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Carmen Lomas Garza : Monitos
June 21-September 7, 1997
June 21-September 7, 1997
Carmen Lomas Garza: Monitos
Carmen Lomas Garza
Usando el Periodico
(Using the Newspaper) , 1995
gouache on paper
16 1/2 x 13 1/4 inches
Courtesy of the
Steinbaum Krauss Gallery, New York, NY
By mining her memories of Tejano life, Carmen Lomas Garza creates anecdotal, often autobiographical, and sometimes confessional works of art. Her paintings, etchings, and altars with papeles picados (paper cuttings) encourage the viewer to experience Chicana/o culture through her first-person visual narrative. "Anecdote cuts a channel from mind to sensation," suggesting our affinity for the personal and the intimate. We are often stirred to emotional solidarity when we view, hear, or read stories of love, pain, loss, or faith. 2Through her monitos (little figures) paintings, Carmen Lomas Garza reclaims family stories, memories, healings, ceremonies, and everyday life so that viewers inside her culture may engage in a shared history, and viewers outside of Chicano culture may witness a familial history of the largest Spanish-speaking group in the United States. Lomas Garza has said that as a Chicana artist her goal is to help her people and to present their lives through imagery accessible to mainstream culture. Garza's imagery, standing apart from much contemporary art because it is understandable, is storytelling that contests the often negative views of the dominant culture and promotes affirmation of her own culture. Through her visual narration she dislodges fixed assumptions about Mexican Americans.

For me, writing from outside Carmen Lomas Garza's culture magnifies some of the issues and problems she seeks to redress in her work, namely, a dominant Anglo culture which purloins and even erases Chicano culture. I wonder how to speak of her without seeming to speak for her. In my own personal discourse how do I accurately enough represent the essence of her work? As curator, should I have retained a Chicano studies scholar to write about Carmen Lomas Garza, from inside her culture? Or do I, as representative of my institution, and as a curator who personally and professionally values her work, wanting others to know it, have a right to add to the dialogue? By not speaking what would I imply? Would I imply that only those who live within a culture have the right to speak about it? Is that the case? And finally, are my own self-conscious, confessional queries only naive in the extreme? I would hope that they may foment discussions of ethnicity, cultural identity, and cultural appropriation.

Historically, Chicanos are descendants of the Mexican peoples who remained north of the United States/Mexico border as it was formed by the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe. However, the term Chicano has developed from a geographical and ethnic marker into a term bearing broad social, cultural, political, economic, ethnic, and personal significance. According to Diana Taylor in Negotiating Performance: Gender, Sexuality, and Theatricality in Latin/o America , "the term 'Chicano/a' is ideological rather than biological; it goes beyond the hyphenated, negotiated, nationality-based ethnicity of Mexican Americans to signal a relatively new ideological position of self-affirmation that took shape with the Raza movement of the 1960s." 3Carmen Lomas Garza situates herself physically and ideologically within the Chicana/o culture. She is Chicana by heritage, and she works within the political framework of the Chicano movement.

Lomas Garza moves within and between cultures-the dominant Anglo and the resistant Chicano-establishing her voice in two different languages. For instance, Lomas Garza often titles her works in both Spanish and English. This bilingual approach may suggest the almost binary elements that the two languages seem to represent. According to artist and activist Coco Fusco, writing about the Chicano prose that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, "Spanish encompasses the private; English stands for the public. Spanish stands for the family; English stands for society. Spanish is nostalgia; English is confrontation and assimilation." 4Reading the Spanish titles, we may feel like we are privileged spectators to moments both intimate and private (fixing family supper) and festive and public (a dance) in a culture not entirely understood by those who stand outside its physical and emotional borders. By using Spanish titles, Carmen Lomas Garza gives public voice to the language once suppressed by Anglo public school teachers when she was a child.

Carmen Lomas Garza decided at age 13 to become an artist. Her mother was a self-taught artist whose painted lotería tablas (lottery or playing cards) influenced Lomas Garza. Stylistically she was also influenced by children's art, which she studied in college for her degree in art education. "That's what I wanted-to be direct, simple, easy to read. I wanted to make the point that the aspects of Chicano culture that we take so much for granted are beautiful and worthy of depiction in fine art." 5Later, as an adult, her ideologies were influenced by other Chicano artists and el movimiento , the struggle against racism. Through her paintings, Lomas Garza contests any easy stereotypes of Chicanos, and also offers a visual alternative to images depicting violence and oppression against Chicanos. Those depictions are mostly made by male Chicano artists, and in reaction to them, Lomas Garza nurtures a different approach, choosing instead to depict the positive familial qualities of her culture. Resistance and affirmation may be sustained in many guises, and Lomas Garza's monitos offer an alternative, intimate, yet public site from which to incite inspiration.

Lomas Garza's work chronicles the histories of her family and her community. We witness the spectacle of ordinary and extraordinary life. Food preparation, family celebrations, rituals, memories, and tenderly rendered family scenes are opened up for our curious perusal. Yet in telling, Lomas Garza must portray memories that are often painful. Las Pachucas/Razor Blade 'do circumscribes particular trouble sometimes faced by young Chicanas. In the work, Lomas Garza combines familial intimacy and memory with frank social reality. While the girls are sprawled in a bedroom, tending to their hair in a seemingly innocent girlish ritual, the title suggests that the scene is layered with meaning that snakes out from the comfortable home setting. The girls hide razor blades in their hair for protection. Through the painting, Lomas Garza remembers a cousin and the strain of a racist childhood, where Anglo aggression was a reality, and las pachucas, or homegirls, resisted that hostility. By sustaining this painful autobiographical memory, Lomas Garza encourages viewers to know her experiences as a minority in a racist culture. Her personal story bears witness to a personal humiliation, and a private memory becomes public history.

