What’s the Big Idea? (MFA Thesis, 2011)


“I stand between two worlds, am at home in neither, and in consequence have rather a hard time of it. You artists call me a commoner, and commoners feel tempted to arrest me … I do not know which wounds me more bitterly. Commoners are stupid; but you worshippers of beauty who call me phlegmatic and without yearning, ought to reflect that there is an artistry so deep, so primordial and elemental, that no yearning seems to it sweeter and more worthy of tasting than that for the raptures of common-placeness.”     -Thomas Mann

      This sentiment was expressed by a man in a completely different time and context than our own, but it holds resonance and deep meaning for participants in what has become known as the Chicano art movement; a movement that through chance, circumstance, and necessity, created its own microcosm of the mainstream art world throughout the Southwest United States. For Americans residing within the United States, the Chicano is seen as a burden from another land that refuses cultural assimilation and instead puts forth a nationalistic pride for their perceived mother land south of the Rio Grande. For the Mexican National, the Chicano is seen as the “pocho” or the assimilated Mexican who traded in their “Mexicaness” in exchange for the American dream; traitors of some sort and typically associated with the poor who need to migrate to the states to earn a decent living. For those who were born in the United States to immigrant parents, the term Chicano denotes an acknowledgement of this dual existence; a label loaded with pride in its representation of a hybrid community that continues to grow in population and influence.

            My family and I lived in the outskirts of a small South Texas town amongst graffiti marked walls, primer grey low riders, and groups of gangs constantly participating in battle royal’s to prove their dominance over our neighborhood. We were raised under the strict rules of a traditional Mexican household within a social context that at times seemed to have no rules of its own. My parents would spend time petitioning the local government to provide resolutions for the growing gang problems that were plaguing our neighborhood This early participation led to my own interest in politics, community building, and began to raise questions in my mind regarding the notions of power and agency. I became heavily involved with service organizations that allowed me the opportunity to work with individuals who had a mutual interest in helping improve the community around us, for the benefit of the people living within the community. I met with women who escaped the physical abuse of their violent spouses, worked with young girls who had to resort to prostitution to get through their daily lives, and experienced at a fairly young age a specific sense of helplessness and failure that accompanied the realization that I was unable to reach some of the kids who had for too long been involved in the seedy underbelly of our American society. By facing these realities, I became further engaged with politics and service which I attribute to the inevitable jump from a focus on the formal to a focus on the political.

                        While living in Corpus Christi, Texas I began to study painting under Bruno Andrade and shared studios with artists Grace Barraza-Vega and Sandra Gonzalez. It was through my interactions with these artists, that I began to act on my urge to utilize aesthetic elements derived from Chicano art in my own work. I adopted color palettes, compositional strategies, iconography, patterns, and material uses that were associated with the Chicano movement in an attempt to create work that I felt was closely related to my experiences as a Mexican-American. I found out more and more about the Chicano Civil Rights Movement, its participants, and the impact it had on our society. I realized there was information regarding an alternative telling of our American history that had been fractured, left incomplete, or simply omitted from our public school curriculums. It was around this time that my work shifted away from geometric abstractions that were focused more on formal issues dealing with the principals of design, towards work that was political charged and rampant with ideological references. I had grown weary of creating work solely for its formal beauty and had decided that the work needed to lend a voice to a variety of social issues that I felt passionate about. The issues typically involved my stance on various cultural ideologies including gender, socio-economics, race, religion, and the functions of the family unit. I became enamored with this sense of purpose that I felt the prior work was lacking. Undeniably, this passion was a temporary block in the progression of the work. I was creating work that was of interest and relevant for one particular audience while simultaneously failing to make visual connections with another.

            The first two pieces I completed were titled What You Get and Faith Keeper, respectively. Both pieces touched on issues that dealt with the rejection of religion that occurred throughout my transition from a devoted Catholic to a self-declared atheist. My initial concern was getting the concept across to the viewer, but there were still formal issues that needed to be addressed that would perhaps compliment the concept in a way that would provide for a clearer understanding of the work. I was beginning with the specific, sticking with the specific, and not considering the universality of the audiences that would see the work.

