Food fight

Rolando Briseño paints swirling depictions of traditional Aztec foods upon found napkins and urbane gingham tablecloths. Patterns of yellow mustard and hot dogs are lost beneath the superimposition of multicolored hands sharing a meal. Tabasco drips like blood from the canvas, telling a story of war profiteering and the shameless appropriation of a culture now bottled and sold, an institution as American as the frozen burrito.

In the San Antonio artist’s one-person show, “Moctezuma’s Table: Briseño’s Mexican and Chicano Tablescapes” at the San Antonio Museum of Art, Briseño stoops to explore the pressure on Mexican-American culture through perhaps its most binding cultural rite accessible to America at large. He traces the recent dilution of recipes and rituals as they are co-opted and streamlined by those who seek to ape his culture’s most marketable aspect — its culinary delights — without setting a place at the table for the very people whose collective pride and history grace the plates.

The show accompanies a book of the same title available from Texas A&M University Press and edited by UTSA’s Norma Cantu.

If the status of Mexican and Chicano culture is imperiled in America (or at least disparaged), as Briseño appears to believe, in the form of the abandonment of its age-old Aztec recipes and inclination to be social over food, the adoption of its singular culinary values by mainstream America seems to irk him even further. His reality is one where Taco Bell’s menu is as insulting a caricature to his generation as José Jiménez was to the last. Where the preeminence of revisionist Alamo history once was an open wound, now the scab of the No. 2 dinner festers.

His tablescapes are divided into four subheadings: Ingredients, Recipes, Diaspora, and Inframundo (ritual & mythology), each representing a major aspect of Mexican and Chicano food as culture. The Diaspora paintings shout the loudest and say the most. The other three subsets of paintings educate and inform; they are the ingredients and instructions, the spiritual blessing of the food itself, and the sum of its parts. Diaspora admonishes and berates the viewer, and pronounces judgment: the pot’s been sullied, then stolen.

A prime example of Briseño’s admonition is Diaspora’s most vivid denouncement painting, The No. 2 Dinner. Bright yellow cheese drips down over a tablecloth map of Texas, in the midst of which is a decidedly Tex-Mex entrée, covered in still more yellow cheese. Briseño’s work is certainly a scold, but more than this his works seem to be ill at ease about Mexican food’s dubious place in the mainstream — cheap, simple, accessible, not especially sophisticated — a complicated metaphor for the perception of Mexican-Americans themselves. Politics as food: As goes the No. 2 dinner, so goes Chicano culture.

Easily the most striking display of Briseño’s contempt is Corn Tortilla Twin Towers, a scale model of the World Trade Center made of corn tortillas, coated in a glossy red chili powder patina. And so, a subject matter for which humor of any kind is reflexively disallowed has been rendered pitifully humorous and given a derisively abstract perspective. Briseño purveys it as a tribute to the “fallen victims of the corn culture,” with the implication that their similarly instantaneous disappearance was itself the result of a kind of terrorism. The injection of humor to the issue seems to chide our recent preoccupation with a perceived foreign danger-at-large at the expense of domestic welfare and to the detriment of those less fortunate, in some cases, in far less developed countries.

Still, for all his scolding, Briseño can at least imagine an honorable place at America’s table for Mexican and Chicano culture. His painting Fatso Watso Table is the utopian dream of his current reality. He’s overlain brown, white, and black hands outstretched over a tablecloth of half typical gingham blandness, half a brighter, more cosmopolitan pattern. They’re giving, taking, and sharing food. Miller Lite sits opposite Shiner Bock, onion rings against German sausage, and carne guisada against beef brisket. He swirls them all together as if an unseen spirit occupies all, muddling them in the pot of their perceived predilections — and enticing them all to try the blend. This is the dream: not a preeminent place setting for Mexican-American culture at the expense of others, just an equal place at the table. •

Moctezuma’s Table: Rolando Briseño’s Mexican and Chicano Tablescapes
San Antonio Museum of Art
Now through Feb 13, 2011

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