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Photograph by Dixie Sheridan
STAPLES: Viviana Paredes' 'Xiriki' preserves heirloom corn seeds for generations that may know only genetically engineered crops.

Chicana/o Visions

MACLA's biennial show runs a wide gamut of materials and methods as artists probe questions of identity and politics

By Michael S. Gant

SEN. SESSIONS and his colleagues on the Judiciary Committee should visit MACLA's new group show, "2009 Chicana/o Biennial." The pieces on display certainly prove the point that wise Chicana and Chicano artists can reach revelatory decisions based on diverse experiences that will be different from—in enlightening ways—those of artists of other backgrounds. "Impartial art" is as much an oxymoron as "impartial justice."

Several of the artists (mostly but not exclusively from the valley and Bay Area) chosen for this no-fee juried exhibit address directly that open wound along the border between the United States and Mexico. Deborah Kuetzpalin Vasquez tackles the issue straight-on in a piece that is really a political poster. Her digital print Citlali no Border Wall features an Aztec superheroine pulling out her still-beating heart in the desert as a menacing Hummer approaches. The image is overlaid with the declaration "Ningun ser Hermano es ilegal" ("No human being is illegal" ) and "No to border wall."

Consuelo Jimenez Underwood's modest, understated Hoe Down, 5/13 is a very small bit of fiber art showing a golden hoe—symbol of agricultural wealth built on the labor of migrants-—above a conjoined flag of Mexico and the United States. It speaks more softly than Vasquez's megaphone, but just as effectively.

For 100 Cucharas (100 Spoons), a sculptural installation, Jaime Guerrero has erected an actual stacked-rock wall, topped with two beautifully rendered clear-glass cockroaches (cucarachas). On the gallery wall blocked off by this stone barrier, a brightly colored blown-glass zarape is surrounded by scores of clear glass spoons ("cucharas"). The wall here stands in for both the border and the separation between field work and domestic labor. Guerrero's agility with glass is stunning; he recently showed some amazing wrestling masks in colored glass at MACLA.

Picking up the agricultural theme, Ester Hernandez goes for gallows humor with her screenprint Sun Raid. That familiar harvesting maid from millions of raisin boxes is transformed into a grinning skeleton with an ICE tracking device on her bony wrist. These "unnaturally harvested" snacks are "mad in the U.S.A." and come with "guaranteed deportation." No one—laborer or consumer—wins in this production cycle. This is agit-prop at its wittiest, inducing both laughter and a wince.

In the vein of Barbara Ehrenreich, Cristina Cantu Diaz's elaborate sculpture ... Y Cenicienta se fue a bailar decorates a mannequin in fancy, feminine gauze and papel picado banners. The upper half of this Cinderella figure is undercut by the decorations on the skirt—sequined petal shapes made from box and bottle labels for cleaning products like Tide, Cascade and Drano. After the dream of immigration come years of low-wage work. Cantu Diaz continues to impress with her provocative 3-D works; she was the star of the previous "Chicana/o Biennial" with her Triunfo del Trabajador, a monumental arch fashioned from fruit and vegetable boxes.

Some pieces left me either mystified (whatever personal meaning Jose Arenas attaches to his large-scale painting of a porcelain elephant figurine floating against a pattern of hexagons escapes me) or indifferent (Mark Vallen's two paintings of striking workers are accomplished but lacking in affect). I was, however, strangely moved by Viviana Paredes' Xiriki, a long, horizontal panel bearing 19 free-form glass containers, each filled to capacity with a different kind of heirloom corn seed.

The seeds themselves—variously colored, with crinkled, puckered skins—are sensual. They evoke satisfying, earthen meals made from a staple that has sustained civilizations. But they also hint at the dangers of agro-corporatization of the food supply, as large firms seek to patent and control our crops down to the genetic level.

Thinking about food in a wholly new way is Jose Bravo, who contributes two portraits painted on big tortillas (about 20 inches in diameter). A Time for Hope adds to the folk iconography of Obamamania with a saintly image of the president. Better is Luchador #2, a beguiling beatification of a Mexican wrestler in royal blue mask. His eyes are revealed beneath openings cut in the top surface of the tortilla, giving them a haunted, trapped quality.

2009 CHICANA/O BIENNIAL runs through Aug. 8 at MACLA, 510 S. First St., San Jose. The gallery is open Wednesday–Sunday. (408.998.2783)

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