MICHAEL MENCHACA’s signature graphic style combines the aesthetics and recurring visual motifs of cartoons and Mesoamerican
iconography. He re-imagines current events along the U.S.-Mexican
border as part of a mythic allegory in his screenprints, installations
and digital animations. His work is on view until July 27, 2014 in Estampas de la Raza/Prints for the People: The Romo Collection at the North Carolina Museum of Art (Raleigh). You can also see his work in Galeria Sin Fronteras at the National Museum of Mexican Art (Chicago) through
August 2014. Michael currently lives in Providence, Rhode Island, where
he is an MFA candidate in Printmaking at Rhode Island School of Design.
OtherPeoplesPixels: What do cartoons and Mesoamerican iconography have in common and how do they support your conceptual interests?
Michael Menchaca: The Codex Migratus print series is my attempt to chronicle contemporary events involving drug smuggling, human trafficking and illegal immigration in the format of an ancient Mesoamerican codex. Codices are pictorial manuscripts that documented ritual, bloodlines and social class. They often depicted supernatural imagery with bold outlines and flat graphic representation. By combining the format of an ancient Mesoamerican codex with Modern-era cartoons, I aim to present a hybrid, pictorial narrative that transcends time and space, allows for multiple perspectives and reflects the complex nature of migration to the U.S.
OPP: In a 2012 interview with mysanantonio.com,
you said “I never wanted to do anything that had to do with my cultural
heritage because I felt that was just expected of me. I just ended up
drawing a cat and then added a mustache. . . I started researching
Mexican folk art, and I realized how out of touch I am with my own
culture. I started asking my mom how she was raised up and how I was
raised up. I saw how different it is for me in the States because she
was raised in Mexico. I grew up like a regular American kid.” When did
you first experience this expectation that, because of your Mexican
heritage, you should make art about being Mexican?
MM: I don’t think that it was ever a concrete expectation. I never explicitly had anyone say to me in school, “you should make art about your Mexican ancestry.” However, early on in my art education, I did feel an implication directed towards me to make personal expressions that reflected my cultural heritage. The impulse for me at that time was to go in the opposite direction and try and reconcile with a conventional, bourgeois art aesthetic. It wasn’t until my time at Texas State University where I earned my BFA that I began to work out how to address a history pertaining to me in a way that was true to my experience.
OPP: Your project Codex Migratus (2011 - ongoing) uses allegory and the form of the codex to chronicle current events along the U.S.-Mexican border. Rats with machine guns represent the border patrol and cats with mustaches represent the Mexican immigrants. But don't cats usually chase mice? Is this a subversion of the Tom-and-Jerry trope?
MM: Yes. Tom and Jerry has been a great influence. This role-reversal is integral to the allegory I’m working in. However, I prefer not to expand on how natural laws work within this realm, as I’m keen to keeping a level of mystery intact. I am fascinated by mythical stories, and there’s a lot of play and wiggle room when interpreting myths. This, in no small part, contributes to their lasting appeal. I’d like my work to exist within this framework.
OPP: You've also explored the same themes, allegories and imagery in digital animation. In Codex Vidiot Vidi (2013) your recognizable iconography is combined with what sounds like audio from video games. In Creatio Episodium Megafauna I
(2012), I hear music and sound effects that remind me of old-timey
cartoons. Could you talk about how audio and animation changes the tone
of your static imagery?
MM: There is a sense of infinite space in the prints; the viewers are free to animate for themselves. In the videos, the moving figures and sound create a new level of experience and interpretation. I’m very new to working with sound and am currently invested in it as a means of orchestrating a narrative. For example, sound is the defining factor in Codex Heterogeneous. It carries the story and acts as the container for the content.
OPP: You shifted the scale of your iconography dramatically in a three-dimensional installation called Crooked American Boarders: The Beaner Express (2011) and in Autos Sacramentales (2013), a window installation at Artpace in San Antonio. Did viewers respond differently to the work at this scale?
MM: The shift in scale allowed the audience to walk inside a narrative structure. In that sense, these pieces explored the possibility of audience interaction in the physical sense. I could never have anticipated the capacity of a younger generation to see these installations as photo opportunities. I think that’s something worth considering for a future project.
OPP: From a purely process perspective, how was the experience of creating imagery at this scale different than drawing and screenprinting? What did you like? What did you not like?
MM: Working on a larger scale requires more time, a huge substrate and a lot of pigment. It can sometimes get expensive so that’s the part I’m not too fond of. I enjoy the exaggerated, physical interaction between your body and the final piece. For these installations, I had the opportunity to work with vinyl, plexiglass and insulation foam, which are normally used for commercial advertisements. I like the way these signage materials inform the content of my work.
OPP: You are smack dab in the middle of graduate school at Rhode Island School of Design right now. What's changed about your work since you've been there? What's the most unexpected thing about grad school?
MM: My time at RISD has so far been incredibly resourceful. I’m working amongst a community of extremely talented artists and have a good feedback situation. I have a sense of direction that I haven’t had in a while. My studio practice has embraced working in new technologies that wouldn’t be otherwise accessible. It’s also given me freedom to explore, to spend time, to waste time, to discuss, to write, to read, to study, to fail miserably without hesitation. There’s a lot of digesting taking place, and I look forward to the part where I finally get to excrete it all out.
OPP: You were awarded a travel grant to visit Sri Lanka in January 2014 through RISD’s DESINE-lab. Can you tell us about the program and what you worked on while there?
MM: DESINE-lab@RISD is an initiative founded by Elizabeth Dean Hermann, Professor of Architecture and Landscape Architecture at RISD. The lab focuses on developing solutions for communities in economic, social and environmental need. Following a civil war, Sri Lanka is undergoing a state of transition. Along with a group of very talented RISD students, I engaged with local organizations to address social issues and sustainability. The grant allowed me to visit textile initiatives, sacred Buddhist sites and temples as well as historical sites across the country. I learned the art of Batik, a wax-resist method of dying fabric. I also had the opportunity to host a screenprint workshop for children and widowed women at an orphanage in Kilinochchi. This grant has sparked an interest in global religious practices.
OPP: Is that what led to your most recent piece Oculus Ceremonia? Can you explain the installation for our readers and talk about the connection between the immersive technology you use and ceremonial practices?
MM: Oculus Ceremonia is a piece that uses a virtual reality headset, known as the Oculus Rift, to submerge the viewer into a 360 degree digital space. In order to enter the digital world, the person must put on a mask. I think of the piece as ceremonial in that it gives an individual viewer limited access to a transcendental space where they then perform for an external audience much in the same way as a shaman. I had a platform for each "performer" to stand on and had a looping projection behind them. Luckily no one fell off the stage and got injured.
To see more of Michael's work, please visit michaelmenchaca.com.
Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based, interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis.
When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in her
cross-stitch embroideries, remix video and collage installations. She is
an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The
School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006,
and was a 2012-2013
Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Recent solo exhibitions include I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (2013) at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian,
Michigan) and Everything You Need is Already Here (2014) at Heaven Gallery in Chicago. Stacia is currently looking forward to creating a site-responsive collage installation in her hometown. NEXT: Emerging Virginia Artists opens on July 11, 2014 at the Peninsula Fine Arts Center in Newport News, VA.