            The color palettes for these first couple of paintings were distinguishably bright, somewhat unpleasant to look at, and not completely thought out. The majority of the color was applied unmixed on to the canvas directly from the tube or can of paint. My understanding of color was one closely associated with Chicano art, and called for the utilization of colors known as chillantes or shrieking color. Chillantes are a throwback to the bright colors usually associated with the Latino culture and are utilized to this day within the realms of fashion, architecture, advertisement, automotive design, and art within Hispanic communities. A lack of distinguishable changes in either the value and saturation of the color being applied to the canvas resulted in work that was difficult to read. The solution to my color woes was a quick and efficient one and came about from changing both my attitude and approach to color. The first strategies put into practice involved the editing and limiting of my color palette to only five colors. The first color is selected at random and typically dictates the hues of the four other colors. After selecting those four colors, I then tweak the value and saturation of each color until I arrive at a desired set of swatches. In works such as Hard Candy or Mind Fuck, the use of the chillante is minimal in its participation among colors that I wasn’t completely familiar with at the time but quickly came to have an appreciation for. The tweaking of color led to palettes that lent themselves to an easier reading of the imagery within the work, led to a greater utilization of grays and neutrals, and provided exciting color interactions that would emphasize the visual play that’s present in my work.

            When it was suggested that I consider muralism as an extension of my work, I was quick to dismiss the idea. I had come to see murals as limited in scope due to its site specificity and did not find the idea of the works deterioration from the elements or vandalism as palatable. I had painted large scale canvases before and began to wonder about the practicality of the format in relation to my ambitions as an artist and once again questioned the amount of consideration I was placing on the audiences who would be looking at the work. With that in mind, I made it a point to create paintings in a format that increased the portability of the work and that provided for easier installation methods within a variety of contexts outside the museum or gallery.  This led to eliminating the stretcher bars from the canvas, stapling the canvas and painting directly on the wall, and involved the inclusion of grommets along the edges of the canvas to create a tapestry that could be hanged in multiple ways in various venues. This approach led to another set of problems that I had not anticipated in the changes that I had made.

            For one, the grommets made the work a bit too accessible. One of the first paintings I mounted utilizing this technique was The Plan; a fairly large un-stretched canvas with grommets at each corner hanged from nails on the wall. The problem manifested itself due to the works ease of  de-installation and light weight, which in turn made the piece an easy target for someone who decided they enjoyed the painting enough to have it, but not quite enough to pay for it. The theft of the piece made me reconsider the mounting strategy and the material being used in the work. The second problem was the inherent quality of the canvas itself. Now that the work could be installed easily and became more portable, the issue of storing these pieces became a burden in itself. Any wrong placement of these pieces once they were rolled and stored would result in undesirable creases and marks to appear on the canvas once it was mounted, catching light at awkward places, and distracting from the otherwise smooth surface of the work.

            A sheet of cardboard that I had mounted on to a wall to use as a testing surface while I painted eventually led me to consider the material as an alternative to canvas. For one, it provided a material that is usually readily available for purchase or collection from a variety of sources. The switch to cardboard also made me think of the work as increasingly shareable, allowing me to lose the fear of its potential destruction. I quickly came to realize that cardboard would bend during the installation process, but unlike canvas, the creases that were present or appeared throughout the cardboard didn’t detract from the work, but instead served as a visual compliment to the linear quality of the imagery. Additionally, if any of the segments were to become damaged or destroyed, the process of repair would require me to simply re-work the process from drawings and transparencies for that particular section only.   In constructing larger surfaces from sections of smaller pieces of cardboard, the work can now be disassembled from a massive construction on a wall to a stack of individual parts that can be easily be carried, mounted, loaded, and stored as necessary. The mounting strategy changed once again from using grommets to simply screwing through the pieces themselves, straight on to a wall, making it impossible to remove the work from its place without the use of a loud drill or time consuming screw driver. The segmented surface now allows me to add or remove sections of the paintings as I wish, allowing the work to morph according to the space it is being displayed in. While the portability, light weight, and abundance of the material were important factors in switching to a cardboard surface, the combination of the material and the imagery were now at a point where they could be tied together nicely with the concept behind  my current body of work.