Healing rituals and celebrations figure prominently in Carmen Lomas Garza's work. "The ritual of the healing tradition ... is the expression of a world-view that rejects the separation of mind and body." 6Usando el Periodico (Using the Newspaper) may suggest a traditional curandismo (healing) of removing bad spirits through the ear or simply vacuuming water from the outer ear. Curandera (Faith healer) reveals another healing process in which curandera Doña Maria cleanses the artist's younger sister Mary Jane because she was a rebellious teenager. The curandera burned copal incense, read a prayer, and brushed Mary Jane with ruda plant branches. Not only did Mary Jane get better, but she also began to communicate with her mother once again. This personal healing may suggest broader community healing processes. Other works affirm joy in familial and community celebrations. Cumpleaños de Lala y Tudi (Lala and Tudi's birthday party), La BendiciÓn en el Día de la Boda (The Blessing on Wedding Day), and Baile en 1958 (Dance in 1958) all share celebratory joy in a community of friends and family. By choosing to ignore traditional approaches to linear perspective, Lomas Garza heightens the spontaneity that the paintings seem to exude. Figures often seem to float slightly above the ground without full bodily weight, giving the viewer the sense that they may be ready to move within the painting's space. Lomas Garza also pays deft attention to myriad small details that personalize the works. The skirts of several of the dancers swirl flirtatiously during their dance. Pigtails seem to fly out from the head of a young girl, indicating her dancing motion. In Cumpleaños de Lala y Tudi the entire figural group is unified by all the characters' interaction and by the small tufts of grass that cover the ground throughout the entire composition. Two beautiful trees with their rich foliage embrace the circle of children and adults, stylistically solidifying their group dynamic. In this and other images, our viewer's perspective is often above the scene, as if we have been transformed into a silent and secret eyewitness to these intimate events.
Lomas Garza features family members in loving tribute to their influence on her life. The cut-steel work Ofrenda para Antonio Lomas (Offering for Antonio Lomas) portrays her grandfather and her Tejano roots. The steel cutout is a version of banderitas (little banners), Mexican tissue-paper cutouts made as decoration during celebrations. Here her grandfather, Antonio Lomas, nurtures his garden in which cactus, a traditional food, grows. In Nopalitos , a related cut-steel piece, we see what appear to be her grandfather's hands (the figure wears the same shirt as in Ofrenda ) cutting into the nopalitos . "The cactus is important because my grandfather would take the family out in the early spring to cut nopalitos, fresh cactus pads. The tradition goes all the way back to the Coahuiltecas Indians-the Cactus Eaters." 7By honoring her grandfather, Lomas Garza also pays tribute to her ethnic heritage, sharing with viewers that her Chicana culture is a rich and varied one with many historical referents.

By braiding her private personal experience with her images, the autobiography of Carmen Lomas Garza's work uncannily allegorizes other people's lives. "The inventory of disclosure includes the body's pains and pleasure, what bodies experience by virtue of color, composition, constitution, condition, location, affiliation, capacity, time, desires, suffering-with all of these understood as cultural configurations." 8In Lomas Garza's paintings, these cultural configurations are the moments she has recorded from her life-memories of her family, her community-and in painting the personal, she has painted a partial history of Chicano culture. "In the common particularity of one's class or race or ethnicity or nationality or sex or gender or sexuality (to mention only the most prevalent categories of identification), a person finds her prototype. From the commonality of experience that a group of individuals shares emerges a unit of identity, a representative figure, a persona." 9The representative persona that emerges from the monitos registers with those who share her history and, as Lomas Garza herself hopes, may allow those who stand outside her culture a path to understanding. Carmen Lomas Garza has made her private history public and therefore made cultural memories a record of her Chicana experience.

-Dana Self

  1. Carmen Lomas Garza, statement on Steinbaum Krauss Gallery, New York, NY, invitation, 1995.
  2. H. Aram Veeser, "Introduction: The Case for Confessional Criticism," Confessions of the Critics , ed. H. Aram Veeser (New York, NY: Routledge, 1996), p. xvii.
  3. Diana Taylor, "Opening Remarks," Negotiating Performance: Gender, Sexuality, and Theatricality in Latin/o America , eds. Diana Taylor and Juan Villegas (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994), p. 5.
  4. Coco Fusco, English is Broken Here: Notes on Cultural Fusion in the America s (New York, NY: The New Press, 1995), p. 151.
  5. Carmen Lomas Garza, November 18, 1995-February 18, 1996, Directions exhibition brochure, interview with curator of the exhibition, Anne-Louise Marquis, Hirshhorn Museum, May 1995, Washington, D.C. n.p.
  6. Amalia Mesa-Bains, "Introduction" A Piece of My Heart/Pedacito de Mi Corazón, The Art of Carmen Lomas Garza, exhibition catalogue 1991, Laguna Gloria Art Museum, Austin, TX (New York, NY: The New Press, 1991), p. 24.
  7. Interview with Anne-Louise Marquis, n.p.
  8. Gillian Brown, "Critical Personifications," Confessions of the Critics , ed. H. Aram Veeser (New York, NY: Routledge, 1996), p. 104.
  9. Brown, p. 106.