It's rare that we get any contemporary Chicano exhibits in this neck of the woods, much less one as engaging as the three-part photography series by Robert Buitr & oacute;n, currently underway at the Chase Gallery in City Hall. Buitr & oacute;n, a Chicano artist from Chicago, explores pop culture, identity, cultural heritage, issues of race and even the effects of television, movies and advertising in black-and-white and color photographs that could easily double as low-budget movie stills.
"That's a deliberate part of my aesthetic," says Buitr & oacute;n. "I don't want the pieces to be slick. There is a bit of the work that feels like staging a film, but my stuff is pretty raw."
Some of the scenes viewers encounter in Buitr & oacute;n's show include three cowboys with a full spread of tortillas and beans, consulting the Sunset Mexican Cookbook for advice, a dreary board meeting enlivened by the sight of one attendee with an enormous feathered South American headdress on, and the recurring motif of the ubiquitous Mexican calendar. In one series, a Chicano man is photographed with his feathered headdress in front of such various exotic European locales as the Louvre and the Vatican (we loved this one for the name: Popo visits El Popo).
"I've traveled all over the place -- the Southwest, Arizona, Mexico, Chicago, France, Italy," says Buitr & oacute;n. "It was a lot of fun, but I had to take a lot of props with me and occasionally find strangers to pose."
The exhibit at the Chase consists of three series, El Corrido de Happy Trails (Starring Pancho y Tonto), The Legend of Ixtaccihuatl y Popcatepetl and Mal Burro Man. In Happy Trails, two cowboys find themselves in a variety of scenes borrowed from and inspired by old Westerns, but can't get cast as extras in a movie because all the casting agents want Native Americans, not Mexicans. In the Ixta y Popo series (as it is mercifully shortened), the princess of South American folklore is revived in the present day, and she and her boyfriend travel north of the border and run the risks of assimilation, or as Buitr & oacute;n calls it, "chuppification." The Mal Burro Man series is short but sweet, as a group of men try to adopt such various Marlboro manly activities as roping a stationary steer (ironically, one of Chicago's famous "art cows"), cooking Mexican food and "rolling your own."
Still, Buitr & oacute;n's tongue-in-cheek approach to his own cultures (both American and Chicano) ruffles some feathers.
"Some people who identify themselves as Chicano took offense," he says. "I think they felt like some of the work doesn't take seriously the things they hold sacred. But I like the notion of scrutinizing a culture from within as well as from without."
While the themes that Buitr & oacute;n explores are as heady as race, identity and heritage, he's neither pedantic nor antagonistic.
"I don't know where these narratives come from, per se, but I do know that I'm inspired by pop culture, comic books, movies, television, commercials," he says. "Those are probably major influences that contribute to how I want to render my ideas. I just think about how wacky some of this stuff is. I like humor. I think it's the most sophisticated form of intellectualism, but it reaches a much broader audience."