Ghosts of Mars

The movement that Phoenix's Chicano artists began 25 years ago is far from dead. But the gallery that was their headquarters soon will be.

Longtime member Lydia Miszuk is leaving the group along with Cordova, and she's openly frustrated. "I should have left two years ago but I thought it was worth trying to save. We thought it was really important to keep the place open because of its history, but I'm tired. I'm relieved. Relieved. It has been such a struggle. We've kept the gallery going on thin air for seven years."

Miszuk is skeptical that any future incarnation of MARS will have much success. "Do I think they will succeed? No, but do they? Yes, and that's what counts. They are a lot of people with a lot of ideas; all they have to do is implement them. These are the same ideas we've had forever. The challenge is trying to get these people to participate."

Mesa's Xicanindio, created three years before MARS, in 1975, has managed to do more than survive, it has flourished, and it's where some former members turned after becoming disillusioned with MARS. It's also the home of the largest collection of Chicano art in the Valley, which, sadly, no one can see. Rather than being displayed in one of Phoenix's established, well-funded and high-profile show spaces like the Phoenix Art Museum or Museo Chicano, it is packed up here, in boxes in a tiny office in downtown Mesa.

Joe Ray's Tacos con Huevos
Joe Ray's Tacos con Huevos

In spirit, "Xicanindio is much more what MARS started out to be than what MARS is today," says Joe Ray. "They have theater, music, workshops. It's much more of a grassroots organization, though. They have no gallery space."

Xicanindio is similar to its sister organization, East Los Angeles' renowned Self-Help Graphics. Its lack of gallery space, director Dina Lopez says, has forced it to form partnerships with community organizations to present its print and silk-screen workshops, host teen mentorship groups, throw its well-attended Dia de los Muertos celebrations, and present theatrical performances. Xicanindio is also heavily funded by grants from the City of Mesa, Bank of America, Valley of the Sun United Way, the Salt River Project, the Arizona Republic, the Arizona Arts Commission, and others to the tune of $160,000 a year. Former MARS members such as Ray, Frank Ybarra and Martin Moreno now participate in Xicanindio's monoprint workshops, and Xicanindio sent Ray, Ybarra and seven other artists to Self-Help Graphics' studios to produce a series of prints two years in a row.

Lopez flips through an unruly stack of framed prints, one of many such stacks that fill Xicanindio's crowded office, pulling out a large cardboard box where this remarkable print series is stored. There's no place to display Xicanindio's collection in the Valley, she says. The Museo Chicano is reportedly not interested. What about the Phoenix Art Museum? "Don't get me started," she says, shaking her head.

The same show that provoked Annie Lopez's guerrilla attack on the museum last year drew criticism from Dina Lopez as well. The traveling exhibition included works from Ray, Ybarra, Martin Moreno and others in its collection, but no works by Arizona artists were included in the Phoenix curator's selection. Dina says she was told that "nothing really appealed" to the curator at the time.

Xicanindio was then asked to hold a print workshop at the museum, and Lopez refused. Instead, she and other Xicanindio artists boycotted the show.

Part of Xicanindio's success, Dina Lopez explains, is the strength of its board of directors. Annie Lopez agrees. "A board is so important. It has to raise money, it has to show support, board members have to bring friends in to actually buy artwork. You have to create an audience for the work."

This is what Cheech Marin is trying to do on a national level. Using his celebrity status, and millions of Target's and Hewlett-Packard's money, Marin is the figurehead of a traveling exhibition of his impressive personal collection of Chicano art, "Chicano Visions: American Painters on the Verge." Marin told New Times that the market for Chicano artists is as tough as ever. "Some artists have done really well, but it's been hard having a sustained market," he says, "'cause you need somebody that would push the concept of a school [of painting] or something to give collectors and museums a focus for it."

Marin's collection will travel to 15 cities around the U.S. over the next five years. Phoenix, despite its burgeoning Hispanic population, is not one of them.

Marin says his sponsors dictated the tour schedule, according to "where their big presence is."

Ernesto Nuñez is embarrassed. Mixed in with a stack of his artwork is a partially completed but thoroughly meticulous pen-and-ink drawing of the characters from Disney's Aladdin. He shuffles it quickly to the bottom of the pile. "Oh, no, I didn't mean to bring that," he says. "That's just something I was doing for my sister."

Nuñez has thick brown eyelashes, a shaved head, and a few modest piercings plugged with large gold hoops. He's showing off a dozen or so of his paintings, intensely detailed mural-like creations of housepaint, airbrush, pencil, and pen and ink. "I use anything I can find," he says excitedly.

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