Ghosts of Mars

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Annie Lopez gives as good as she gets. Offend her and you'll likely find yourself starring in her artwork. An example at hand of her cathartic approach is a piece she created last year featuring the silhouette of a woman and the legend You Are So Judgmental, inspired by a particularly critical New Times review of one of her shows. "[The critic] said it was time I dropped the Angry Latina bit," she says, with a wry smile.

Not a chance.

Take last summer's "La Gráfica Chicana: Three Decades of Chicano Prints 1970-2000" at the Phoenix Art Museum, one of the few shows the museum has offered in the past several years, Lopez says, that featured Chicano art. Lopez was under the impression that she would be a part of the exhibition. She wasn't. Neither were any local artists. But Lopez was asked to present some of her performance art at a Thursday night after-hours party during the exhibition's run.

She recalls standing in the lobby dressed as the Virgin of Guadalupe, handing out tortillas stenciled with her image as the Virgin. Later, Lopez says, she ventured up to the gallery where the poster show was on display and began passing out samples of her work printed on little American flags that she had smuggled in. "'I should be here,' I told people. They listened; they were very encouraging."

"Since then the museum hasn't invited me back," she says.

It's ironic, and surprising, that artists like Lopez, Joe Ray, and other alumni of MARS — the veteran downtown gallery that has long been the epicenter of Chicano art in Phoenix — have had no such trouble getting their work shown at the Smithsonian Institution, and in shows that have traveled to major galleries around the country.

It's also a sign that the battle Chicano artists took up nearly 25 years ago when they founded Movimiento Artístico del Río Salado is far from over. Sadly, though, MARS as we know it soon will be.

Lopez's frustrations with the meager support she sees for Chicano artists in Phoenix is not a new story, but a continuing one. And things are likely to get worse after July, when Phoenix says goodbye to MARS Artspace, which has given Chicano and Arizona artists a rare alternative to commercial galleries.

Though just shy of its silver anniversary and despite its past role as a fixture on the downtown scene, in a May 12 meeting, MARS members officially decided what had been rumored for weeks, that the beleaguered gallery would close its doors at the end of July. Lack of funding and an overall sense of fatigue by longtime members factored in, as well as a sense that perhaps the original idea had run its course — that the Movimiento in MARS, the force that propelled the cooperative through the late '70s, '80s and '90s, had long since stalled.

July's closure means different things to different people. Some current, and mostly Anglo, members say MARS can survive, albeit under a different name, with a different mission, and without a physical space of its own. Others say MARS died long ago, that the gallery has been for years a ghost of its former self, nothing more than a spawned-out salmon, swimming listlessly in circles as the flesh rots off its body.

Former director Rudy Guglielmo, who oversaw the group in 1988-89, is just one of several former members who feel MARS has lost what it once had, a collective vision. "I haven't been interested in their programs in the past few years," he says. "The shows have not been interesting to me. It's become a venue for individual artists."

Phoenix artist Joe Ray concurs. "It became about individuals serving their own interests, promoting their own work," he notes.

And then there was the quality of the work itself, which some ex-members say suffered as the focus blurred. Lopez says the nature of the art changed, too, and no longer reflects the society the artists live in. The provocative themes of the past — bold confrontations of political, sexual, religious or social issues; the familiar faces and themes of the street; the swirl of experiences and cultures around us — gave way to more mundane and fanciful work with little message or relevance.

Lopez doesn't quite understand where that inspiration comes from. "Those people that paint unicorns, I mean, I could understand it if you had a unicorn farm . . ."

Alternative, nonprofit art spaces like MARS are fragile creatures; any slight change in the social and economic ecosystem that surrounds them can prove fatal. That MARS survived as long as it did can be attributed to the strength of the movement it was born of — grassroots, Chicano-based, and passionate — as well as the strength and unity of the artists and their devotion to their mission. What MARS has become today is a very different entity from when it began, everyone agrees, and neither the composition of the cooperative nor the motivation of its members reflects what MARS once was.

"There is no shared goal," Ray says of MARS' last days. "Before, we all worked for the same goal. Even if what that was was sometimes a little fuzzy, we all served a higher purpose."

But the mission itself seems far from over.

MARS was started in 1978 by Phoenix artist Jim Covarrubias and a handful of other Chicano and Native American artists who wanted to create an alternative gallery where they could show work without being censored by the constraints of what is marketable to a commercial gallery.

Its stated mission: "To promote and develop interest and support for the visual arts, and to establish an alternative space art gallery in the Chicano community."

