Self-Help Graphics' vibrant inks have left a lasting imprint. For 28 years, the acclaimed nonprofit arts center has been a mecca of fine printmaking in East Los Angeles, a nexus of Chicano pride and artistic endeavor. It will share its wealth with the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art in Santa Ana, when the high-energy exhibition "Inspiring Heroes" opens July 7.
"Heroes" pays homage to a pantheon of Latino icons, among them Mexican revolutionaries Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa, Mexican comedian Cantinflas, Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara, Mexican painter Frida Kahlo and more, some boldly portrayed, some more subtly referenced. The show features 26 silkscreen monoprints, or one-of-a-kind prints, by 13 artists who worked at Self-Help Graphics.
"These images speak to the notion of assertion of identity, which is very connected to the whole idea of Chicano culture," said Tomas Benitez, executive director of Self-Help Graphics. "These heroes have struck a chord and helped define the character of who we are as a people."
At OCCCA, "Inspiring Heroes" will include a suite of portraits by Salomon Huerta plus works by Jose Antonio Aguirre, Diane Gamboa, Yolanda Gonzalez, Wayne Healy, Luis Ituarte, Daniel Marquez, Isabel Martinez, Pablo Martinez, Jerry Ortega, Jaime Ochoa, Ricardo Duffy and Ernesto de la Loza.
Several of the prints honor socialist-realist painter David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974), whose controversial 1932 mural "America Tropical," criticizing American imperialism and U.S.-Mexico relations, is under restoration in downtown Los Angeles.
"Siqueiros is all about questioning everything," said Duffy, who lives in San Juan Capistrano. At Self-Help, Duffy printed a visual ode to Siqueiros, with collaboration from De la Loza.
Titled "Veni, Vidi, Vici" ("I came, I saw, I conquered"), the richly toned, multipanel silkscreen explores themes of corporate power, consumerism and the global domination by American culture, while reworking images drawn from "America Tropical."
Reinterpreting a Legendary Beast
Near the center of the mural-sized piece, a legendary beast called chupacabra ("goat sucker") strangles a hapless human with his powerful tail while George Washington holds the beast's reins, unperturbed. Written on the chupacabra's foreleg is "Eurocentral."
Floating above the chupacabra are symbols drawn from Siqueiros' famous image of a crucified Indian with an American bald eagle atop the cross in "America Tropical."
"It's like a rage against the machine, about the ills of the planet, about the dogma of church and state, about what has happened since the formation of the United States," Duffy said of "Veni, Vidi, Vici."
"But people are going to get the gargoyle, the chupacabra," he said of a cluster of frenzied, Siqueiros-styled figures racing toward the beast on the left side of his silkscreen. "You can see the masses pulling together."
If Siqueiros is a role model of sorts for Self-Help printmakers, Kahlo, the wife of muralist Diego Rivera, is a source of inspiration and a common subject for Latina artists, Benitez said. "And, of course, Che Guevara is reviled by those who see him as a political threat and revered by those who see him in terms of the revolutionary spirit, of fighting for your survival and identity."
To the artists of Self-Help Graphics, identity is also about community.
A Self-Help Graphics founder, the late Sister Karen Boccalero, made a commitment to that community when she opened an arts workshop in her hillside garage in East L.A. in the early '70s.
Boccalero embraced printmaking because it was a relatively fast and affordable process, linked to traditional Mexican graphics and the polemical broadsheets produced in Mexico at the time of the Revolution.
Now, nearly three decades later, Self-Help Graphics is a respected institution locally, nationally and globally. It has arranged projects and exhibitions with museums in Southern California, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Mexican Fine Art Center Museum in Chicago and institutions in Europe, Africa, Latin America and Mexico.
Major museum and university collections have acquired its prints. Its success is also measured by the artists who treasure Self-Help and return to it.
"Sister Karen really pushed us to be who and what we were," said Yolanda Gonzalez, who first worked at Self-Help in 1984. Gonzalez's print "Hombre Siqueiros" is included in "Inspiring Heroes."
"Self-Help allowed me to completely express myself," she said. "They really understood the colors I wanted to use."
If Self-Help silkscreens have a common aesthetic, it is rooted in the bold hues.
"There's a certain joie de vivre, a certain sense of vitality to these prints because the silkscreen process begs for color and action," Benitez said.
In fact, silkscreen monoprinting requires a decisive hand and eye because the inks dry almost as soon as they hit the screen through which the image is squeegeed onto paper.
Inspiration Derived From Many Sources
Color aside, Self-Help printmakers are an individualistic lot, drawing inspiration from such diverse sources as Andy Warhol, German Expressionism and Mexican art.
"But Chicano art is American art," Benitez said emphatically. "It is about saying I am like you and I am also like that place a mere 125 miles away.
"At Self-Help we are not looking to separate ourselves but to demonstrate that we are unique and also part of the larger fabric of America. It is actually much easier to celebrate diversity than to try and eliminate it."
* "Inspiring Heroes," Orange County Center for Contemporary Art, 117 N. Sycamore, Santa Ana, (714) 667-1517. Opening reception July 7, 7-10 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Through July 29. Free. A Spanish-speaking docent will be available on Thursdays or by appointment during the exhibition.