Ghosts of Mars

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.

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Susy Buchanan