Code-switching is the linguist’s term for substituting one language for another in the course of a single conversation. “Oye, Teacher Bean,” a student once told me, “I couldn’t do mi tarea because mi tia was late and I had to watch mi sobrino hasta medianoche.” Notice that even though the sentence ping-pongs between Spanish and English, it’s still grammatically correct. To code switch, you need to have an intuition for how each language works and how they might work together.
Using languages and symbols, Enrique Chagoya is a master code-switcher. His drawings, etchings, and lithographs now on view in Freedom of Expression at Kala Art Institute in Berkeley, California conjure a universe that is at once familiar and alien, like a vivid dream. The phrases and images he appropriates from history and popular culture are things that a viewer has seen before, but never in quite this combination. Cartoon characters pick their way through landscapes populated by skeletons, gun-toting soldiers, and tidal waves; and yet the most dangerous part of each composition is not a corporeal threat but the minefield of cultural disorder.
One of the most fascinating components of the work is Chagoya’s attention to detail at every level. Escape from Fantasylandia: An Illegal Alien’s Survivial Guide (2011) is a perfect example: before one even considers the imagery on the surface, the material and technical components (lithography on amate paper) prepare the viewer for a clash. A German author invented the lithograph in 1796, and papel de amate is a pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican paper; thus, in advance of any other consideration, a pastiche already exists.
Going further into Escape from Fantasylandia, the images are combined in such a way as to imply an internal logic, and yet they also exist in a cultural, geographic, and even temporal chaos. In one panel, a conventionally pretty Caucasian woman from a mid-century comic book is dressed in archaic peasant garb. She restrains a child-size skeleton by the upper arm and asks, “¿Debo entender que no te simpatizo para tu amiga?” (roughly translated as, “Am I to understand that you don’t want me for your friend?”). Given her posture and the circumstance, her sweet face looks malevolent; in consideration of her rough grip, her beauty turns out to be a Trojan horse, and the gaunt little skeleton is wise to lean away from the rod she carries in her other hand. From the grim faces of the smaller skeletons that march along at the bottom of the panel, we can guess what happens next; but they are concerned only with following a floating trail of five-dollar bills, and cannot help.
Similarly, The Adventures of the Modernist Cannibals (lithograph, chine colle, and woodcut on amate paper), contains symbolic images that point to different cultures and time periods. The confusion of non-linear narratives in this book-like work is countered by its progressive, landscaped format. But in the end, disorientation reigns: Superman tumbles from the sky into a ritual human sacrifice on an Aztec pyramid, while Captain America dashes through the main gallery of an antiquities museum. In the next panel, a pre-Columbian man in a feathered headdress sits in front of an easel painting a large canvas that looks very similar to Sigmar Polke’s 1969 work Higher Powers Command: Paint the Upper Right Hand Corner Black!—itself a commentary on the supposed spirituality of the Modernist movement. And although Modernist Cannibals is folded between panels as though to make a book, it is presented open; if it had remained folded, the far right panel would be the front cover, but displayed as it is, the viewer who normally reads from left to right finds herself in the position of having apprehended the work backward. Temporal chaos, indeed.
Dragging the weight of their individual histories along with them, Chagoya’s uneasy potpourri of signifiers—from pre-Columbian glyphs to American comic-book characters—form dialectical pastiches that never quite resolve into calm synthesis, and that’s the whole point. Though other works in the exhibition—such as the single-panel lithograph The Pastoral or Arcadian State, Illegal Alien’s Guide to Greater America (2006), or the aquatint etching in the style of Goya No se puede mirar/Cannot Watch (2012), or the charcoal and pastel When Paradise Arrived (1988)—also evince the same rich discomfort of characters and states, I found myself more drawn to the lavish agitation in the multi-paneled book works. The compositions there are magnificently awkward, manifesting in images the border-state disquiet that occurs when one belongs to many distinct communities simultaneously.
References to colonial history, cultural imperialism, and near-hallucinatory allusions to the failure of capitalism make the works in Freedom of Expression simultaneously comprehensible and bewildering. The viewer who speaks more than one language might find that these mashed-up images make sense even as she is hard-put to articulate precisely how they function; just as in a foreign tongue imperfectly learned, one can get the gist even without being able to translate word for word.
Freedom of Expression, The Work of Enrique Chagoya is on view at Kala Art Institute through July 6, 2013.