In this instance, Chicano art is the new monarch ascending the throne to extend the line of succession. What's passing into history is an aesthetic that matured in the 1970s, produced by Mexican American artists with an eye toward articulation of Mexican American experience. A full generation later, what has arrived on the scene is something different -- an aesthetic produced by Mexican American artists with an eye toward articulating whatever they darn well please.
In fact, "Phantom Sightings," which ends Sept. 1, could easily pass for a Whitney Biennial. Come to think of it, I wish it were the Whitney Biennial. In our wired world of cultural tourism, that blandly punctilious New York survey of contemporary art has long since lost most of its reason for being. Given this year's perfectly conventional installment, it could use the disarming critical jolt an assertive exhibition limited by ethnic affiliation would surely elicit.
That same jolt does not materialize at LACMA, though, perhaps because L.A. is a Latino metropolis. Instead, curators Rita Gonzalez, Howard N. Fox and Chon A. Noriega nicely recalibrate the meter. Thirty-one artists -- most based here, as well as in Texas, New York and elsewhere -- are represented by 102 works. Some is derivative, but the show is gutsy (and correct) in asserting L.A. art's primacy for a significant slice of recent history.
Chicanismo was a populist intellectual movement, and Chicano art's long-standing engagement of ethnicity and assertion of political empowerment is certainly encountered in "Phantom Sightings."
From cloth and vinyl, Margarita Cabrera has stitched together a full-size Volkswagen Beetle and assorted potted cactuses -- the latter recycled from Border Patrol agents' actual uniforms -- like an ambitious garment worker determined to valorize industriousness and tenacity. Juan Capistran photographed himself break-dancing atop a checkerboard of Carl Andre's metal plates on display at a museum, claiming a Minimalist sculpture as a performance stage.
Mario Ybarra Jr. continues this Pop trajectory in a small room ringed by color photographs of typical suburban bungalows. In the center, a pair of high-top sneakers is enshrined in a display case, designed to look like a prison watchtower. Crank the handle on the front and the shoes' heels click together. There's no place like home -- a cliché made suddenly bittersweet.
History's guilty erasures are the ghosts in Ken Gonzalez-Day's effective transformation of Mexican mural tradition. Using creepy, early 20th century souvenir postcards of the lynching of Mexicans and Mexican Americans in California, he has papered a hallway with a pair of photographic mirror-images. One side is black and white, the other a negative printed on silver Mylar.
The pictures show a crowd idly milling about near a large tree. Some smile and some are blank-faced. Some grimace.
Presumably the rope and murder victim have been digitally erased, but the horrific subject of the gathering needs no explanation. The erasure shifts attention toward the participatory audience for the gruesome event. Into this haunted memorial scene -- Sunday in the Park with Jorge -- you are inserted as a Mylar reflection, vigilante and victim.
Carolyn Castaño's cheerfully loud glamour-paintings merge personal fashion and street advertising with abstract painting. Alejandro Diaz merges street advertising with Conceptual art, crafting 30 cardboard-signs a panhandler might employ. Each tells an excellent, self-deprecating joke: "I beg to differ," "Mexican wallpaper" and -- my favorite -- "In the future everyone will be famous for $15."
The curators rightly trace the history of this current American art to the performance-based 1970s work of Asco, the collective chiefly composed of Harry Gamboa Jr., Gronk, Willie Herrón III and Patssi Valdez. Muralism and street art have venerable histories in Mexican and Chicano culture, and Asco thoroughly transformed them both.
"Phantom Sightings" opens with a selection of recent digital prints and a video documenting Asco performances from 1972 to 1976. The selection demonstrates how the quartet merged Pop and Conceptual art with strategies of muralism and street aesthetics.
In one, Valdez, fashionably dressed and "painted" with makeup, was taped to the wall of an underpass to become a living mural. At once a free woman and a Snidely Whiplash-style damsel in distress, she's given public voice while held in crude bondage to popular expectation. Elsewhere Asco's members, dressed to the nines, created a stylishly gritty, high-fashion advertisement by posing next to a storm drain spewing sludge at their feet. The picture turns urban graffiti, disposable and reviled, into flesh-and-blood human beings.
In their most famous piece, the artists spray-painted their names on an outdoor LACMA wall in the dead of night, melding illicit tagging with the dignified artistic practice of signing a work of art. In the process, Asco claimed the art museum and everything in it, regardless of global origin, as their own cultural inheritance.
That is, Gamboa, Gronk and Herrón did. Their names appeared on the art museum wall. The photo-document shows Valdez -- the female member of the group -- posed next to the men's spray-painted signatures. Like the museum as an art object, she's also the objectified "picture" artistically "signed." The work creates an ambiguous rumination on the dynamic interplay between Mexican machismo and American feminism.
The show is focused on very recent work, made in the new millennium, but it also includes several terrific, earlier Neo-Expressionist sculptures and paintings by Victor Estrada, who made a splash in "Helter Skelter," the Museum of Contemporary Art's pivotal 1992 survey of L.A. art. (His sweetly monstrous figures are a mash-up of Joan Miró and Ed "Big Daddy" Roth.) Also a crucial link, but not included, are Salomón Huerta's exquisite paintings of the backs of peoples' heads, a savvy motif that literally turns its back on entrenched identity art.
LACMA invited a number of unidentified artists to participate, but they declined, no doubt cautious of the tendency to pigeonhole artists in shows crafted by gender or ethnicity. (Huerta's new work is currently at Patrick Painter Gallery in Santa Monica.) But the museum also ought to be cautious of related stereotyping: An introductory wall text says Conceptually based art employs "strategies that, at times, emphasize concepts and ideas rather than the art object" -- 1970s-era boilerplate, long overdue for retirement. Some of the best work in "Phantom Sightings" debunks it.
A mesmerizing 2006 painting by Rubén Ortiz-Torres is emblematic. Sparkly pearlescent automotive paint, which magically shifts from smoky gray-green to noxious brown, depending on the angle of reflected light, is sprayed on a horizontal aluminum panel nearly 6 feet wide and 2 feet high. Ortiz-Torres puts gorgeous low-rider car materials at the service of revising the metaphysically tinged clarity of California Finish Fetish and Light & Space art, in a murky work aptly titled "Smog."
This knockout painting, an emphatic art object, embodies concepts and ideas, contrary to what's suggested in that introductory wall label. As far as 1970s Conceptual art goes, the king is dead. Long live the king!