‘Forever Young’

The alumni artists of 'YLA 15' continue to transform our world into their own

<i>Won't Let You In</i>, by Randy Muniz
Won't Let You In, by Randy Muniz

In the 15th iteration of Mexic-Arte Museum's annual "Young Latino Artists" exhibition, the operative word is "young."

That's not to dismiss the importance of this ongoing series as a showcase for Latino creators. These days they may have other opportunities for gaining the invaluable exposure that comes with being in a curated museum show (two of them just a few blocks up the avenue: Arthouse's annual "New American Talent" exhibition and Austin Museum of Art's triennial "New Art in Austin"), but given the historical disparity between our country's majority culture and minority cultures, the validation by, as "YLA 15" curator Claudia Zapata puts it in the show's introductory wall text, "a Latino curator selecting Latino artists in a Latino-run institution" still carries a special weight.

That said, Latino cultural identity today is a different and arguably more complex proposition than it was back when the "YLA" series began and is certainly more complex than in the heyday of the Chicano movement. What was once primarily focused on Mexican and Mexican-American history and culture now encompasses the rest of Central America and all of South America, too. And the rise of the Web has led to a new cross-hemisphere awareness of everything that might be grouped under the heading of "Latino culture," but it's also filtered through the global sensibility that's been fostered by the Internet. Consequently, the kinds of images that dominated Latino art a generation ago – Aztec and Mayan designs and pageantry, Los Angeles street life, farmworkers, Che Guevara and Fidel Castro – are just one part of a very large and visually diverse mix today. And they're almost nowhere to be seen in "YLA 15," a fact that reflects both the changing times and Zapata's desire to "go beyond identity politics" and create something that didn't "look like a Latino art show."

<i>I Broke Mountains</i>, by Jesus Benavente
I Broke Mountains, by Jesus Benavente

That the curator has pursued that goal with artists who have shown in previous "YLA" exhibits means "YLA 15: Consensus of Taste" has little of the self-consciousness of less-experienced creators trying to prove themselves. The creators featured here don't need to flaunt their bona fides as artists any more than they need to assert their credentials as Latinos. Looking at their work on Mexic-Arte's walls, it's a given that they're artists. The art communicates a sense that they are further along in their careers than when they first showed in "YLA" and reveals their comfort with and command of the materials they use, their assuredness of technique, and, perhaps most important of all, their confident personal voices. These aren't artists still working out who they are and what message they want to convey. They know what they want to say, and they're saying it.

<i>Thermal Virus</i>, by Vargas-Suarez Universal
Thermal Virus, by Vargas-Suarez Universal

So if the Latino artists showing in this year's "YLA" actually tend to be older than usual, how is youngness the show's big takeaway? In part, there's a youthful energy at work here that hits you the moment you enter the exhibition. James Huizar's mural, painted right on the walls of the museum's main gallery, welcomes visitors with cartoon clouds, birds, and a blissed-out artist wearing a brown paper sack over his head and torso (he looks to be on a spray-paint high), all of them so huge that you feel like you've wandered into some trippy landscape animated by Walt Disney and Ralph Bakshi in tandem. The dishwater clouds may look uncertain, and the electric lime cloud blowing from the mouth of the skull by the artist may appear toxic, but overall, the scene generates the excited buzz of kids hitting the streets on a summer morning: "Hey, it's a beautiful day. Let's go make some art!"

<i>Nopal can Tunas #5</i>, by Margarita Cabrera
Nopal can Tunas #5, by Margarita Cabrera