MARS began by holding art shows in parks. By the time Annie Lopez joined, MARS had moved from its first location, at Fifth Avenue and Monroe, to a windowless building at First Avenue and Buckeye. Lopez remembers neighborhood children throwing chunks of concrete at the artists and batteries being stolen out of cars. It was not in a neighborhood most art lovers would frequent, but the shows and the strength of the work were enough that patrons braved the barrio to see what MARS was up to.

And they weren't often disappointed. MARS had a reputation for consistent quality and innovation. Shows back then depicted works like José Giron's watercolor portraits of mariachis, Aztec musicians, and wide-eyed children; Zarco Guerrero's expressive masks of politicians, gods and devils in all states of emotions; Cactus Jack's Piss Helms, which featured a portrait of the senator who so famously battled the National Endowment for the Arts floating in a jar of urine; indie versions of Phoenix Art Museum shows, like "La Bandera Vieja", annual events like the Blue Light Sales and the "Phoeniquera" shows, themed around what it meant to be Chicano in Phoenix.

Ray remembers the parties most. "The food was always good; we'd sell beer or wine for donations," he recalls. "There was usually live music, or somebody brought a boom box. People would show up to see different things. We'd bring in nationally esteemed artists — there was nothing like it. There hasn't been anything like it in a long time."

Lopez remembers one particular party quite well. The Phoenix Art Museum had just offered a rock 'n' roll show, and typically MARS held its own version as well. It was a costume party. Lopez wore '60s clothes. Her husband Jeff Falk dressed as dead Elvis in a white jumpsuit and pompadour.

"We had a bunch of bands playing there, and somebody from one of the bands was driving a truck in the alley and backed into a gas line and broke it." Lopez went inside and called 911. "I went back out in the alley and there was my husband dressed as dead Elvis with his hand on the pipe trying to keep the gas from escaping. Meanwhile, there are people walking down the alley smoking; it was crazy. That's the last time I remember having fun there."

By all accounts, MARS was for many years a dynamic, energetic, edgy experience. The strong personalities of the artists involved, and their very different perspectives on just about everything, were harnessed because they all believed so strongly in the mission of MARS, former members recall. People would come in and out, locations would change, but for many years the common thread of belonging to a movimiento helped the artists remain a cohesive unit well through the '80s.

In its heyday during those years, the lonely gallery — by then on First Street, tucked in the parking annex of the Luhrs Building — was the heart of the art scene in Phoenix. MARS shows traveled to galleries and museums around the country, and MARS attracted the top Chicano artists, such as New Mexico sculptor Luis Jimenez, Los Angeles-based painter and photographer Patssi Valdez, and San Francisco performance artist Guillermo Gomez Peña.

But while MARS attracted many artists over the years, tapping into its energy at various times during the gallery's turbulent history, its more important role was as a home for local talent. One of the Valley's most respected artists is MARS alum Joe Ray.

Ray talks about his days with MARS from his second-floor design studio on 44th Street. It is an open, airy space, and Ray's artwork is everywhere. In the conference room, a large whimsical rooster from his "Gallo" series dominates one wall; a rough and colorful "Luchador" grimaces fiercely from the other. Ray smiles as he confesses an obsession with Mexican wrestlers when he was a child, how he would put on his Santo mask, tie a towel around his neck, and ride his bike as fast as he could just to watch the way his cape fluttered in the wind. The exuberance Ray possessed as a boy comes through in his artwork and in his conversation. Ray cracks an easy smile when talking about the old days, but there's a bit of mischief lurking, the smile of a dentist saying "this won't hurt a bit."

"There were about 10 of us at the beginning; people would come and go, a constant flow." There were core members, he recalls, digging back through his memory and fishing out names that have him pausing after each, as he calls up their faces. "José Giron, Francisco Zúñiga, Joe Sanchez, Jim Covarrubias, Robert Buitron, Ralph Cordova. . . . It was exciting and it was new."

Annie Lopez was 24 when she saw an ad in a newspaper for a membership meeting. "My friends warned me against it, they said they were a bunch of really radical Chicanos." And they were, she soon discovered. "At that time they were making people really uneasy."

From that first meeting, Lopez relates, she had found what would become a family of artists that became both friends and mentors as she and her work evolved.

Lopez would meet her husband, Jeff Falk, when he became the first white member of MARS in 1986. They married five years later, and renewed their vows 10 years later at a dual show called "Ten Years to Life."

Lopez says that although there had been white members before, Falk "was the first to be admitted who wasn't associated with someone brown, and it was a really, really big deal, a huge decision." Lopez said that artists who wanted to join MARS were asked if they were supportive of Chicano art, and Falk was. But that in itself wasn't enough to allay concerns among some in the cooperative. "It upset a lot of the older members of the group."

Though at first exclusively Chicano in orientation and membership, MARS today has just three Hispanics among its 17 members.

