In this series, E. Carmen Ramos, curator of Latino art, discusses the exhibition Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. This episode looks at the painting Humanscape 62 by Melesio Casas. Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art presents the rich and varied contributions of Latino artists in the United States since the mid-twentieth century, when the concept of a collective Latino identity began to emerge. The exhibition is drawn entirely from the Smithsonian American Art Museum's pioneering collection of Latino art. It explores how Latino artists shaped the artistic movements of their day and recalibrated key themes in American art and culture.
E. CARMEN RAMOS: This is Mel Casas’ “Humanscape 62,” which is a painting that he executed in 1970. This painting, which comes from a larger series of works called “Humanscapes,” were actually inspired by Casas’ experience seeing a drive-in movie screen and seeing these huge images of people and things. This painting is divided into three different sections: the large screen image, which recalls old-fashioned televisions. You see it’s slightly bowed at each end. Here, he depicts a large plate of yummy brownies as they might appear in a television commercial.
Many of the references that he includes in this painting refer to things that are, in one way or another, associated with brown cultures. Brown is a very complex word that started to be used in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and that includes both Mexican-Americans and indigenous people from the Americas.
In this painting, what he’s done is he’s captured a series of sort of trivialized snippets drawn from American popular culture and the Southwest. The painting was inspired by a stereotypical character, the Frito Bandito, which was the mascot for Frito-Lay corn chips in the late 1960s. This figure was highly offensive. He spoke broken English and was based on the sort of image of the Mexican outlaw found in American film. What Casas has done is to blend that reference to the Frito Bandito with other sort of trivialized references drawn from U.S. and Southwest cultures.
For example, on the left-hand side we see a Native American in profile. On the right, we see a group of what could be either Native or Mexican-American women. One wears a scarf over her head. Others appear to wear rebozos, which is a kind of shawl worn by Mexican women. In addition, we have other sort of trivialized references right in the foreground. We have an image of a junior Girl Scout or a Brownie.
He blends all of these references with allusions to actual objects drawn from Mesoamerican culture. On the lower register of the painting, you see this double-headed jade pendant, and it’s an Aztec work of art that is made entirely of jade. The Frito Bandito is riding another figure that is based on a jade statuette. What Casas has done is that he’s merged, or he’s combined, these references with really deep references to indigenous culture to really question the ways in which American popular culture has demeaned brown cultures be they Mexican-American or indigenous.
Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art presents the rich and varied contributions of Latino artists in the United States since the mid-twentieth century, when the concept of a collective Latino identity began to emerge.