On Feb. 4, while the beautiful people oohed and ahhed at the Santa Ana Artists Village during its monthly open house, the actual Santaneros crammed into a long-vacant building up the street for Centro Cultural de Mxico's grand reopening. After getting kicked out of its previous building on Mexican Independence Day last year to make way for luxury condos, the much-celebrated community space finally secured a new, better locale in January near the Artists Village, with the security of a two-year lease. (I should know: I'm on its Board of Directors.)
The new Centro is a beaut, with a main room for performances and film screenings, a music room for free guitar and son jarocho lessons, and an Internet caf. It has ample, brightly colored walls for art exhibits, and the first one is "Aoranzas" ("Nostalgia"), the latest picture exhibit from Santa Ana-based nonprofit Casas Guanajuato. "Aoranzas" is a 50-year overview of the Mexican state's famed portrait photographers, a genre that doesn't seem too exciting until you see the eccentricity and sheer morbidity these men captured in glorious black and white: children around a dead baby, a boy done up as an angel with a fake heaven behind him, a steel worker in overalls sweating at his mill. These were family portraits by anonymous photographers, accompanying captions explain—but their artistry is obvious.
Meanwhile, the Centro's sister gallery, Sol Art, continues its recent winning streak with "La Triple Ch de Chicali, o el Chucochinochaka" ("The Triple Ch of Mexicali, or the Chucochinochaka"), a multidisciplinary exhibit by Mexicali artist Ismael Castro. Castro is part of Baja California's celebrated Nortec movement, which mashes the art, music and culture of the borderlands into stirring, mongrelized installations. In Castro's case, he takes his inspiration from the "triple ch" he says characterizes his hometown Mexicali: the chucos (immigrants who stay temporarily, waiting to sneak into the U.S.), chinos (the Chinese, who have lived there for almost a century) and the chakas (a Mexicali nickname for the drug lords who increasingly govern the town).
Castro presents most of the installments in "Chucochinochaka" as triptychs: the same two images separated by a single-color or floral-patterned panel. One imagines iconic Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata as a metrosexual: his sombrero replaced with a George Clooney-esque bowl cut, his legendarily bushy mustache tamed, his peasant garb and bandoliers traded for a suit. Castro's tweaks suggest that lionization of Zapata is just one marketing campaign away from transforming the revolutionary model into a model worthy of an Esquire spread.
There are other bold singular sections, but "Chucochinochaka" works best when Castro uses his panels to tell stories. One such series shows a man in a Stetson dancing with a Chinese woman; next to them is a separate bright-red painting of a Chinese restaurant marquee. More sober is a series that starts with a fat Mexican immigrant in aviator shades, Jheri-curled mullet and a baseball cap, looking warily toward the distance. Two panels to the right, we find the same man now thinner, relaxing in a guayabera and Panama hat while staring menacingly at us from behind wraparound shades. In the middle is an adolescent boy—poised between two destinies.
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"ANORANZAS" AT THE CENTRO CULTURAL DE MEXICO, 310 W. FIFTH ST., SANTA ANA, (714) 953-9305. OPEN TUES. AND THURS., 7-9 PM., SAT., 1-4 P.M.; "CHUCOCHINOCHAKA" AT SOL ART, 2202 N. MAIN ST., SANTA ANA, (714) 926-4375. OPEN THURS.-SAT., 8 P.M.-MIDNIGHT. CALL FOR OTHER HOURS. BOTH FREE AND RUN INDEFINITELY.