Everything at once

Enrique Chagoya’s “The Ghost of Liberty”

San Francisco artist Enrique Chagoya poses with his painting “Double Portrait of William Burroughs (May All Your Troubles be Little Ones).” <p></p>

San Francisco artist Enrique Chagoya poses with his painting “Double Portrait of William Burroughs (May All Your Troubles be Little Ones).”

Photo By David Robert

Traverse over to UNR’s Sheppard Gallery, and you’ll be rewarded with a rich treat for your eyes and your brain.

“The Ghost of Liberty,” a solo exhibition of 12 paintings and mixed-media works by Mexican-born, San Francisco artist Enrique Chagoya, includes artwork ranging from book-sized to about 8 feet by 8 feet, from intimate to eye-popping.

Chagoya specializes in layers: layers of paint (and other media), layers of information, layers of meaning, transparent layers, semi-opaque layers. He fuses metaphors and juxtaposes imagery. He invites us straight into the creamy middle of some of the weightiest themes—race, culture clashes, historical wars, religion. But the artwork comes off aesthetically inviting. It is dark and humorous, satirical and friendly, exuberant and organized, all at the same time. (Some of Chagoya’s previous exhibits’ titles—Utopian Cannibal, Locked Paradise, Open Ends—suggest he has no fear of contradiction.)

We see 1950’s American cartoons with multiple facial features representing psychedelic author William Burroughs; tribal African warriors next to victorious Germans drinking cocktails; Where’s Waldo, in triplicate, looking across ballpoint-drawn seas on a chaotic world map; Warhol’s soup cans, annotated with condensed art-historical commentary and rendered in 3-D; a lovely, white, hazy Madonna image, surrounded by steaks and cyclopses.

Chagoya’s artwork is jam-packed with cultural references, many easily recognizable, some subtle. For example, a spacey, toxic-looking, skeletal Mickey Mouse peers out of “LAK,” a giant charcoal and pastel drawing. Most people who look at art once in a while will recognize the convention of using a distorted Mickey as an icon of rampant Americanization or a symbol of dystopian misadventures in capitalism. In “LAK,” Chagoya gives Mickey license to cross his references even further. Our cynical mouse shows a bit of cuteness, similar to that of the smiling, Mexican Day of the Dead skeletons. Then there’s a layer of puzzle-piecing: the letters L, A and K, at the edges of the frame. Laka-laka is the noise a Spanish-speaking skeleton makes.

Just about every group is represented in Chagoya’s work, and just about everyone gets parodied.

Chagoya’s engaged in a process he calls “reverse anthropology or reverse Western art history.”

“Instead of a European artist appropriating artistic expressions by cultures from former colonies, i.e. Picasso ‘appropriating’ African sculptural forms to develop his cubist style like in the ’Mademoiselles D’Avignon,’ … I ask the question: What kind of art would have been created if the opposite had happened?” he explains.

In this exercise, the artist doesn’t come up with a final answer. Instead, his work raises questions and comparisons.

“At some point, I don’t even worry about people reading my work,” he says. “Whatever interpretation they make of my work is as valid as mine. And vive la différence. If people have questions, even better.”

Chagoya’s comfort level with ambiguity illustrates his opinion that “we only know reality in a partial way, so every truth we hold is partial.”

Chagoya isn’t trying to speak for everyone; he’s just speaking for himself.

“I mostly express my own anxieties and concerns about the world, he says.”

But sometimes in art, personal topics end up being a doorway to broader ideas. In other words, when an artist is concerned with sharing their own specific and unique observations, often they end up inviting dynamic conversation instead of trying to get the last word.