It started, said Michael Menchaca, with “a dirty mustache joke” the young San Antonio artist overheard while studying at Texas State University at San Marcos. Whether it was the joke or the mustache itself that was dirty, Menchaca didn’t explain. But it’s clear that the sorry attempt at humor played on stereotypes of Mexican identity, causing Menchaca to “feel racialized.”
Ethnic slurs, however, have a tendency to backfire. The bad joke spurred Menchaca on a path of self-discovery where he has employed visual humor that would, no doubt, stump a racist’s simple mind. Three years after the incident, you can catch a taste of his peculiar wit in Autos Sacramentales, on view at Artpace’s Window Works gallery through September 1.
Blending imagery inspired by Mesoamerican codices — the pictorial history books of the Aztecs and Maya — mixed with drawings and sounds from the Hanna-Barbera cartoons of his childhood, Menchacha has created his own personal mestizaje, a potent cultural cocktail.
Large, colorful cutouts of foam board depict a rat god, El Diedad del Queso, and Aguilas, an eagle deity, holding court while supplicants sacrifice themselves. On the extreme right of the tableau is a cat sporting a big, Norteño-style mustache. It’s all a bit goofy, especially when seen up close from the sidewalk on North Main Street. Small speakers hidden in the trees play cat meows and rat squeaks, and an occasional sloshing noise — the familiar soundtrack to hundreds of Saturday morning cartoons. The sounds cue the viewer to laugh, but what’s the joke?
Remember the mustache joke, and look to the cat. “It started off as just a single cat,” Menchaca explains. Thinking about the stray cats in his neighborhood that people fed, Menchaca saw a connection to the way immigrants are depicted on the nightly TV news, “freeloaders” that shouldn’t be encouraged with handouts. “That’s not my view of it, but that’s the connection,” said Menchaca. “So, I started thinking about the cat as an immigrant, or someone who is traveling and just trying to make it day-to-day. And then making a context, where maybe the rats are the antagonists.”
Menchaca cautions that though his work has obvious similarities to Mesoamerican design, he is no scholar of Mayan studies. He describes his glyph-like images as “pseudograms,” shapes that look like ancient pictograms, but are his own concoction.
The reality of the sacrifices (Autos Sacramentales) made by immigrants to this country from all nations, however, are quite real. Menchaca’s allegorical tale of tyrant rats and outsider cats dramatizes the conflict that permeates stories of the border, but the viewer is not given a resolution. Instead, like an animation in the mind, we are invited to follow the audio prompts of animal sounds and spin our own tale. Whether one identifies with gods or victims is up to the viewer.
Michael Menchaca: Autos Sacramentales
Window Works gallery
445 N Main
Through Sept 1