You can't mention the United States-Mexico border in modern-day Southern California without unleashing a stream-of-consciousness rant from both sides of the divide: how we need to put soldiers/mines/electric fences/Minutemen/moats with sharks down there, or how there should be no Border Patrol, or how we should have a high fence and wide gates, or how Mexicans can build an 18-foot-high ladder if there's a 17-foot-high wall, or how illegal-alien savages have now infiltrated America, or how no human being is illegal (and don't call them "illegal"; they're "undocumented"). Mainstream-media depictions—those arbiters of objectivity—are hardly better, treating the roughly 1,969-mile frontera between the two countries as a fount of misery riven with drug cartels; dying immigrants in the desert; ugly, three-layered fences—and those are the positive portrayals.
Given this hyperbolic reality, taking on the border as an art project is almost immediately problematic—there's just seemingly no way you can tackle the issue without slipping into the maudlin or reactionary. That's why "Border Theory," a collection of paintings by Tony de los Reyes at the Grand Central Art Center (GCAC) in downtown SanTana, is so extraordinary. I was expecting trash, the token exhibit for Hispanic Heritage Month that GCAC head John Spiak could use to fulfill his Mexican quota to appease the city's unruly anti-gentrification crowd. But Spiak—who's finishing his first year as director with community capital behind him and bold plans for the future—is far too wily to fall for trite commentaries or what the audience superficially expects of a Chicano art exhibit. This just might stand as the most revolutionary commentary on the border in years: it's apolitical on its surface, but actually subversive in a Manchurian Candidate kind of way and does something people in Southern California haven't done in ages in regard to the Mexican-immigration question: think, and contemplate.
De los Reyes took Google Map images of the U.S.-Mexico border, drew the barest of outlines on linen, then threw on multiple layers of fabric dyes, accentuating certain parts to emphasize geographic features or development so that the results resemble a Grateful Dead T-shirt. It's a bizarrely simple process—wasn't fabric dying part of home economics back in junior high when there was budget for such classes?—that de los Reyes renders into the realm of the abstract. Some have dots amidst swirls, serenity in the face of chaos; others resemble ultraviolet pictures; others remind of solar flares; others are splotchy, rollicking lines that come to a sudden stop at the border, then gush again on the other side, now a different color, suggesting both movement of people and ideas, but also how said border fundamentally changes everything that crosses. Second compression/destrellos espectrales is the most vivid of the latter category, an 8-foot-by-6-foot expanse of bright colors that you get lost in, that overwhelms you—just as with the border itself.
"Border Theory" at Grand Central Art Center, 125 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 567-7234; grandcentralartcenter.com. Open Wed.-Sat., 11 a.m.-7 p.m; Sun., noon-4 p.m. Through Nov. 14. Free.
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"Border Theory" rarely forces the viewer into considering the border so consciously. The only other obvious piece is first configuration, which looks like—take your Freudian pick—an earthquake fault, a downward-trending EKG chart, or a crack in the wall. Instead, de los Reyes masterfully immerses you in border culture without going overtly Aztlanista on you. He varies the sizes of his paintings and never exactly tells you what part of la frontera he's depicting, forcing the viewer to question everything. Is that squiggly line the Rio Grande? Which part is California? That left-to-right drop—Arizona, right? Why the size? Why the particular pattern? And outside of a brief explanation of his methodology and the expected mention of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, de los Reyes stays out of the political aspects of the border altogether. Your average politicized Latino will gnash his teeth about this, but that's okay: By staring at it, you get lost in the immensity of it all, realize that all our politicized battles are mierda, and that borders truly are arbitrary and artificial, but very much a part of who we are because the American animal (and Mexican, as well) must categorize and paint with a broad brush.
By getting us to this point, de los Reyes also sneaks in a question about Chicano art: Must it always be so heavy-handed? Theorists and activists have debated this since the 1960s, and while I'm all for the epic Chicano murals and awesome satires of Lalo Alcaraz and Julio Salgado, sometimes more is less—the absurdist subversiveness of ASCO, the mise en scène landscapes of Mario Ybarra Jr., the parade of contemporary art at the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach. In that vein of thought, "Border Theory" is remarkable, even amazing, in its execution. We need the fist of righteousness, sure, but sometimes, it's the subtle folks who win. Think of it this way: No way the bluebloods from Newport Beach go to see a politicized exhibit in Santa Ana; de los Reyes' work will not only be glimpsed by them, but it also just might turn them into Chicanos.
This review appeared in print as "The Line That Blurs: 'Border Theory' at Grand Central Arts Center brilliantly captures the never-ending U.S.-Mexico divide."