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Mexic-Arte Museum's Young Latino Artists exhibit goes beyond cultural identity

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Claudia Zapata, curator of the current Young Latino Artists Exhibition at Mexic-Arte Museum, says Internet-age artists are inspired by an array of influences.

Claudia Zapata never had a quinceañera, the traditional Mexican celebration of a girl's 15th birthday, because it just seemed, well, too traditional for her sensibilities.

So when Mexic-Arte Museum leaders asked the 26-year-old curator to consider giving the 15th anniversary of the museum's "Young Latino Artist" exhibit a quinceañera spin, Zapata declined.

"I didn't want this to look like a Latino art show," says Zapata of "Consensus of Taste," the current exhibit that proffers new work from something of an all-stars list of former YLA participants.

"A culturally thematic exhibit is great, and it's been done before many times, and I love it," says Zapata. "But it doesn't have a wider appeal for my generation. I wanted to go beyond identity politics."

And besides, definitions and classifications confound. "When you say Latino art nowadays, what exactly do you mean?" asks Zapata. Is it art by Mexican Americans? Or by any artist from Latin America? And what about those who identify themselves as Chicano, a term with a debatable definition? Though it appears on the 2010 Census form, Chicano also has come to mean a very specific Mexican American political identity since the 1960s civil rights movement.

To organize "Consensus," Zapata plucked artists from the roster of YLA participants, all of whom were Texas-based and younger than 35 at the time they participated — and all of whom identified themselves as Latino. But, she points out, while the 15 artists in "Consensus" might share mostly similar cultural backgrounds, approaching the art they make strictly through the lens of cultural identity might not prove the most mindful method.

Instead, Zapata suggests, consider the generational similarities of the artists in "Consensus." Whereas Chicano artists of the 1960s and 1970s leveraged their specific culture symbols into the realm of high art, today it's typical for young artists of many cultural backgrounds to wrestle with global issues and employ conceptual art-making strategies to express those issues.

Issues such as mass consumption. Jason Villegas — who since participating in YLA in 2005 has gone on to show around the country — pokes at the way a global market has an ecology all its own, producing cheap yet fashionable products that are then shipped around the globe, bought by consumers, then thrown away. For the piece "UB Sales Banner," Villegas — now based in New York — layers remnants of knockoff designer polo shirts to create a 10-foot honorific banner, a boldly ironic celebration of global capitalism. "Our throwaway economy is our legacy — our new heritage," Villegas writes in his statement. "My experience in YLA (in 2005) was the realization that my artwork need not be altered or geared toward any specific cultural background in to order to be true to my heritage."

"Anybody who grew up in the Internet age is just exponentially exposed to more global information and to huge volumes of visual material," Zapata says. "And artists (of the Internet generation) also identify with and are inspired by a wide realm of influences."

Others in the art world recognize the position from which Zapata and the artists of YLA come.

"There are definitely two schools of thought, one that argues for ethnicity as the principle upon which art should be looked at, and one that places ethnicity as a second factor — or third or not at all," says Ursula Davila-Villa, associate curator of Latin American Art at the Blanton Museum of Art. "As globalization became the dominant influence on artists, discussions of ethnicity became difficult to sustain. I certainly think that art is first and foremost art, regardless of the artists' background. What is important — rather than the artist's ethnicity — is the context in which the work was produced."

Carlos Rosales-Silva is keen on considering context. The 28-year-old Austin artist says he is fascinated by history, and although he draws on the history of Texas for much of his recent work, he's quick to say that that is because Texas history is what he knows best and not because he is Latino. "I shouldn't have to be labeled Latino, even if my work is about that," he says.

A member of the celebrated indie art collective Okay Mountain — which currently has an exhibit in New York — Rosales-Silva uses mass market products like party favor bags and plastic toys to assemble a conceptual yet humorous tableau that offers an ironic re-reading of Texas history. A toy ax slices into a volume from a dated National Geographic book titled "The History of the American Indian." Nearby sits a campfire made from stuffed party favor bags that sport a flame motif. Rosales-Silva dubs his pseudo-fire — made of cheap, pop culture material — "Ritual Fire." On the wall next to the fire is a painting featuring a color gradient from yellow to orange to black. It's the Alamo, Rosales-Silva explains, humorously minimalized to the point of erasure.

"The reason I'm making the conceptual, minimalist work I'm making is to make it different than the kind of work (Latino) artists made before," he says. "In the end, artists don't have to be making work about cultural identity. We should just be making work."; 445-3699

'Consensus of Taste: The 15th Young Latino Artists Exhibition'

When: through Aug. 29

Where: Mexic-Arte Museum, 419 Congress Ave.

Cost: $5 ($4 senior citizens and students; $1 children 12 and younger)

Information: 480-9373, www.mexicarte