            One of the most important developments in my work deals with the connection between the concepts of the piece and the visual elements working in support of that concept. Initially, I was dealing heavily with icons and motifs that were closely related to Chicano art, including color, the use of pattern and decoration, and imagery that included cacti, eagles, sombreros, heavy mustaches, the cholo or gangster, and Chicano movement heroes such as Cesar Chavez to name a few. While I personally understood the use of these symbols in my work as a direct reference to my cultural heritage, some audiences were still finding it difficult to see connections in the juxtaposed imagery. After reading Louis Althusser’s Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, I finally began to understand why the initial strategies used in early identity art failed to make the impact it intended to. Althusser explains the power that ideas have over the formation of our perceived identities and that each individual’s ideas, complemented by their perceived experiences to their interactions with the world, play a role in the manner in which we ritualize, come to understand, and function within our everyday lives. We then grow convinced that the ideas that form our identity are of our own conception and adopt them as ideological such. These ideologies then manifest themselves in the way we act towards others, the things we say, and the habits we fall into, essentially turning our very behavior into a source of interpretation of our ideological constructs. He makes the argument that everything and everyone functions under the rule of ideology and that any attempt at escaping this reality is in itself an ideological endeavor and therefore futile. While seemingly inescapable, Althusser does suggest that ideology can be manipulated and often is, to serve very specific purposes. Not only can ideas be used to accumulate or gain a position of power, but they are typically also used to maintain, control, and wield that powe . Therefore, it can be argued that agencies of power in any manifestation are in continual negotiation with ideological manipulation in order to gain more votes for a politician, sell more televisions of a certain brand, or the recruitment of individuals into religious sects; the entire time being dependent on their accessibility to their audiences and the methods utilized for the dissemination of their ideas.

            The iconography associated with Chicano art was so distinctly Latino that it was doing two different things for two different audiences. It was reinforcing several stereotypical associations made of Chicanos for the non-Latino audiences, and reinforcing these same stereotypes as sources for identity building for those who were part of a Latino community. In John Valadez’s painting, Car Show, we see several examples of this tendency. The attire, poses, and over all depictions in this work relate back to stereotypes of Latino youths doing what Latino youths do. The women are scantily dressed, playing the roles of the submissive Barbie dolls for the grabby misogynist men dressed in stereotypical gangster attire. The omnipresent symbol of Chicano culture, the low rider, sits in the background as the pride and joy of the individuals that inhabit the composition. Whether the intent of the artist was to depict this image as a negative view on Chicano culture is not readily clear upon viewing the piece objectively. The close association many Latino’s may feel toward a scene such as this only reinforces those visual elements as a segment of their own identities and these types of depictions are met with little resistance from other Latino’s. For the non-Latino viewer, seeing a work of art such as this painting by a Latino artist, only affirms to them that the stereotypes used in depicting Chicano populations are true and accepted identity markers amongst Hispanic populations.

            In considering the struggles of the Chicano in seeking out an identity and place, the fracturing and omissions of our alternative histories, and newly enacted laws targeting immigrants and U.S. Citizens of Latino descent alike, I came to the conclusion that the one linking element throughout all of these experiences dealt with a sense of incompleteness; of not understanding what it is to be completely part of one culture or another, one social group versus the next, and of not having a complete grasp of what struggles took place in the name of not only Chicano’s but other minorities as well. It was this notion of the incomplete that I felled compelled to share with the viewer, rather than the experience that resulted from or arrived at this notion.  This notion of the incomplete worked its way into the work in several ways, including the type of imagery used in the work, the compositional strategies employed in creating the paintings, the working process itself, and in the shared visual experience with the audience.

