Artist Michael Menchaca records history.
Or perhaps more correctly, the 27-year-old San Antonio artist is re-recording history while also documenting current events.
In boldly colored and graphically vigorous prints, Menchaca imaginatively interprets issues and ideas that well up around immigration, the United States-Mexico border and the deep history shared by Texas and Mexico.
His visual language is a mash-up of Pop Art, classic cartoon animation (think "Tom and Jerry" and "Roadrunner") as well as the image-centered hieroglyphic script of pre-Columbian cultures of the Americas.
Menchaca is, refreshingly, not afraid of whimsy, though it’s a dark whimsy.
In his cosmos, cats represent undocumented Mexican immigrants and rats act the role of machine gun-toting (or spear-wielding) drug cartel thugs.
His work is immediately compelling, and after looking closer, a bit provocative.
Currently, Menchaca has his first museum solo show, the latest of AMOA-Arthouse’s "New Work" series that spotlights emerging Texas artists whose work pushes boundaries.
For the exhibit, Menchaca premieres his latest impeccably printed serigraphs — a four-part series of diptychs that chart the attempt by the gods to create a cosmos. And like in a Mayan codex, Menchaca renders his figures and symbols in a flat two-dimensional style with no perspective, the entire picture plane crowded with images.
In tandem with the diptychs is "Creatio Episodium Megafauna I," a digital video. Against a soundtrack of an old-timey tinny piano that might have accompanied a vintage silent cartoon, Menchaca unfurls a very 21st-century version of his creation myth as a panoply of images morph from one creature into the next.
The combination of traditional printmaking and digital video suits a younger artist that’s pulling equally from classic as well as contemporary traditions.
Menchaca’s printmaking joins the trajectory of Mexican and Mexican-American printmaking that leads back to José Guadalupe Posada, the 19th-century Mexican artist whose satirical cartoons mocked Mexico’s social and political elite. Reproduced on handbills and posters, Posada’s images were churned out and distributed by the thousands.
Likewise in the 1960s, Chicano artists in the United States took up printmaking as a means to inexpensively produce popularly oriented propagandist images, a veritable school of art that is now a critically important chapter within the story of postwar American art.
But let’s not forget the cartoons. Menchaca makes difficult issues such as human trafficking, prejudice and oppression more palatable with his surprise-faced cats and droopy-eyed monkeys.
In that respect, Menchaca joins an emerging trend of Texas-based artists whose work is deftly and creatively addressing the violence and horror that dominates news from the border.
Miguel Aragón— who netted the Outstanding Artist award from the Austin Critics’ Table last year and had a solo show at Mexic-Arte Museum — uses a laser cutter and power tools to manipulate his print portraits of drug war casualties based on images from newspaper clippings and photographs.
And last summer, Rigoberto A. Gonzalez unveiled a stunning solo show at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Center. His highly dramatic Baroque-inspired paintings — rendered with exquisite technique — depicted horrific drug war-related events.
Menchaca graduated from Texas State University in 2011 with an undergraduate degree in printmaking. That same year his work was included in Mexic-Arte’s "Young Latino Artists 16: Thought Cloud."
Perhaps even more impressively, Menchaca has had his work collected by Harriet and Ricardo Romo, whose collection of Mexican-American prints is among the most prominent. (Ricardo Romo is president of University of Texas at San Antonio.) The Romos recently donated a sizable part of their collection (including Menchaca’s work) to San Antonio’s McNay Art Museum, which is currently on view and the subject of a recent monograph by the UT Press.
Menchaca has delved deep to create his chronicle of the Americas. Probing at the roots of cultural conflict — namely, humankind’s inherent fear of outsiders — he nevertheless presents us with our most base behavior as a charming cartoon.