Dizzying Dichotomies: Castes, Codices and Cats Coalesce in the Socially Driven Work of San Antonio Artist Michael Menchaca

click to enlarge LUIS M. GARZA
Luis M. Garza
Like many of us, San Antonio native Michael Menchaca grew up with a fondness for the electronic escapism offered by video games.

Visits to the arcade were a regular treat after church on Sundays, and he felt drawn in by the digital graphics and quirky storylines that played out on the screen. As a student at San Antonio College, he found his footing in art by way of graphic design and went on earn a bachelor’s from Texas State University and a master’s from the Rhode Island School of Design. The visual vocabulary of video games wormed its way into his work, which is rooted in printmaking but also includes digital animation, painting, drawing and installation.

Boldly colorful, intensely patterned and often beyond busy, his prints take stylistic cues from Mesoamerican codices, or illustrated manuscripts, and employ anthropomorphic animal characters and modern-day deities to illustrate serious, real-world issues. As such, they’re dichotomous — creative collisions of ancient and contemporary ideas that are undeniably fun to look at but in fact explore immigration, oppression, border violence, the Trump era, the Black Lives Matter movement and other social concerns.

Over the past decade, Menchaca has exhibited his work throughout Texas and across the U.S. while regularly landing in residencies including the prestigious Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture and the Studios at MASS MoCA. His work is represented in 25 public collections — including the McNay, SAMA and the Smithsonian American Art Museum — and he’s received more than a dozen grants and awards.

Outside his individual artistic endeavors, Menchaca lectures, teaches workshops and collaborates with partner Suzy González under the moniker Dos Mestizx. Introduced to many via ¡Adelante San Antonio! — an ambitious public art project at San Antonio International Airport anchored by a sprawling indoor mural celebrating local history — Dos Mestizx is the curatorial team behind “XicanX: New Visions,” an impressive new Centro de Artes exhibition encompassing more than 70 works by 34 artists from across the nation.
click to enlarge MICHAEL MENCHACA
Michael Menchaca
As any working artist will tell you, such pursuits and accomplishments don’t come easy, and hustling comes with the territory. Which makes it even more of a head-scratcher that Menchaca recently unplugged. Sparked by the creeping ramifications of surveillance capitalism, data collection, targeted advertising and other forms of digital persuasion, he traded in his smartphone for a basic flip-phone and removed himself from the social media equation save for a Dos Mestizx Instagram page Gonzalez manages.

“I feel like I’m a grandpa now, an abuelito of my time,” Menchaca said of the change. But he also feels “more grounded after letting go.”

Rather than racking up screen time, he’s been reading books like Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, which presents Silicon Valley as the “Big Other” bent on modifying and monetizing our behavioral patterns, and Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing, which tackles pitfalls of the so-called attention economy.

Fittingly, these and other information-age conundrums have influenced his artistic output. Over coffee, Menchaca shed light on recurring motifs in his work as well as recent developments and projects on the horizon.

Symbolic Beasts
Menchaca struck a local chord with his 2018 show “Vignettes from San Antonio” at Ruiz-Healy Art. Timed with San Antonio’s Tricentennial, it celebrated Alamo City landmarks and traditions including SAC, Easter in Brackenridge Park and the Battle of Flowers Parade — complete with a feline version of Prince performing on a float. During a gallery talk, Menchaca explained that his mother used to feed wayward neighborhood cats and that his gut reaction — fear that the strays would become dependent on his family for survival — mirrored anti-immigration narratives.

“I realized this could be a way to talk about immigration policies, human rights issues, and my own cultural heritage through this cartoon image,” he explained. “So I continue to associate different cultures, different people’s histories, with different animal archetypes in the tradition of the Mixtec codices.”

While felines have represented mestizos and Dreamers in Menchaca’s work, canines have embodied menacing border patrol agents. Riffing on Spanish Colonial casta paintings illustrating the blending of races, Menchaca’s 16-print suite “La Raza Cósmica 20XX” brought together cats, birds, elephants, humans and hybrids — many clinging to their smartphones — for outlandish family portraits that defy place and time.
click to enlarge MICHAEL MENCHACA
Michael Menchaca
The Silicon Valley Codex
Made possible in part by a National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures (NALAC) Fund for the Arts grant, Menchaca’s series “The Codex Silex Vallis (The Silicon Valley Codex)” took shape in a 2019 exhibition at Houston’s Lawndale Art Center exploring the tech industry’s impact on “the social fabric of Latinx families.” A layered affair that conjures street art, wheat-pasted posters and internet iconography, the show’s key image stars urban felines wielding iPhones amid a poppy landscape peppered with the affirmative “thumbs up” of Facebook fame, data clouds, website menus and Wi-Fi signals.

Mesoamerican Activations
While there’s already a lot going on in Menchaca’s prints, he often exhibits them in immersive environments tied together with screen-printed wallpaper and punctuated by dizzying digital animations. For his 2019 exhibition “Dioses Nuevos” at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia, he took that format in a new direction by drawing visual inspiration from its collection of Mesoamerican objects — including a jaguar and a creepy, wide-eyed stone baby. During the show’s run, Menchaca brought some of his contemporary deities to life in Mitología Danza de Cristal, a costumed performance produced in collaboration with the Chrysler’s glass studio and presented as an homage to his late Chihuahua Winnie. Menchaca hopes to continue working with — and directing attention toward — ;Mesoamerican collections and collaborating with organizations to add performative aspects to his exhibitions.

On the Horizon
Besides his curatorial work with Gonzalez on “XicanX,” which remains on view through June 28, Menchaca has many irons in the fire. Several of his prints are included in the International Print Center New York exhibition “Homebody: New Prints 2020/Winter,” he’s collaborating with a theater troupe in Ohio on a performance tied to his contributions to the Cleveland Museum of Art’s forthcoming group show “A Graphic Revolution: Prints and Drawings in Latin America,” he’ll be unveiling a Contemporary Art Month show on March 23 at Northwest Vista College’s Palmetto Center for the Arts, and moving into Artpace this summer in conjunction with its International Artist-in-Residence program.

Stay on top of San Antonio news and views. Sign up for our Weekly Headlines Newsletter.
Scroll to read more Arts Stories & Interviews articles
Join the San Antonio Current Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.


Join SA Current Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.