The decision to let non-Chicanos into the collective was among the many things that spelled the beginning of the end for MARS, Covarrubias says. In his mind, the gallery has been dead for 15 years.

But opinions differ when it comes to just what did the gallery in. Covarrubias, in an angry tirade, blames opening the cooperative to non-Chicanos, rampant racism within Arizona's public arts community, and the fact that after Covarrubias left, there was nothing to see.

"Those cats just aren't as good as I am, that's why they can't sell," he says. "I'm the best artist in Arizona. When you're good, people come to you."

Other factors include the reshaping of downtown, especially the construction of America West Arena, which many say drove up rents, drove out artists, curtailed foot traffic and made parking a problem. Some say it was the lack of a strong board of directors. But as always, the main factor was money.

Five years ago, faced with declining revenues, MARS was forced to reduce its space in the Luhrs Building to a much smaller storefront, with one-third of the square footage it had before. Since then, MARS has seen its budget shrink from a high of more than $100,000 in the late '80s to $12,000 this year, which hasn't been enough to pay the $706 rent, the phone bills, and other operating costs.

When revenues dropped below $60,000, MARS no longer qualified for certain city grants that had been a major part of its funding. This, in turn, meant that the Mexican American Print Series MARS had produced every year since 1985, which was a major source of income for the group, had to be discontinued in 2000. Economically, MARS had painted itself into a corner.

For his part, curator and 23-year member Ralph Cordova says the idea behind MARS has simply run its course, the funding issues being merely a symptom of a greater disease — the frustration and fatigue of butting heads with the mainstream art community for more than two decades.

"Even if we didn't have the money problems, I don't know if we'd continue," he says. "I'm tired. It's time for other institutions to step in and do the things we have been struggling so hard for so long to accomplish."

Ralph Cordova is looking forward to the day people will stop looking at him like he's from MARS. Twenty-three years at the gallery has taken its toll on the artist, who calls the legacy of the gallery his biggest success. He seems to be at a loss for what he will do without the gallery, and although he pretends to welcome the change, there is a stoic sadness to him he hides poorly. "Come July 31 I'm hanging a sign on my door that says 'Gone Fishing,'" Cordova says with a sigh.

He is one of three remaining Hispanic members of MARS, and also one of three longtime members who have decided not to continue with the other 14 after the gallery closes at the end of July.

According to some artists, MARS is not actually going away, just evolving into something different. The gallery will cease to exist, the name will be changed, the mission statement will be different; in two years they say they will be moving into a space at the Phoenix Family Museum, scheduled to open in 2004 at an as-yet-undetermined location. Members say they plan to honor the heritage and legacy of what came before them, but the focus will not be on Chicano art.

MARS member Kelly Barrett is optimistic. "The truth is art doesn't have to happen inside of walls," she says. "If you don't have a permanent space as an organization, it forces you to be more creative, more inventive with your shows." She talks of maybe having a show inside "some old grocery store, or a parking lot, we're not sure. Artists always find a way to do what they have to do somehow."

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.

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.

He also paints murals anywhere people will let him. It's a passion for him, and he hopes someday his ticket to better things. Nuñez is 24 years old and moved to Phoenix six years ago. He admits he's been in trouble in the past, when he got too far into street life. He says he shot four people while being carjacked, and did a year in jail. Now Nuñez says he realizes "my life is valuable. I have a talent and I gotta use it. I'm really good, I know I am, and I'm trying to do something with this art."

Not long ago, he had what he thought was a serendipitous moment. "I was looking at some artwork at Arrowhead mall and I just said, 'I know I can do so much better than that and look how much it's selling for.' I said excuse me to this old man [in the mall], is there a place where someone can go and show artwork without having to be a professional or have a degree or be established? Somewhere that helps young artists get their work out there?"

Nuñez explained that all he was looking for was a mentor, someone to take him under his wing and give him a chance. Someplace that wasn't afraid of working with an unknown artist, or of subject matter that was powerful and controversial — reflections of personal experiences as a Hispanic in prison, on the street, political views, references to indigenous ancestors. "I don't care about money. I just want a chance to learn and get my name out there."

The man at the mall sent him to MARS.

Annie Lopez would have sent him to San Antonio, San Francisco, maybe back to L.A. When asked what advice she would give to young Chicano artists in Phoenix, she answers quickly. "Run, run, run. Run far away."

MARS' mission, Lopez says, "to provide a venue for Chicano art, to educate, to take it to the schools and the community," still applies. But with no movement to support that mission, prospects are bleak for young artists like Nuñez. "There are kids coming up that need that opportunity, that need a place to show, and they won't have one."

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