This is Enrique Chagoya’s 13th accordion-folded, editioned codex on Amate paper, and the twelfth produced with Bud Shark [see article on his previous codices in Art in Print, Vol. 1, No. 6]. Like the others, it uses the format of the pre-Columbian Mesoamerican book to host a riot of historical and contemporary imagery—sweeping up the threads that get dropped when a nation decides to weave the definitive story of its history and identity.
The Illegal Alien of the title is Chagoya’s Everyman, a creature of Candide-like innocence on whom Chagoya’s books and prints impose every rapturous answer our culture has brought to bear on the cosmological quest for meaning. Previous codices have proposed to guide him/her through the history of species (2008), the complexities of critical theory (2008), the concept of relative surplus value (2009) and plain survival (2011). Now, taking his cue from Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, this Illegal Alien is given fodder for ontological musings.
As in all Chagoya’s work, of course, the how-to book promise of clarity is betrayed by the contents, a wildly heterogenous eruption of multi-culti pop-cultural clippings, hand-drawn cartoons and colliding narratives. The pages of earlier Illegal Alien codices were unified by one visible compositional thread: Histoire Naturelle des Espécies: Illegal Alien’s Manuscript unfolds to form a rolling landscape set before a city wall; the diverse elements of Illegal Alien’s Guide to the Concept of Relative Surplus Value are all adrift on a single stormtossed sea; in Escape From Fantasylandia: An Illegal Alien’s Survival Guide, a river runs through it.
As befits its title, the unifying principal of Illegal Alien’s Meditations on el Ser y la Nada is abstract, not topographical. Each page operates along its own organizational rules, tied to the next through proximity and a variety of spills, strokes and dribbles in a particularly bloody red. Scattered over these pages we find familiar Chagoya motifs: Superman, Aztec gods (here perched atop a mid-century console television), absurd white guys in pith helmets and so on, but there is more space between them than in earlier books, a visual openness that allows more room for thought. The artist seems less intent on controlling every square millimeter of the surface. The last page (the one all the way at the left when unfolded) is covered in Mayan numbers stacked in grids. This repetitious, meditative structure is disrupted by cartoon clippings, a four-eyed skull and various other bits and bobs that break the surface, vying for attention. One can flip between the profound abstraction of numbers and the topical business of representation. The question is: which is el ser and which is la nada?