EXHIBITS & GALLERIES
Want to see a stone, creepy baby come to life? Check out a new video installation based on ancient art at the Chrysler.
By Denise M. Watson
Staff writer, The Virginia Pilot
Sun. Feb. 10, 2019
Everything old is new again. Especially with the latest exhibition at the Chrysler Museum of Art.
San Antonio-based artist Michael Menchaca has created a vibrant installation based on the Chrysler’s Mesoamerican collection, which covers centuries of art from Pre-Columbian Mexico and Central America.
The statues, figurines and ceramic pieces represent a variety of groups, including the Olmec, Mayan and Xochipala, and are some of the museum’s oldest pieces.
Menchaca calls the exhibition “Dioses Nuevos,” or “new gods” to point out how he interpreted the archaic symbols into a contemporary, digital context.
The center of the exhibition is the 5½-minute video, "Histrionic Mestizaje II" that plays in the multimedia gallery space called “The Box.” The video is a kaleidoscope of dancing images pulled from the neighboring Mesoamerican collection. "Histrionic" refers to the colorful, energetic presentation, Menchaca says. "Mestizaje" is the blending of the indigenous cultures with Spanish explorers who invaded the countries beginning in the 15th century.
Visitors can treat the interplay of the two spaces like a cultural scavenger hunt — seek out the iconic stone faces and animals in the video that decorate the ancient vases and jugs, particularly the jaguar, a revered figure in Mesoamerica.
Menchaca came to the Chrysler last summer and took numerous photos so he could digitize them. He learned that one of the most popular items in the collection is a stone figure of a child, eerie with its wide eyes and flashing teeth. Docents and curators told Menchaca that people had nightmares after seeing it in the gallery. The creepy baby, as it is sometimes called, has a role in the video.
Birds are another popular symbol, and Menchaca has created a giant bird mouth to be the opening into The Box. The shrouded feel of The Box also conveys the feeling of a temple or meditative space. The installation includes two encased figures from the collection placed on each side of the video.
“Many of the pieces in the collection have animal spirits dancing in the afterlife,” Menchaca said recently while at the Chrysler finalizing the installation. In The Box, he said, “They will be alive, very much alive.”
Kimberli Gant, the Chrysler’s McKinnon Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, has been following Menchaca’s work and likes how he breathes new life into the old imagery.
Both Menchaca and Gant said it reminds viewers that what might be considered a relic of a bygone era still has meaning. Every society and era use objects, such as crosses in Christianity, to convey messages and lessons.
“Even though the context of these pieces was different, they were used for cultural and ritual purposes,” Gant said. “The work was contemporary at that time.”
Menchaca’s art also allows him to reinvigorate his cultural history.
Menchaca was born in Texas in 1985 to parents who immigrated from Mexico.
He said that at times he felt like a minority even though he grew up in predominantly Hispanic San Antonio. In elementary school, he and other Hispanic students could get in trouble if they spoke Spanish.
Once he got into college, first at Texas State University and then the Rhode Island School of Design, his work delved into social issues like human trafficking and immigration. As with Mesoamerican art, Menchaca started using animals to represent people and messages. He uses a cat to symbolize immigrants seeking a new life in America. Menchaca got the idea from growing up in a mobile home community where a lot of stray cats lived. Some people, like his mother, fed them, and the cats kept coming back. Others in the community refused to feed them to prevent them from having kittens and wanting to stay.
Cats will pop up in the Chrysler’s video.
In 2010, Menchaca paid close attention to the protest signs being used among crowds denouncing the passage of Arizona’s Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act. The law was passed to give police officers more teeth in combating illegal immigration. Opponents feared that it allowed anyone who looked Hispanic or spoke Spanish to be profiled. Most of the law has since been overturned.
Many of the protest signs, though, included bold prints made popular by Chicano artists.
One of Menchaca’s specialties has become printmaking.
With the Chrysler exhibition, Menchaca has covered the walls of The Box with the colors and geometric pattern taken from a fragment of cloth in the Mesoamerican collection.
Menchaca said the Norfolk installation is less about politics, however, and more about looking at old cultures in a new way.
-Denise M. Watson
The Virginia Pilot