Location doesn’t spark 'Points and Tangents’ missing fire

Walking intoCentro Cultural Aztlan’s spiffy newish space in the Deco District I’m reminded of two axioms: “Context is everything” and “Location, location, location.” Is Aztlan, mythic homeland of the Mexica people (a.k.a. Aztecs), an increasingly gentrified plot of real estate? Does “moving up” require “moving out”?

It’s not coincidental that Centro’s space sits at the head of Zarzamora Street, one of the city’s longer arteries. A drive along the street’s entire length begins near the site of San Antonio’s earliest Spanish colonial settlement and ends at what was once the city limits. Along the way you pass working-class barrios, churches, a basilica, taquerías, schools, public housing — in other words, it’s a drive that follows some local Chicano migration routes (raza’s move from the South and West Sides to the near North) prompted by the arduous climb up the socioeconomic ladder. What this new location means for Centro, a culturally grounded organization with long historical ties to the West Side and its struggles, remains to be seen. However, the recently opened exhibition, Points and Tangents, a two-person show of paintings by Paul Karam and Luis Valderas, gives some fascinating clues to directions the center could chart in its transplanted state.

While the exhibition’s intention, as I understand it, is to highlight synergism, the overall effect is caused by complementary and contrasting modes that appear more incidental than deliberate. Paul Karam’s paintings, such as “Come Together,” recall the biomorphic abstraction of Terry Winters, but without the rigor. Instead of giving full-throated voice to these naturalistic, organic impulses, Karam quickly moves on to “Serenata” and “Lovely Leo,” works that use an almost folkloric palette and look like deconstructed Central American textiles or piñatas with hints of fragmented ojos de dios. Similarly, Karam’s logogrammatic “2007,” a more polemical painting, lacks any discernible evidence of the deeply felt, unbridled passion that drives more successful “political” art.

The absence of forethought is entirely the point behind Karam’s “automatist” approach, a school promoted by a group of French-Canadian artists, among others. It gave rise to work that is best described as surrealistic. (Indeed, Karam’s “Blue Sky Watching” is clearly indebted to the works of the great Cuban surrealist Wifredo Lam.) However, Karam’s work, at last as evidenced by his paintings in this show, miss a critical opportunity to make a case for a variety of surrealism that can decisively be called “Chicano” or “American.”

Many critics have argued that surrealism never took root in the U.S. because unlike sites of its great flowering — principally in Western Europe and Latin America — the U.S. never lived through the devastation and resulting collective anguish brought on by World War II or barbaric dictatorships. Were Karam’s paintings compelling examples of art fermented by genuine angst and the subconscious, they would provoke a visceral response. Sadly, they do not.

Karam’s compadre, Luis Valderas, has lately been an almost ubiquitous presence in San Anto’s Chicano art circles. In this show he is a formalist Apollo to Karam’s instinctual Dionysus. There is careful attention to technique and obvious, thoughtful respect for subject matter. Not surprisingly, Valderas’s large-scale work is more overtly political than Karam’s.

Paintings such as “La Nopalera” draw on ancient cosmology and wed it to present-day issues, in this case, the heavily guarded — make that militarized — U.S.-Mexico border. “El Río se los tragó” utilizes an ironic title to convey our passive attitude toward the deaths of hundreds who attempt the treacherous border crossing every year. The dazzling, disembodied eyes in Valderas’s painting watch over the carnage and recall the vibrant feather headdress known as “penacho.”

The border runs through all of Valderas’s work in the exhibition, which is not surprising given the artist’s roots in the Valley. His signature skulls — Aztec iconography meets Pac-Man — are also much in evidence here. Sensualism makes a fleeting appearance in Valderas’s “Mayahuel,” in which the Aztec goddess of the maguey and fertility is rendered as a brown-skinned Venus rising not from sea foam, but from a wave of fingers (The final glimpse of immigrants drowning in the Río Grande?).

The daily struggles of the descendents of the Aztecs can be clearly read in “Así en la tierra como en el cielo,” whose title is taken from a familiar prayer. The bones of the ancestors are the root of what’s replicated above ground — more death. A chain-bound central figure, a Chicano Prometheus, writhes against a sunburst emanating from a pyramid structure in the background of this black-and-white painting. But that light source (history) is nearly obscured by the ramification of falling rockets, whose red glare has been bleached — there is no glory here. The painting is also an indictment of capitalism, represented by slanted factories and skyscrapers. Is this the destination of history’s long march, Valderas seems to ask.

I don’t know about that, but the show’s effect is actually a safe non-effect. It’s not that the two artists’ work isn’t technically accomplished or heartfelt, but with a few exceptions, it registers blandly, if at all. (And no, I’m not advocating for the primacy of agitprop to the exclusion of all other aesthetics or points of view.)

A couple days before the show’s opening I ran into Malena González-Cid, CCA’s Executive Director. She expressed concern over comments made by several artists in our community (Chicanas and Chicanos) who told her that they’re “really glad” about Centro’s relocation. “Why don’t they just go ahead and say it?” she tells me. “‘I know my car won’t get broken into here.’” Let’s just hope that false sense of security doesn’t echo too loudly inside the gallery’s walls. After all, Centro Cultural Aztlan’s transfer to the Deco District shouldn’t usher in an arts décoratifs approach to art-making and presentation. (Interestingly, Centro’s “community gallery,” which comprises the hallways leading to the main space, features some potent examples of political art that refuses to be limited by that label.)

As I leave the gallery, I hear the sound of a paletero’s tinkling bells on Fredericksburg Road. It tells me that the reconquista may yet happen in the shimmer of the Deco District.

Points and Tangents
9am-5pm Mon-Fri
Through Sep 7
Centro Cultural Aztlan
1800 Fredericksburg
(210) 432-1896

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