‘Self-Help Graphics: 1983-1991’ at Laguna Art Museum Looks Brand-New

Hero (Heroe) by Jose Lozano. Courtesy Laguna Art Museum

What struck me right from the get-go about the 16 serigraphs of Laguna Art Museum’s (LAM) upstairs exhibit is how immediate and vibrant each one looks. All pulled from its permanent collection, they were purchased by the museum in 1992 from Self Help Graphics & Art (SHG) in an acquisition of 170 screenprints by 90 artists. Yet the works in “Self-Help Graphics: 1983-1991” look as if they could have been made yesterday. Each radiates an unmistakable energy: the colors vibrate against one another, layered images multiply meanings through disrupted grids, and many kinds of borders are crossed.

The more I learned about SHG the more I understood this timelessness. The Boyle Heights art center/print shop has been operating at the intersection of art and social justice since 1973, with a reach that’s both local and global. For more than 45 years, it has thrown an annual Día de los Muertos celebration, with about 10,000 people now participating. Plus, SHG was founded by a nun. A screen-printer herself, Sister Karen Boccalero was inspired by yet another screen-printing nun. 

Sister Mary Corita Kent was as active in the Pop Art era as Andy Warhol, yet she got little credit for the graphic wonders she created with Wonder Bread’s label. Her prolific oeuvre transmitted messages of love and a firm belief in justice and art for the masses. Hippies adopted her images as emblems for the counterculture. Corita’s Love Is Hard Work, with swipes of Roy G. Biv stacked above the title’s words would be familiar to anyone who’d ever perused a poster shop. The sister was a beloved teacher at Immaculate Heart College in LA until some cardinal declared her too “liberal” and “communist,” his accusations so breaking Corita’s heart that she returned to secular life (though she kept creating). 

Tension by Miguel Angel Reyes. Courtesy Laguna Art Museum

The silkscreen printing technique goes back to China’s Song Dynasty (960-1279). In the 20th century, the process was by far the least expensive way to mass-produce art, which became critical for protests. Each color is executed separately; so if a serigraph contains 16 colors, its creation is akin to making 16 works of art to produce one image. Its alchemical mysteries seem best learned through a hands-on approach. And Boccalero tapped that notion when she launched the Screenprint Atelier Program at SHG in 1980. 

The ateliers in turn launched a wave of resistance and empowerment intertwined with the art making. The Chicana/o and Latinx artists who participated went on to become leaders, many of them professors, including Yreina Cervantez. The three-month workshops provided 12 artists with a master printer as teacher and all the materials and space needed to learn the craft. As each print was completed, it was mandatory the 11 others stopped what they were doing to gather, explains Cervantez in the video accompanying the exhibit. The artist would then detail the process she went through to produce the final result.

Rio, Por No Llorar by Alex Donis. Courtesy of the Laguna Art Museum

It was not only sharing techniques that made the ateliers amazing, according to the Cal State Northridge professor and artist, whose mural Ofrenda featuring Dolores Huerta you may have seen in downtown LA. But it was also articulating how each artist saw themselves and whether that was expressed through what they made. Cervantez’s Danza Ocelotl is not to be missed, though the fact it’s done with a mere four colors is astonishing. It has a deceptive two-dimensionality, with a frame and a flat mask over the face of a crowned woman—her visage containing the cosmos, her ancestors mingling with her own powerful presence. As you gaze into the print, it looks right back into you.

“Self-Help Graphics: 1983-1991” was supposed to close in May, but the exhibit has been extended until Sept. 22. People like it; the staff of the museum likes it. One docent told me he’s met some of the artists who’ve come to take a peek at a print they made and haven’t seen in decades. Another visitor told him she was the model for a child depicted in one screenprint in LAM’s collection and is related to the infant in Plumas Para Paloma, both by Glenna Boltuch Avila. The artist was commissioned to paint a mural for the 1984 Summer Olympics Arts Festival; L.A. Freeway Kids, located on the south side of the 101 freeway between Los Angeles and Main streets, was restored in 2012. As director of LA’s Citywide Mural program, Boltuch Avila has coordinated the creation of hundreds of murals, painting some 75 of her own.

The video playing is an oral history, titled Entre Tinta y Lucha, that was originally made in honor of SHG’s 45th anniversary last year. In it, Chaz Bojorquez describes how Boccalero rejected him at first, saying, “Graffiti is not art; it belongs in the street.” Bojorquez grew up in Highland Park, exploring cement riverbanks, hillsides and alleys, where he became obsessed with graffiti. But Boccalero claimed the art form was “‘anti-Chicano.’ Chicano is about family, migration, identity, farm workers, border issues . . .” explained Bojorquez. “Five to 10 years later, she gave me a one-man show there.” 

Tijerina Tantrum by Delilah Montoya. Courtesy of Laguna Art Museum

The show’s prints look fresh aesthetically, but the prevailing subject matter Boccalero defined to a young Bojorquez is, quite painfully, as relevant today as it was when LAM curated its first show from the acquisition in 1995. Consider what then-director Susan M. Anderson wrote in the catalog for the traveling exhibit, “Across the Street”:  

“As art and culture from Mexico has consistently played a role in the history of art in California, and as current dramas relating to border issues and immigration unfold, the museum has identified the need to organize exhibitions that explore art and issues with roots on both sides of the border” (my emphasis). 

Perhaps a young artist is at SHG right now, processing her reaction to the child concentration camps along the southern U.S. border in a vivid and devastating work of many colors. 

Or just take a long, close look at Delilah Montoya’s Tijerina Tantrum. In hindsight, the 30-year-old print looks directly into our present. 

“Self-Help Graphics: 1983-1991” at Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Dr., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-8971; lagunaartmuseum.org. Open Fri.-Tues., 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thurs., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Through Sept. 22. $5-$7.

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