            The Paper Trails Series initiated as a response to Arizona Law SB 1070 and a similar law currently proposed in Texas that would require law enforcement agents to question individuals who they believe to be in this country illegally on their citizenship status. Linked to a current trend of extreme xenophobia in the United States and pointing towards a regression in America’s openness to an “other,” these laws are not only reopening old wounds, but they are exposing a whole new generation of minorities to blatantly open racist elements in the media and politics.

            Paper Trails I and Paper Trails II were my first experiments with a new approach of depiction that would be the first step in breaking down the images I intended on using. I had initially been drawn to David Salle’s work and his use of the overlay in his paintings, where heavy handed but still clearly rendered sections of his paintings were then layered over with contour drawings of figures or objects. This interest in the overlay led me to the layered contours of Francis Picabia’s paintings. There seemed to be less of an emphasis on the composition and more interest in the interaction of the contour lines layered on top of one another. The visual confusion that occurred in certain areas and the inability to quickly decipher which layer came first were qualities of Picabia’s work that I brought into my own.

The format of the work within the Paper Trail’s Series is mostly determined by chance, as part of the process in mounting the cardboard is limiting my time to get the surface completed quickly and efficiently and with little attention placed on the edge until it is near completion at which point a few minor edits take place. The limited time frame for mounting the surface and the cardboard itself are making reference to the rascuache sensibility also closely associated with the working of Chicano artists. This sensibility is used to describe working around a lack of resources and time, by improvising quickly and efficiently with what you have around you already, typically playing with the repurposing of objects to complete the task at hand

Once the format is complete, I then take a photograph of the surface and create a outline of the format that will serve as a drawing surface on which to work out my composition. I use the outline drawing of the format as a means of getting my compositional bearings but I try not to have much interaction between the human forms and the edge of the surface. My hesitation was that the irregular format would overtake the importance of the figural abstraction occurring in the painting and by having the figure in some sort of interaction with the edge of the surface would only emphasize it further.

            The first layer of the work consists of a gray primer and the white marks similar graffiti writing that is covered up during the painting process, and then lifted back into the foreground of the picture plane. The white line is then partially filled in with the initial color that typically dictates the rest of the color palette in the painting. The gray primer and graffiti writing are not only solely present as formal elements of the work, but also serve as an homage to the barrio culture, where everyone knows someone who drove around in a primer gray vehicle waiting for a paintjob that would probably never come to fruition. Graffiti has been the one form of art that has been a consistent part of my life, regardless of where I’ve lived; it is everywhere. While becoming more widely accepted as a legitimate form of art making, graffiti still falls victims to its association with adolescent vandalism and even the art world, which prides itself to a certain kind of openness, places it under low brow categories of art making. I sometimes wonder if graffiti gets such a bad reputation because it bypasses the rules and bureaucracies the art world has established for those attempting to nudge their way in. In other words, graffiti artists don’t necessarily need to attend an academy to start making work. There is no need for a gallery when every wall and surface of every shape or size could potentially serve as a venue for an impromptu exhibition. It also replaces the need for capital with the need for acknowledgment of one’s existence; the work is almost always public, free of charge to whoever wants to approach and view the work. There is nothing to sell and nothing to buy, but rather an exchange between the artist and the viewer. The viewer gets to admire and perhaps photograph the work, while the graffiti artists gain their acknowledgement each time a passerby takes a glance at their urban masterpiece. Throughout all this, they continue making work knowing that at some point a government agency will remove the graffiti or that other artists will eventually paint over them in their own search for that very same affirmative glance. Contemporary graffiti artists have proven their masterful control of a variety of mediums ranging from knitted yarn to the traditional can of spray paint and I have come to respect and drawn inspiration from the art form.

