Southwest 'casta' paintings spotlight race, popular culture

In this Feb. 16, 2018, photo border artist Claudio Dicochea explains one of the paintings in his "Acid Baroque" exhibit on display at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art in Scottsdale, Ariz., through May 20. These and other works by the 45-year-old Dicochea give a contemporary psychedelic spin to the colonial "casta" or caste paintings first created in 18th century Mexico, taking us to the crossroads of colonialism and modern day popular culture as he examines the concept of "mestizaje," or mixed identity. (AP Photo/Anita Snow)

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Masked Mexican rebel leader Subcomandante Marcos, wearing a purple three-piece suit, is paired with Britney Spears in a Wonder Woman costume. Their child is a tiny albino Marcos, smoking a pipe and wearing a turban with his own little ski mask, his body the black-suited torso of James Bond.

Another work by border artist Claudio Dicochea shows Ronald Reagan standing on a Pan American jet in colorful cowboy boots. Coupled with Salma Hayek reprising her role as Frida Kahlo but wearing the uniform of a Russian czar, their son is Heath Ledger as the Joker dressed in a pirate's getup. Their daughter is the late Mexican movie star Dolores del Rio with the body of superhero Vampirella and the headdress of Aztec emperor Montezuma.

Spotlighted in the exhibit "Acid Baroque," on display at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art through May 20, these and other works by the 45-year-old Dicochea give a modern psychedelic spin to the colonial "casta" or caste paintings first created in 18th century Mexico, taking viewers to the crossroad of colonialism and contemporary popular culture as he examines the idea of "mestizaje," or mixed-race identity. The exhibit is part of a program at the museum that showcases up-and-coming artists from Mexico and the American Southwest.

The original caste paintings are still seen at some museums, including the one at Mexico City's Chapultepec Castle, and feature portraits of mixed-race families — usually the parents and one or two children. They illustrate how intermarriage among Indians, blacks, Spaniards and mixed-race people after the conquest created hierarchal classifications of every mix imaginable, with the children born from diverse couplings arranged from lightest- to darkest-skinned in a kind of table of elements.

In Dicochea's reimagining of the genre, public figures and celebrities from the 20th and 21st centuries such as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Fidel Castro, as well as numerous Mexican TV soap opera stars, are the parents and children.

Race is fluid as the artist uses various materials on wood including acrylic, charcoal, graphite and transfer to tie images together into colorful collages. John Wayne the cowboy movie idol is pictured as an Indian rather than an Indian killer. Albert Einstein is shown as a black child in jeans and T-shirt on a bicycle.

"It's a really serious meditation on race by someone who grew up on the border," museum director and chief curator Sara Cochran said. "I like to call this a Trojan horse show, a beautiful show that teaches you something by the back door."

For Dicochea, creating a new riff on the old casta paintings is a critique of the role visual arts play in shaping ideas about race.

"At the core level, I'm showing that the ideas of race and ethnicity are social processes that are made up rather than natural phenomenon, that they are constructed to exert control," he said.

His work is being displayed through the museum's southwestNET program, which annually spotlights one or more mid-career artists from the region believed to be on the verge of achieving iconic status, Cochran said. The artists can come from Mexico or anywhere in the Southwest from California to Texas and up to Utah and Colorado.

Past southwestNet artists have included Postcommodity, an arts collective that brought a four-channel video with sound of the U.S.-Mexico border fence, titled "A Very Long Line," to the 2017 Whitney Biennial in New York.

Dicochea was born in San Luis Colorado, Mexico, where the northwestern corner of Sonora state meets southwestern Arizona, just south of Yuma. His family immigrated to the U.S. when he was an infant, and he grew up along the border.

As a youth, Dicochea labored briefly as a farmworker, irrigating fields in the Yuma Valley. He left at age 20 to study at the University of Arizona in Tucson, later continuing his studies at the San Francisco Art Institute and Arizona State University in Tempe, where he obtained a master's in fine arts. He and his wife, Adriana, a painter from the border city of Nogales, Mexico, now live in San Antonio, Texas.

Among Dicochea's earliest mentors was the late African-American painter Robert Colescott, known for satirical paintings such as "George Washington Carver crossing the Delaware," which replaced the revolutionary war hero with the black botanist and inventor standing in a boat filled with domestic workers and minstrels.

Dicochea included Colescott's work in an exhibit of sometimes racially charged works he recently put together with curator Julio Cesar Morales at the ASU Art Museum in an examination of the current social and cultural climate.

"Claudio addresses gender, race and class," said Morales, "offering a very smart mashup of different cultures and styles to tell the story of where we are now."

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