Museo de las Americas’ “Smoking Mirrors” showcases 2 dozen artists

The exhibit “Smoking Mirrors” makes some bold statements about the power of murals and the artists who make them. It gets the important ones right.

This show, featuring two dozen of the region’s most prolific artists, brings murals back to their roots, and reminds us that big, public art has a purpose. At its best, and most crucial, public art serves as a forum for political and social pronouncements. It gives loud voice to people who might otherwise go unheard.

If you go

“Smoking Mirrors: Visual Histories of Identity, Resistance and Resilience,” continues through Feb. 26 at the Museo de las Americas, 861 Santa Fe Drive. Info: 303-5714401 or

The show harks back to the days when 20th-century civil-rights activists, aligned with the Chicano movement, used public art to claim their place in the region. The paintings, applied to walls, buildings and bridges where everyone could see them, often borrowed the colors, symbols and shapes of traditional Latin American art and culture, informing everyone that this country is home to people with roots in all regions, including those from Mexico and places farther south.

Those murals demanded recognition and equity for all and won respect for an art form that was sometimes thought of as folkloric. Rarely has art played such an important role in civic progress.

“Smoking Mirrors,” at the Museo de las Americas through Feb. 26, comes at a time when murals are, once again, all the rage, but where the populist credibility that Chicano artists (and later, graffiti artists) earned for them is all but lost. Today’s murals — often funded by government agencies or businesses who use them as decoration to sell new apartments or shopping centers or to lure tourists — are frequently white-washed into pretty decorations with zero meaning.

All those images of birds and flowers and giant bears, all those too-pretty geometric designs popping up through Denver exploit the “street cred” of back-in-the-day murals while taking none of the risks those works demanded.

On its surface, this exhibit celebrates present-day artists who continue to use their art to advocate for Latino causes.

On a deeper level, it feels more like a call to all artists who paint big to use their extreme “canvases” to honor the audacity of the muralists who came before them and take on more important topics.

It also advocates for the main mission of the exhibit’s organizer, the Chicano/a Murals of Colorado Project, an organization that works to preserve important murals that are already present in the urban landscape but whose existence is threatened by gentrification. These murals are marks of history and we ought to safeguard them when we can.

As an aside, the project’s website — — has a wealth of info and background on the best of these artworks spanning several decades. It’s endlessly valuable to the cause.

To be sure, that cause is not lost to the artists in this show, who range from pioneers in the art form to newcomers. Through their two- and three-dimensional works, they carry on the Chicano legacy.

Curatorially, “Smoking Mirrors” is themed around the Mesoamerican mythic figures Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca who, as wall text explains, represent the opposing forces of lightness and darkness. Their mingling is a metaphor for duality, a theme underlying the work of all artists whose objects explore multiple identities.

While the work is all recent, it references many periods of Latin American history. Artist Jerry Vigil, for example, presents his ceramic piece, “Identity,” a recreation of an ancient Maya burial object.  David Garcia’s acrylic-on-aluminum wall sculpture is an abstract representation of the Aztec figure Tezcatlipoca.

That history is updated through the 1500s and onward, with pieces like Emmanuel Martinez’s “Malintzin,” an acrylic portrait of the real-life historic figure also known as La Malinche, who began life as a slave but ended up a companion to the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés. And then through Carlotta Espinoza’s “Our Lady of Guadalupe,” which honors one of the most important religious events in the region’s history. And also through Alicia Cardenas’ “La Llarona,” which depicts the timeless figure known as “crying woman.”

Leo Tanguma’s portrait of the political hero “Emiliano Zapata” propels the action toward the 20th and 21st centuries leading to the presence of the contemporary figures captured in such pieces as Jodie Herrera’s “Soledad,” an aerosol and latex painting honoring Chicana activist Soledad Jovita Trejo Martinez.

The geometry of shifting indigenous identities is broadened by other pieces that reference people and events in what is now the United States. There is Virgil Ortiz’s wood and clay sculpture “Po’Pay,” which recollects the mid-1600s uprising against conquistadors in New Mexico; and Gregg Deal’s “Height of AIM,” a canvas painting made from spray paint, acrylic and ink that serves as a tribute to Native American activists who were part of the Red Power Movement of the 1960s and ’70s.

While the subject matter and media vary almost to the point of overload, the exhibition comes together nicely in the way it shows how artists explore their own identities and bring the public along on their journey. This is, in a sense, the story of much of Latino art made in the American West over the last half-century: the search to uncover personal and shared histories from both the past and present — sometimes lost during acts of migration, assimilation and discrimination — and then to introduce evolved, and often mixed, racial and ethnic identities to the world.

There is something gained in the excess of ideas here, the thread of art-making is apparent and many of the legends, ideas and moments referenced in the show make for a crash course in Latin American history.

But there is something lost, too. Objects in the tradition of “public art” or “street art” always fit awkwardly into formal art galleries like the Museo de las Americas. The radical, individual acts that they reference are tamed in the white cube setting. They become precious and elite when they are really meant to be populist and accessible. Art museums are not always the best settings for art.

The museo charges $8 a person. That does not feel like it’s in the spirit of work that is meant to “honor the Chicano/a tradition of using public art and murals in service to the people and communities that are historically dehumanized and oppressed in U.S. society,” as the exhibition describes its aim.

What the Chicano muralists taught us all is that European ideas of what makes art important — that it ought to be shown in a museum and sold as a commodity — are false. All art done with purpose and skill is equal. Their art was valuable because it was free and because it was not held up as something to be separated and idolized.

I’m not saying the art in “Smoking Mirrors” doesn’t belong in a high-end museum where people have to pay to see it. I’m saying that maybe it deserves something more.

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