By Eric Huang
This past Wednesday, as part of programming for the Cantor exhibition “Artists at Work,” Enrique Chagoya, a celebrated professor in Stanford’s Department of Art and Art History, gave a talk at the Cantor Arts Center discussing his own influences and artistic process.
Drawing from his experience living in and out of Mexico and from his background as a printmaker, Chagoya creates works that are rife with cartoon imagery as well as political messages and narratives. Well-versed in the language of the cartoon, the Mexican-born artist uses humor to broach difficult subjects such as colonialism and oppression. Charismatic and unreserved, Chagoya’s persona shines through in his work.
Chagoya’s creative passion first took root in Mexico City, his hometown. He first learned drawing and color theory from his father, who was an aspiring wrestler and a firefighter by trade.
On Wednesday, inspired by the exhibition of Diebenkorn’s sketchbooks currently on view at Cantor, Chagoya presented a collection of his own sketchbooks. The pages of his sketchbooks are littered with caricatures of friends drawn as animals and ink doodles, small tidbits of his imagination.
As he playfully described a “sketch war” he had with his friend — wherein they sketched each other as cartoonlike animals — during his talk, Chagoya’s affinity for having fun with his work became ever the more clear.
According to Chagoya, when he gets stumped at a particular point in his paintings, he turns to his sketchbook and allows his imagination to run free. This creates an air of spontaneity and randomness in his paintings as he incorporates disparate elements of his sketches.
Highly stylized figures, flat color and appropriation of other artists’ styles are staple features of Chagoya’s more developed works. He stitches whimsical cartoon imagery together with his own painterly aesthetic. In many cases, Chagoya situates contemporary characters in antiquated works, such as a piece where he superimposes a portrait of Barack Obama on George Cruikshank’s 1819 etching “The Head Ache.”
Chagoya is particularly interested in the topic of cultural diversity, an interest that is reflected in the eclectic mix of styles in his work. This is perhaps best represented by his series of self-portraits, in which he places his own face on the bodies of characters from different cultures and ethnicities.
“We are a species full of differences,” he remarked before the crowd. “We are all immigrants from somewhere.”
The aforementioned series is distinguished by the striking aesthetic of human faces against bright red geometric shapes.
In terms of what he wants his audience to take away from his work, Chagoya mused, “I like to make some level of ambiguity. I don’t want to tell people what to think; I leave the door open for interpretation.”
Chagoya invites his audience to engage with his work, hoping that his use of levity can help people broach serious social and political topics.