Life in Colors: the Chicano Canvas


By Letisia Marquez '94

Published Apr 1, 2008 8:00 AM

Photos by Mark Berndt

Chicano art doesn't always get the attention it deserves, and neither do Chicano artists. But both creators and creations have a passionate champion — UCLA scholar Chon Noriega, who, as adjunct curator, channels his lifelong passion into Phantom Sightings, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's first exhibit of Chicano art in nearly two decades.

Most Chicago-area high school students take their girlfriends to a movie or a stroll through a mall, but when Chon Noriega planned dates growing up in the Windy City, he had a cultural destination in mind: the Art Institute of Chicago.

Noriega, now director of the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center and an influential figure in Los Angeles' Chicano art community, said the first date he took to the museum couldn't stop raving about the museum's "Stack of Wheat" paintings by Claude Monet.

"Alas, the relationship soon ended," Noriega chuckles. "Turns out Monet can't buy you love."

Still, Noriega's passion for art — particularly Chicano art — remained, and today blazes as fiercely as ever. As head of the UCLA center, he's behind a flurry of arts-related projects, most notably the first exhibit of Chicano art in nearly two decades at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), titled Phantom Sightings: Art After the Chicano Movement.

Christina Fernandez, Lavandería #4, 2002. Chromogenic development print mounted on Sintra. Fernandez documents evidence of vanished human presences in Los Angeles. Her photographs of lavanderías, or laundromats, capture brightly lit interiors that are curiously devoid of people. We see these spaces through the filter of the spray-painted and acid-etched graffiti on the windows.

The exhibit, which opens April 6 and ends Sept. 1 before traveling to other U.S. cities and Mexico, will feature 31 conceptual artists who explore such varied topics as the trees where Mexican Americans were lynched in the late 1800s and beauty salon art.

"What we tried to do with the exhibit is look at conceptually oriented art from the Chicano community across the nation," says Noriega, who is the exhibit's adjunct curator, one sunny morning in January on a patio between the venue's cavernous exhibit halls. "The artists we selected work in a range of nontraditional forms, from performance to installation to 'guerilla' interventions in urban space.

"Their work mixes references to local histories, popular culture, alternative music, modernist art, and even Pink Floyd," he adds. "These artists show how different things influence each other, rather than only making art about social protest or the high-art canon or something that is exceedingly personal."

Rita Gonzalez, lead curator for Phantom Sightings and a UCLA doctoral candidate in the Cinema and Media Studies program, says Noriega's relationship with Chicano artists nationwide and his knowledge of Latino history have proved invaluable to the exhibit.

"He has both a mind for art history and policy, which is somewhat rare," she says. "And because he can speak to different brokers — from art historians to policy makers — about art, he has become an important mediator."