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AKA "CASAS"

Melesio "Mel" Casas (November 24, 1929 – November 30, 2014) was a Chicano artist, activist, writer and teacher. He used visual statements, his sense of humor and love of puns to "address cultural stereotypes." His work has been collected by the San Antonio Museum of Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum, and nationally and internationally. He is best known for his series of 150 large-scale paintings called "Humanscapes" that were painted between 1965 and 1989. Casas was also well known as a writer and theorist. His "Brown Paper Report" is considered an important document of Chicano history. In his writing, he emphasized the importance of "self-determination" and equality for Chicanos/as. He is considered to be one of the most important founders of the Chicano Arts movement. Casas felt that once artists had a fair chance to exhibit in the United States, then they would become part of "Americana."

Casas was first recognized for his work in the abstract expressionist style which was considered "typical" for his time period in the United States. Casas recalls that eventually he felt that the abstract work was too "pretty" and it wasn't the right artistic language for him.  After the mid 1960s he began to do more representational work. He was very interested in dealing with the objectification of women in media and "debunking" racial stereotypes.

 

Though Casas is best known for a handful of works that treat Chicano themes, he created an unusually wide array of works with varied themes and styles. He used clever word play mixed with imagery. He challenged stereotypes, especially in some of the works in his "Humanscape" series.

 

"I divide the picture plane of my painting to force the spectator into the role of 'voyeur,' thus acquiring an identity through participation." Mel Casas as quoted in Quirarte, Jacinto, Mexican American artists. Austin: University of Texas, 1973. p. 83

 

The 153 paintings that make up the "Humanscape" series were inspired by a "glimpse of a drive-in movie screen." Cordova, who curated four Humanscape exhibitions with approximately half of the paintings, divides the Humanscapes into five groups. In the first group, from 1965 through 1967, Casas made depictions of audiences watching films at drive-in cinemas and conventional movie theaters. The blurry, nebulous audience members were gradually endowed with more color and form, and from late 1967 through 1970, many Humanscape paintings dealt with the Sexual Revolution. Casas began making politically themed paintings in 1968, and he emphasized this subject matter from 1970 through 1975. From 1975 through 1981, Casas' favorite topic as art about art. Finally, from 1982 through 1989, the last Humanscapes treated what Casas called the "Southwestern clichés." In this series, Casas focuses on imagery from popular culture and how these media images can and do affect viewers who Casas called voyeurs, instead. "Humanscapes" addresses various issues, such as Chicano politics and identity by using biting humor, pop culture and folk art. His incorporation of imagery from Mexican and Pre-Columbian iconography in conjunction with pop art was unique. His choice of subject matter, which satirized racism and may show sexualized nudes, was often considered to be "provocative." Casas felt that media, like television, movies and advertising had the power to change people and could be used to change them for the better. His paintings often reacted to these media types by using erotic themes to highlight the effect that media had on the viewer. The "Humanscapes" were generally painted on large-scale canvases, mimicking the drive-in movies that inspired them. The text chosen for many of the "Humanscapes" help create visual "conundrums" that are meant to allow the viewer to question and re-interpret the ideas that are juxaposed with the imagery. Earlier "Humanscapes" had limited palette choices, but later paintings had more colors and were rather vibrant.  As Casas' paintings became more colorful, they also began to have a richer sense of satire and visual play.

 

Casas often paid a price for his trenchant social criticism. He was designated "Artist of the Year" by the San Antonio Art League for 1968, only to have this honor revoked three days later. Casas, who referred to the dominant notion of beauty as the Barbie doll ideal, spoke of the privileges of blond hair and blue eyes while he undressed a Barbie doll during his acceptance speech.

 

As a fellow artist, he was good at asking critical questions of the work of others and encouraging them to submit their work to exhibitions and competitions. In later years, he ceased exhibiting, but painted almost daily, even when he was battling cancer.

 

Quotes:

 

"To me, being an outsider is the next thing to being an artist. I think we are lucky to be born outsiders. The other thing, however, is this. You think that, because you eat tortillas and you think in Spanish or in the Mexican tradition, you can identify yourself. I don't think it's quite true. First of all, because we use liquitex, and we use canvas, and we use stretcher boards. 'No usamos bastidores o manta.' So we are a mixture. So there is no sense in trying to say that we have that kind of purity. We are entirely different. We are neither Mexican nor Anglos. We are in between." 

 

"Chicano Art is not Art for Art's Sake, but Art for Human Sake."

 

"I don't think we should break away from our tradition. We cannot deny it. It will tend to flavor, to color the way we think. I think linguistically and iconographically we will tend to mix the two. I have to my benefit that I can combine English and Spanish to give a more colorful expression than I would if I said it all in English or all in Spanish. The subtlety of the meanings, the syntax, or the pronunciation of the words give it something that is missing."

Much more from an interview by Paul Karlstrom with The Smithsonian Institute from 1996........HERE