            Two important elements that have emerged throughout the imagery used in the Paper Trails Series are the human figure and renderings of paper at various states of manipulation that are utilized to break down the composition and the figures themselves. The combination of the human form and paper drawings are direct metaphors for government sanctioned laws that lead to the complete disregard of a person’s humanity and dignity for the sake of a piece of paper that states that you are who you say you are or declares that you have a right to exist in one particular place or another. Every trip home yields a stop and search at the border patrol check point and even after repeated occurrences I have not become accustomed to the degradation one feels as an individual to spend half an hour getting questioned by one agent while other agents are looking through your vehicle and belongings.  

Initiating in Paper Trails III, I began to utilize a combination of both actual layering of imagery, as well as an implied layering that occurred through the application of the paint. Cubists would utilize the grid in creating the faceting of their composition in a very similar way that I use the irregular contour drawings of the paper to create breakages and glitches in the composition. Once the drawings for the work are completed in my studies, I scan the image into Photoshop and proceed by carefully selecting lines and sections of the composition that are then deleted from the drawing, continuously providing enough information to suggest a figure or a form, but always negating them the opportunity to see a fully representational rendering. These now digital drawings are then printed onto transparencies and projected and drawn on to the large scale cardboard surface.

            Another point of break down in the composition takes place in the laying down of colored forms throughout the entire composition. I print out a copy of the digital drawing after it has been edited and start making decisions about what color will go in what place, how much of each color will be present in each painting, and how to utilize the contour lines already present in the composition to make decisions on what forms are being created. Since my work process deals with a constant mode of play, I have a tendency of creating rules for myself that I can either break or follow as I work a painting. Therefore, there are areas where colored forms follow the contour line to the tee and others where the colored forms are off register. I don’t see one color as being more important than the other, but instead rely on the forms to further break down the image while simultaneously interacting with each other in visual play within the fractured format of each piece. The original outline drawing is then repeated over the entire surface once more. It’s at this point where I then go back to the graffiti writing I had laid down in the first layer and begin to lift forms derived from the original white lines. Essentially, through the process of painting the piece, I take on the role of the graffiti artist, followed by the role of those who cover up graffiti, and finally the role of the second graffiti artist ready to further the cause by once again painting over a surface that had been painted to cover up the initial graffiti layer.

            The final two pieces completed were Paper Trails V and Paper Trails VI and were a result of a two year process that shifted my focus away from pointing out differences in our experiences as individuals and instead relies on creating connections through the sharing of a sensation by visual means. While I find the color of the work quite beautiful, it is with the understanding that it is functioning to disarm the viewer. The way in which I select the color and manipulate the imagery of the work, breaks down the renderings of the human form even further while simultaneously creating decorative pattern over the surface of the painting.. In essence I am inviting the viewer to share the experience of being presented with portions of information while negating others. It is presenting the viewer with my own visual interpretation to this sense of incompleteness that has accompanied my siblings and me throughout our lives. The line from the figure drawing and paper renderings become intertwined and confused, while portions of its composition simply vanish into the picture plane and appear once again at different points. As mentioned earlier, the irregularity of the format also emphasizes this incompleteness. By negating the edge of the format in drawing the initial composition for the work, an effective cropping takes place that suggests that regardless of what the imagery being depicted is, it could appear to be a single part or section to a greater whole.

            I’ve been asked what type of reactions I get from viewers regarding the politically charged subject matter and have had many but three typically stand out. There is the viewer who is completely oblivious to current events and is therefore rather indifferent about the work. Then there are those who have a craving for political participation and activism who are eager to hear all I have to say about my art. My least favorite are members of my audience and at times artistic colleagues that see the work as nothing more than propaganda, claiming that working politics into the work serves only as a cop out to serious contemplation about art. I disagree wholeheartedly with these kinds of statements. Its one thing to be personally disengaged with the realities taking place outside our studio doors; it’s a completely different story when these same individuals demean the very real attempts at creating change through the exhibition of one’s personal convictions. If there is one thing I’ve learned thus far is that everything in life is political.

Bernardo Diaz | #bdOther ©bernardodiaz2021
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