That kind of energy just looks for an outlet, its expression tending to be spontaneous and unplanned. A number of works here project that feel, however meticulously mapped out beforehand they really might have been. With Smoke and Mirrors, David "Shek" Vega's graphic rendering of his subject – a fantastic blend of flora and fauna arising from the clawed foot of what might be a lion or predatory bird – is quite elaborate and precise, and yet the way it spreads across several canvases suggests the artist impulsively continuing to add feathers and leaves and pods and curlicues like a kid doodling on a book cover. Matthew Rodriguez's Auld Lang Syne gives off a similar make-it-up-as-you-go vibe. The central image has a quickly sketched quality to it – a cartoon black cat with stiffened tail and bulging bloodshot eyes looks apprehensively at the pointy beige claws of an abominable-snowman type stretching toward it – but patches of blue paint that don't quite match the background have been slapped on here and there – hastily enough that dribbles of paint run down from them, in some places obscuring the monster. The title phrase and the word "stray" have also been added to the canvas, as have a handful of stickers with photos of cats in them. As with much of Rodriguez's work, you get a sense of unchecked playfulness – no overthinking, no editing, just letting his creative impulses run and following them wherever they go.

That quality, which we see thriving in the very young, has often been bled out of artists by the time they've gone through art school. But in many of the artists here it survives, as does that other childlike virtue of taking common materials and making them into something else. It's an act of transformation that may be accomplished with just one's imagination – a broom becomes a lance, a garbage can lid a shield – or with the assistance of some scissors, glue, and paint: A humble shoebox gets made into a pirate's treasure chest, a coffee can into a robot. Candace Briceño achieves the neat trick of re-creating the rocks she once collected as a girl in fabric, the hard surface replaced with yielding cloth, the veins of mineral with thread and beads. The contrast to the texture of the original is so radical that the artist might as well be an alchemist changing lead to gold. It gives us pause, making us stop and think about rocks and what they feel like. Jason Villegas uses polo shirts and sweaters as a basis for fantastic ceremonial banners which seem to belong to other, older cultures. At the center of his UB Sales Banner is a red sweater with a face on it, the hands attached to the ends of its sleeves holding pennant-covered lines that extend to triangles and circles in which detached logos from polo shirts – Le Tigre tigers, Lacoste gators, Fox foxes – are enshrined like totemic animals. It can be read as a satirical comment on our society's worship of the commercial, but it also represents Villegas' ability to take mass-produced consumer goods and turn them into something unique and, moreover, evocative of something holy. Across the gallery, Margarita Cabrera achieves a similar feat with Nopal can Tunas #5, her soft-sculpture cactus built from cut-up pieces of a border guard uniform. An outfit designed to confer authority and which for many is a symbol of fear is transfigured into a flowering plant that knows no nation, no boundaries, and in its natural state inspires only awe at its beauty.

Even those artists of "YLA 15" who aren't making these sorts of literal transformations with materials are making figurative ones, taking the messages manufactured by the commercial culture and altering, reworking, repurposing them. For a century now, Hollywood has been drilling into us what a hero looks like: tall, ruggedly handsome, typically Anglo. In his large photograph series Action Heroes, Santiago Forero challenges this ideal by outfitting himself as various Tinseltown he-men. In the samples here, his re-creations of an American grunt in Vietnam and a masked spy inside a Russian nuclear plant are celluloid spot-on – looking at them, you can almost smell the popcorn – but for Forero's brown skin and smaller-than-average frame that fly in the face of Dream Factory standards. The contrast with such familiar images might be comical were it not for the stern expression on the artist's face and his wide, glaring eyes which connect with the viewer's and seem to say: "You think I can't do this? Watch me!" Forero isn't just showing us how limited Hollywood's thinking is when it comes to the hero; he's also making a case for who else could be one. He's showing us a new possibility.

New possibilities are something we sometimes lose sight of as we grow older. It's the young who can see them more clearly and whose enthusiasm for change and willingness to take a thing and make it into something else lead us to them. That's the sense of youngness that pervades the work of the Latino artists in "YLA 15," and engaging with them has made this middle-aged viewer feel a little less old.

"YLA 15: Consensus of Taste" is on view through Aug. 29 at Mexic-Arte Museum, 419 Congress. For more information, call 480-9373 or visit www.mexic-artemuseum.org.

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"YLA 15: Consensus of Taste", Mexic-Arte Museum, Young Latino Artists, Matthew Rodriguez, Candace Briceño, Jason Villegas, Margarita Cabrera, James Huizar, David "Shek" Vega, Santiago Forero

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