Axis Mundo: Queer Networks in Chicano L.A. breaks fresh historical ground, finding new connections in a multitude of gifted figures whose influence spread from Los Angeles into South America, Europe, and across the United States.
The curators, C. Ondine Chavoya and David Evans Frantz, decided not to structure the huge display around “star” artists, choosing instead to define art-making as an activity that comes to life through a flow of friendships and ideas. Like artists themselves, they make an unseen phenomenon visible.
Some of the participants are well known in their fields. Zoe Leonard, who collaborated with Ray Navarro on the photographic triptych Equipped (1990), has been the subject of career surveys at major metropolitan museums. Other artists are not widely recognized or have not been exhibited since they died. At the opening reception, Chavoya underlined the curators’ commitment to omnivorous equality, treating each artist like a powerful figure in the “queer network” whether they were publicly famous or not.
How was the exhibition received on campus?
“Quite possibly the best exhibit to arrive at the UNLV Barrick Museum ever,” said Patrick Naranjo, the resource coordinator from UNLV’s multicultural center, The Intersection.
This is a big statement. What makes it the best? Naranjo highlighted the show’s willingness to present the artists as complex junctions of influence, not solely “queer” or “Chicano,” but both. In other words, the kind of complexity that the Intersection exists to acknowledge and uplift. Through Axis Mundo, we see how artists have used art to envisage a more complicated understanding of what a person — and the world around them — can be.
The exhibition “allows queer and trans students of color to see themselves on the campus and in the world, creating possibilities for our students,” said Romeo Jackson, the Social Justice Center’s LGBTQ and gender program coordinator.
That idea was corroborated by a number of other interviewees, including Anne Stevens, chair of the interdisciplinary, gender, and ethnic studies department, who was there at Axis Mundo’s opening reception and listened to her students when they talked about it later.
“Many of our students are queer people of color who came to the exhibit opening and commented upon how important the representation of queer [people of color] in the exhibit was to them,” she said.
Assistant history professor Miriam Melton-Villanueva saw the exhibition benefiting students in another way. “Cross-disciplinary pollination allows fields to expand their points of view,” she said, comparing Axis Mundo’s wealth of historical art to her own classroom use of artworks by the sixteenth-century Peruvian Quechua chronicler Guamán Poma. “Poma’s drawings help students graphically analyze ways his society is changing. So not only do exhibitions like Axis Mundo benefit from historical methodology, exhibits offer data sets that historians can use.
“In this way museums that engage with public history help generate historical narratives,” she added.
Susanna Newbury, an assistant professor of art history, integrated Axis Mundo into her curriculum. She brought about a hundred of her students to the show during its first two weeks it. She described the power of seeing genuine artifacts and her students and their reactions to relatively recent technology that has already become obsolete.
They commented on “static and tracking on the video screen, for example, or time-stamps in the video image“ of the early-80s experimental work by artists from the radical punk band Nervous Gender and in footage from Ricardo Valverde’s 1970s interview with his lesbian sister Maya. “Especially when considering time-based media, we forget how quickly technology and optical imagery ages,” she said. “I think it helps [the students] see historically.”
Newbury and Stevens both said they were glad to witness the show’s omnivorous variety — “how truly interdisciplinary it is,” said Stevens. The curators’ philosophy of investigating every artist, no matter how obscure they were, came with a willingness to uphold different forms of creation as legitimate and valuable, furthering the contemporary view that the definition of art can expand beyond traditional painting and sculpture.
This is not only historically accurate, reflecting the late 20th-century experimentation that went on within the network — “truly captur[ing] a vibrant network of artistic creators and bring[ing] to life a moment in queer history,” as Stevens explains — but also stimulating to explore. “The other thing I noticed from another class today was the students' excitement about the ‘alternative’ work on view, the band flyers, and songs, and paper dolls,” said Newbury.
Axis Mundo involves more than 50 artists and incorporates over 400 pieces of artwork. It is supported by The Getty Foundation and originally was exhibited in Los Angeles at the Museum of Contemporary Art Pacific Design Center in 2017.
Would it be possible to create something of this magnitude at UNLV?
“Absolutely,” said Newbury, “and I think it could be done even using UNLV collections."
She sees such exhibits as an extension of the university's teaching and research missions. “We need an understanding of the university art museum as a laboratory in which to try out ideas and to encourage risk-taking. We need underwriters who believe in this experimental mission — who don't seek creative control over ‘the product.’ Our students are our best resource and our best talent. We should create situations where they can apply that talent to meaningful, long-term, professional projects, be it in the research and execution of a show, organizing the education program for it, compiling and editing a catalog, or any other aspect of this work.”
Axis Mundo is more than an opportunity to look at art, she said. By collecting “forms of knowledge and information from a variety of historical sources … under a unified theme for the first time” it is an argument for the value of great academic scholarship: the creation of a new body of information.