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ART | spring 2008

Brush with Life
Barbara Carrasco powerfully mixes art with race, class, and gender politics

By Sybil Venegas

LIKE MANY CHICANA ARTISTS, WRITERS AND INTELLECTUALS, LOS Angeles-based Barbara Carrasco is an innate, if not renegade, feminist. In the tradition of the Mexican feminist intellectual Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz—the 17th-century writer and poet who dared to challenge the authority of the Catholic Church—Carrasco critiques race, class, gender and sexuality in the face of blatant cultural contradictions.

Recently the subject of a mid-career retrospective at the Vincent Price Art Museum at East Los Angeles College, the 52-year-old Carrasco is a painter who has produced large-scale public murals and monumental banners for the United FarmWorkers, yet is equally recognized for her diminutive ballpoint pen-and-ink drawings. True to her generation of artists, she visually navigates the struggles for social justice that informed her era, as well as the complexities of identity politics that dominated the political landscape of the late-20th century.

Milk the Pass Names Can hurt
In “MILK THE PASS,” 1990 (left), and “NAMES CAN HURT, ” 1991 (right), Carrasco deals with her experience of being a lighter-skinned Chicana.

Like many artists of color in the United States, Carrasco has dealt forcefully with skin color and oppression, most specifically the impact of color hierarchies in the Chicana/o community. Growing up in Mar Vista Gardens— a predominantly Mexican American and African American public-housing community in Los Angeles—she was called “white girl,” “green eyes” and güera (light-skinned), hurtful names that challenged her identity as a Mexican American. Yet she was also told by both Anglos and light-skinned Latinos to take advantage of being light-skinned, and witnessed the discrimination experienced by her much darker-skinned sister.

pregnant woman in a ball of yarn
,” 1978, captures the sense of entrapment for a young, unwed mother.

In her autobiographical 1990 painting “Milk the Pass," Carrasco depicts a milky-white girl stuck in a bottle of milk, with heat coming from her mouth. The bottled-up girl has probably just bitten into the hot pepper seen in the lower left corner of the painting—a reference to the pronouncements of Carrasco’s grandfather, who claimed that if she could eat a jalapeño she was a real Mexican. To prove her detractors wrong, she regularly consumed the peppers, which compelled her to drink lots of milk to calm the fire in her stomach.

Similarly, in the 1991 self-portrait “Names Can Hurt," Carrasco again draws on her experience of being lighter-skinned. As she applies a darker shade of makeup to her face, she is framed by ethnic labels referring to the skin-color hierarchy in the Chicana/o community.

Carrasco also produced a number of respuestas (replies) to the double standards found in her religion, family and community. In her 1978 lithograph “Pregnant Woman in a Ball of Yarn” (see page 67), she tackles the issue of unwanted pregnancy and the inevitable invisibility, entrapment and social isolation of young unwed mothers. One of her most renowned and haunting images, it captures the economic immobilization experienced by young, poor women of color who find themselves pregnant with no, or very little, emotional support. At the same time, it flies in the face of the sanctification of motherhood by Mexican and Chicana/o culture.

DOLORES,” 1999 , has become the iconic representation of legendary farmworkers’ organizer Dolores Huerta. Carrasco’s work will soon adorn a new Girl Scout patch that will be earned by doing a project about Huerta.

While concerned with the plight of oppressed women, Carrasco has also celebrated strong women, women who have changed the world, role models. Her 1999 homage to her friend, labor organizer and humanrights activist Dolores Huerta , has become an iconic representation of perhaps the most important Chicana activist of our time.

“I did a beautiful job on ‘Dolores’ because I love her and I’ve never met anyone like her,” says Carrasco, speaking of this work as one of her most important to date. “There are so many icons of men, and icons of women painted by men, that I wanted [as a woman] to create an iconic image of Dolores to recognize her as an equal of Cesar Chavez and, historically, the most important negotiator for the United Farm Workers.”

Carrasco mindfully selected the colors of the serigraph: yellow ocher for Dolores’ face to represent sunshine, the essence of her energy; a rose-colored blouse to symbolize her femininity and gentleness, combined with her unwavering support of women. And, finally, to recognize Dolores’ lifelong commitment to farmworkers, Carrasco selected a background of mint green to illustrate growing plants, agriculture and life itself.

A Brush with Life 2007 Self Portrait 2007

"A BRUSH WITH LIFE"(left), 2007. Carrasco depicts her 13-year-old daughter, Barbie, who she says is already artistic, and a feminist.

“SELF-PORTRAIT ” (right), 2007. This recent work was created for a show dealing with women’s sensuality. Carrasco stopped making art for a time after the birth of her child at age 39 and her battle with cancer; in this work she shows herself looking somewhat younger than her age, and free of the scars caused by several surgeries. “Even though I felt for a long time that I lost my sensuality,” says Carrasco, “I feel like I’m slowly regaining it. Maybe I was going back in time, taking out the wrinkles and the scars, but I still see a lot of pain in the eyes.”

The mid-1990s were transformative years for Carrasco: marriage to fellow artist Harry Gamboa Jr., the birth of a daughter in 1994 and then a harrowing bout with lymphoma. Diagnosed with the disease in 1995, she underwent a painful bone marrow transplant the next year. Her recovery turned into a miraculous brush with life rather than death.

Frida Tu Y Yo
FRIDA TU Y YO,” 1991. In the 1970s, Chicana artists began to identify with Mexican artist Frida Kahlo as role model and inspiration, preceding Kahlo’s international mass appeal of 20 years later. Carrasco’s triptych documents this intimate relationship between Chicana artists and Kahlo: She reproduces Kahlo’s self-portrait from her painting “The Broken Column” on the left, adding her own self-portrait on the right (“With a bra!” says Carrasco). The middle represents the viewer or another young woman, waiting for her braid to be cut.

Carrasco has been fearless in her visual discourse on cultural and gender identity, activism, spirituality, religion and the female body. We can rest assured that her future work will continue to prod and entertain us with its thoughtful, articulate mix of aesthetics and politics.

Barbara Carrasco’s work is represented by Patricia Correia Gallery in Santa Monica, Calif.,

self portrait in coffin form
SELF-PORTRAIT IN COFFIN FORM,” 1984. Only 5 and a half inches high but seeming monumental in reproduction, Carrasco represents herself in the coffin, paintbrush in one hand and United Farm Worker flag in another. “I wanted to be remembered as someone who contributed to the cause of the farmworkers,” says Carrasco, who worked with them for 15 years.

SYBIL VENEGAS is a professor of Chicana/o studies at East Los Angeles College and co-curator of the exhibit “Barbara Carrasco: A Brush With Life.”

Images courtesy of the artist except -- Milk the Pass: Dr. Cheryl Mendoza; Names Can Hurt: Laguna Art Museum; Frida Tu Y Yo: Judy & Stuart Spence; Frida's Eyes: Patricia Correia Gallery; Self Portrait in Coffin Form: Mary & Armando Duron.