Chicana/o art has been “monolithically defined” in the art history of the Americas. And even when shown to be what it has always already been—“complex, polyvocal, multireferential, and yet historically contingent,” it has largely been ignored in the mainstream of the discipline, by Americanists and Latin Americanists alike (26). So writes Karen Mary Davalos, whose Chicana/o Remix: Art and Errata since the Sixties aims to disabuse the discipline of structures that consistently conceive of “nonwhite artists as separate and inherently distinct,” and that frame their artistic production through frameworks of assimilation or difference (15). Her objectives are more than achieved in this wide-ranging study, in which Davalos liberates Chicana/o art from the “singular index”—that is to say community, self, art, artist, gender, race, et cetera (10). It brings new knowledge to the fore while also exposing the biased critical discourses and historiographic frameworks that have marginalized the contributions of Chicana/o artists to art history writ large. As indicated by the title, central to Davalos’s methodology is the tactic of “remixing” the evidence to expand the “conditions under which Chicana/o art is made visible,” in order to shift our perspective and sharpen our comprehension of what we thought we already understood (xi).
While trained as a cultural anthropologist, Davalos is deeply versed in Chicana/o art and art history, with experience as a scholar, archivist, and curator. In this meticulously researched volume, which relies on extensive archival work and oral histories, she employs a methodology rooted in borderlands theory to offer a groundbreaking analysis of this artistic field and its historiography. Across six chapters that each might stand alone as a case study, she offers an in-depth account of Chicana/o art’s presence and visibility-invisibility in Los Angeles over four decades, from 1963 to 2013. Challenging timeworn assumptions perpetuated by nonexperts and, at times, insiders, Davalos disrupts long-standing binaries that have conditioned the work’s presentation and study, for instance folk versus fine, primitive versus modern, parochial versus cosmopolitan, political versus market orientation, representational versus conceptual, and feminist versus male-dominant framings of the Chicano student movement. Davalos does not “take issue with the claim that Chicano art challenges the notion that art is autonomous” (3–4). She does, however, “take aim” at bifurcating “polarities” because they are rooted in sustaining colonialist epistemologies that position European and/or Euro-American art and culture as “universal,” and thereby as superior (22). The aim is not, thus, to simply insert a marginalized art into the normative art historical record, but to dislodge “hegemonic notions of art and identity . . . that have done little to bring Chicana/o art into focus” (214).
In chapter 1, the author outlines a methodology grounded in archival excavation, oral history, and artistic “proprioception,” or knowledge of self and place, both of which are, as she shows, contingent rather than static (11). Her theoretical framework draws from Chela Sandoval’s concept of “oppositional consciousness” and Gloria E. Anzaldúa’s refusal of “semantic tidiness,” as developed in mestiza consciousness (15). Davalos’s claim that she is “introducing Anzalduan thought” to art history (12) may be something of an overstatement, but nevertheless in a field where monographs such as Chicano Remix are still relatively rare, her original analysis brings to the fore the ways that artists, works, and exhibitions have long sought to expand rather than contract the category “Chicana/a” art. This aim, both hers and the artists’, is achieved without giving in to demands for assimilation or submitting to disciplinary conventions that seek to norm the work.
Chapter 2 focuses on six important but under-studied “errata exhibitions” that all took place in Los Angeles, including Las Chicanas: Las Venas de la Mujer (1976, Woman’s Building); Errata: Not Included (1989, SPARC Gallery); Other Footprints to Aztlan: Works from the Collection of Mary and Armando Durón (2001, SPARC Gallery); and Vaguely Chicana (2008, Tropico de Nopal Gallery and Art-Space), that last an exhibition of Linda Arreola’s work. Davalos elucidates how these exhibitions attest to the enduring plurality of Chicana/o art. No less important here is her discussion of how disciplinary norms coupled with institutional limitations have resulted in irregular and, at times, essentializing presentations of Chicana/o art at important public institutions such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).
In chapter 3, Davalos focuses on early ventures to promote Chicana/o art and artists, including Goez Art Studios and Gallery and Mechicano Art Center, and explores their impact on the community and the Los Angeles art scene more broadly. However, because Goez and Mechicano espoused for-profit economic empowerment and took a wide-ranging approach in their definition of cultural capital, they have been dismissed as antithetical to Chicana/o cultural politics. No less vital is that their histories also reveal the importance of dialogue with multiple aesthetic movements and cross-cultural collaboration to their founding missions (89–96). That is, Davalos discusses each organization’s strategies to connect artists and leaders across the Chicana/o, African American, Asian American, and Native American cultural communities in Los Angeles.
In chapter 4, oral histories with a dozen artists bring to light the importance of international travel to the evolution of their respective practices and aesthetics. The impact of “grand tours” across Europe, Asia, and Latin America stands as a corrective to long-standing misperceptions that Chicana/o artists are narrowly informed or have no individual subjectivity. Travel enabled Chaz Bojórquez, Linda Vallejo, David Botello, John Valadez, and Yolanda Gonzalez, among others, to locate themselves both “in the world and at home without contradiction” (125). Historically overlooked is also the fact that for some, the experience of encountering art and cultures abroad “preceded the spark of the Chicano movement” (109). Given her discussion in chapter 3 of the coalition-building efforts across racial and ethnic lines within Los Angeles undertaken by the leaders of Mechicano and Goez, here, in chapter 4, a more robust discussion of the impact not just of exposure to international cultures but of dialogue with artists from other marginalized communities in Los Angeles and beyond would have amplified an understanding of the multiplicity of generative forces that have informed Chicana/o creativity.
In chapter 5, Davalos shifts to offer detailed profiles of pioneering collectors for whom private collecting has had an ethical dimension. By “bearing critical witness” to the history of Chicana/o art, they have preserved heritage and supported artists whose work has only been sporadically collected and exhibited by public institutions such as LACMA (176–79).
Chapter 6 continues this thread and resumes the discussion of “remixing” exhibitions, interrogating the “paradoxical conditions for visibility and illegibility” of Chicana/o art at LACMA (183). Here, Davalos considers the museum’s history of engaging the Mexican American community and its sporadic presentation of Chicana/o art from the late 1960s up through its presentation in 2011 of Asco: Elite of the Obscure, A Retrospective, 1982–1987. She traces how the mainstream media praised Asco’s collective and individual experimentation, misperceiving it as stylish and apolitical, while attacking ethnically specific and politically engaged art. As Davalos argues, such assessments are motivated by an investment in sustaining essentialist frameworks rather than engaging the ample evidence that the modifier “Chicana/o” can accompany radical and radically experimental art.
Chicano Remix: Art and Errata since the Sixties makes an important and original contribution to the scholarship on Chicana/o art. Crucially, however, it also demonstrates the importance of intervening in and reorienting the disciplinary conventions of art history and of challenging art world structures that marginalize ethnically identified art within the narrative of US art. Davalos more than achieves her aim to showcase the inherently polyvocal nature of Chicana/o art without denying its “proper name” (14).