like Eddie’s Lament: And What Have I Become? (1994) Bojórquez paints both an engraved-style script, while also showing the fluid, energetic print of graffiti-style lettering. Bojórquez work facilitates an appreciation for a type of artfulness usually dismissed when seen in a public arena.

One of the central works in the show, perhaps the centerpiece, is a work called Graffiti Mandela (1999). In it, Bojórquez memorializes the dead of a Los Angeles neighborhood in dramatic script, looped together and spun into a design that acts as a larger symbol. This work interlaces the community’s heroes and those who have passed into a singular work of art. It embodies the full capacity of graffiti as a visual manifestation of language and memory, emblematic of the tone of the entire exhibit. With pieces like this, the show manages to not only successfully communicate Bojórquez’s story, but also the significance of what it strives to accomplish.

The exhibition continues through June 30. For more details and museum hours visit nationalmuseumofmexican art.org.

Written by Barrett Newell,
StreetWise Contributor

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