A Conversation with Oscar Magallanes

Want to know more about the artists behind the dazzling prints in Estampas de la raza? Exhibition curator Jennifer Dasal spoke with some of the featured artists about their work, their inspirations, and their experiences. This time, we’re talking to Oscar Magallanes.

Jennifer Dasal: This exhibition zeroes in on contemporary prints created by Latino and Hispanic artists. How do you define your own unique cultural heritage?

Oscar Magallanes: I identify culturally as a Chicano, having grown up in a predominantly Mexican suburb of Los Angeles in the San Gabriel Valley. My neighborhood, while rich with culture, was also filled with challenges–and it was this upbringing that instilled a sense of pride in a heritage deeply rooted in perseverance and overcoming challenges. I think all of this really comes through in my artwork.

JD: What is it about printmaking that makes it so conducive to portraying the larger issues of struggle, traditions, identity, and so forth?

OM: Prints are rich in what Walter Benjamin calls “exhibition value” because of the art form’s accessibility and reproducibility. I like to think that my work is part of this long tradition of artwork specifically designed for reproduction that has been considered revolutionary because of its breaking with tradition. Before [printmaking], works of art [were] unique and could be only appreciated by a very few, and prints allowed artwork to be much more democratic and mobilize the artwork across many income levels and societal classes.

Also, putting aside the doctrine of l’art pour l’art, and taking a larger view of art to include art that stems from a cultural lineage, then we achieve a perspective on the importance of prints in many communities that lack the resources or institutions to serve the rich experiences that deserve an outlet and documentation by their own artist. As with my work, the works in the Estampas exhibition not only preserve cultural traditions but also help create culture by allowing artists and individuals to express themselves and their struggles and to help create their identity.

JD: What makes a work of art specifically Chicano, Latino, Hispanic, etc.? Is it simply the cultural makeup of the artist who created it, or is it something more?

OM: I can only speak to my experiences and my esthetic. While I do use some of the traditional imagery such as Dia de los Muertos and revolutionaries, I come to them from a different perspective where I am trying to deconstruct identity as a questioning of icons and how symbols become signifiers for much larger themes that are broader then Chicano art.

JD: What artistic traditions or histories are you pulling from in your works, if any?

OM: [Until I was 15 years old], the only art that existed for me was on the walls of my neighborhood. The Chicano murals and strong calligraphic hand styles were my first art lessons. They instilled in me a sense of pride and an identity that I continue to explore through my artwork. Migration and the cause of migration that is often directly tied to local struggles, along with perseverance, are common themes of my work. Also, many of my paintings contain pre-Columbian imagery that mirrors Western iconography. The viewer is visually confronted with facing the dominance of Western culture over indigenous cultures, allowing for conversation on the subtle injustices which are prevalent on a daily basis.

JD: What are the biggest challenges facing artists today? What do you feel is the best way to meet such challenges?

OM: I believe many artists are taken advantage of and that the biggest challenge facing artists today is a constant struggle to have their work appreciated in a real way that translates to monetary compensation for their work–which then allows the artist to continue working. My personal challenge has been to get out of my community and have my work travel and have new audiences for the work. This is one of the reasons why I am very happy to be part of the Estampas exhibition, because it has allowed for just that.

JD: Can you reflect upon the role of icons in Latino/Chicano art? Who do you consider to be an icon? Are you yourself an icon of Latino or Chicano art?

OM: Icons in Latino/Chicano art serve many of the same purposes that traditional icons serve. Images or people who become iconic can serve as rallying points or representations of ideologies that give communities or activists a symbol that allows for solidarity with the movements or communities. One example is Che Guevara. Others have called my work iconic because of the blending of imagery that has become iconic in the Chicano community. But one thing I believe is that the designation of icon comes from others–the same way that Charles Eames said something like, “Calling yourself an artist is embarrassing, it is like calling yourself a genius.”

JD: What is something special that viewers might miss about your work, or something they might not immediately see?

OM: Many people will miss more minute cultural details that speak directly to popular cultural and political references. The details in the bandanna, for example [in Magallanes’s work And the Boss Laughs], but I want the work to say as much about the viewers’ own preconceived notions as about my own narrative, and have the work bridge those two and in that create a broader narrative. While I created the work with many images that are derived from my own unique understandings, I understand that all artwork becomes subjective and probably none more than political artwork.

JD: What is it about this exhibition that is important to you? Why is a show like this so necessary?

OM: What comes to mind when thinking of the importance of Estampas is the great care that was given to the curation of the work–that is very specific and often referencing unique experiences or struggles. [This makes the work] accessible because of the framing thesis of the show, and it allows for a very uncompromising and inspirational narrative that is clear to the viewer, regardless of their background.

JD: What was the most fulfilling or unexpected aspect of your experience as a part of Estampas de la raza?

OM: The most fulfilling aspect of Estampas for me is the breadth of the exhibition in terms of the quality and focus of the work represented. It is presented in a way that allows my work to take its place in a cohesive narrative of Chicano art. With so much diversity in the community and in the artwork, it is great to see the connections that help viewers understand how the diversity can coalesce.

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