Enrique Chagoya, The New Codex Ytrebil, 2023. Acrylic on handmade Amate paper mounted on canvas, 60 x 80 inches. Courtesy George Adams Gallery.
On ViewGeorge Adams Gallery
April 7–May 13, 2023
Enrique Chagoya applies subversive wit to intimately crafted revisions of Aztec codices—cartoon-like, fold-out books made on panels of traditional Amate paper. His vocabulary of politicized, graphic imagery also extends into his large paintings on Amate panels, mounted on canvas, of which four are included in Borderless, his new show at George Adams Gallery. The exhibition also includes eight of his earlier codices, made over the last twenty years, which display great visual richness in constantly varied designs. While the robust paintings draw from the tradition of Mexican murals, the intricate linework of Chagoya’s codices like El Popol Vuh de la Abuelita del Ahuizote (The Community Book of King Ahuizote’s Granny) (2021) channels the work of Mayan scribes who created the eighteenth-century Popol Vuh, or “community book,” an archive of Mayan history.
The centerpiece of the show is The New Codex Ytrebil (2023), another version of which appears as a color lithograph from 2022. Unlike El Popol Vuh, this codex riffs on sixteenth-century catechism books created by Aztec scribes under the guidance of Catholic missionaries, following the burning of Aztec archives in the brutal imposition of Christian enlightenment on a rich indigenous culture. Chagoya seems to relish the open fields of these Aztec manuscripts, which involve rows of images to be read back and forth beginning from the upper right corner. Amid apocalyptic allusions to climate change, Chagoya also lovingly depicts enigmatic, hybridized creatures with wings and horns derived from Mayan iconography, which he casts as space aliens and combines with renderings of Batman and Wonder Woman, lending them roles in an expanded cultural discourse. He also creates glyphs of his own, like a hooded duck on an arch of stars, carrying a cross through fire (perhaps alluding to Christian book burning). Other images float, like graffiti, in vacant spaces, using pointing fingers and the drifting smoke from oil rigs as directional signs to maintain a narrative impulse. A news feed of written captions runs an ironic commentary beneath them, written backwards (like the word “Ytrebil” in the title), so words assume visual weight and demand decoding. Some are in Spanish, others in lost languages transcribed literally from original manuscripts, intended less to explain than to create new connections.
Raised in Mexico, where he studied economic theory (and his artist father worked for the Central Bank identifying counterfeit currency), Chagoya packs images with irony and dialectical rigor that convey submerged outrage. In Illegal Alien’s Guide to the Surplus of Nothingness (2009/2012), skeletal migrants navigate treacherous waters across a codex that recalls Japanese prints. Allusions to cannibalism suggest the violence of cultural appropriation, like in the graphic images of children’s bodies suspended from meat hooks in The Enlightened Savage Guide to Economic Theory (2009–10), which recall depictions of “savages” colonizers have used to justify plundering the resources and culture of Indigenous peoples. Chagoya frequently responds to racist assumptions that traditionally have been made by colonizers with “reverse ethnography” and “reverse modernism.” Cannibalizing Carl Wimar’s painting The Abduction of Boone's Daughter by the Indians (ca. 1855–56), he recasts the Native American abductors as border patrol agents in his Detention at the Border of Language (2023). One bears a huge Mayan mask for a head, exaggerating the threat to his diminutive captive, a feminized Donald Duck (an allusion to former president Donald Trump).
The robust modeling of these and other figures recalls Philip Guston’s early mural paintings. One panel in The Ghost of Liberty (2004) directly references Guston’s “Poor Richard” caricatures. Chagoya depicts “Poor George” (in this case, George W. Bush burdened with a stack of books. Like Guston, who abandoned modernist abstraction to “tell stories,” Chagoya finds inspiration in mixing historic and popular styles. Chagoya also shares Guston’s fascination with heads. In The Ghosts of Borderlandia (2017), heads loom up from the ground and peer over a border wall, cut off at the eyes, to make the point that colonizers don’t see their subjects. Chagoya emphasizes hairstyles and headgear that mark ethnic stereotypes. Adventures of the Simulationist Cannibal (2002), the earliest work in the show, questions his own acknowledged fascination with the subversive skill of the forger, as a masked figure selects a face from a gallery of portraits in different styles. In Everyone is an Alien (2023), heads of four multiethnic characters explode in an anarchic, painterly frenzy of boundary destruction: glass eyes, intended for dolls, are embedded in geysers of paint to denote an enduring human presence. Glass eyes also animate splashes of color in the most topical work in the show, Wild Spirits that Shine Obstinately Beyond Walls (2023), in which portraits of undocumented Dreamers adorn codex panels depicting sections of the US Border Wall. Rendered in densely applied red, white, and blue pigment, they abandon the depersonalized irony of “Simulationist” image transfers to ground Chagoya’s conviction in material gestures.