El Nopal Press
1990-2000 by Edward Leffingwell
Among independent fine arts presses guided by the collaborative spirit of artist and enterprise, El Nopal Press is distinguished by its focus on the work of artists who explore border issues, the complex cultural relationships that exist between Mexico and the United States. More specifically, the ideas brought forward through the work of the press have more to do with a conversation concerning the idea of the border rather than its physical manifestation as a cartographic phenomenon, economic and social barrier, or penetrable boundary. As participants in an alternative dialogue that extends well beyond the creative mainstream, the artists of El Nopal have come to vivify and expand the complex intercultural exchange between these two countries. In fact, the images produced by El Nopal are key elements in this discourse, and are numbered among its signifiers, those representations that speak through pictures, not in words.
In 1990, at the time of the founding of El Nopal Press in Los Angeles, this bilateral conversation of contemporary art was just beginning. The few programs that did exist tended to emphasize governmental agendas or cultural differences at the expense of a deeper exchange, and there was little or no precedent for the development of a cooperative model. If artists from Mexico City seemed less concerned with matters of cultural identity, others north of the border, particularly the Chicano artists of Los Angeles, were characterized as provincial tricksters and appropriationists. In spite of instances of shared ancestry, barriers of language and culture remained. After several years of travel and research, El Nopal founder Francesco Siqueiros, an artist and master printer intimately familiar with the art worlds of both Los Angeles and Mexico City, brought these worlds together. He chose Los Angeles as the site of intersection, and as his medium the organization of a seminal exhibition, Aquí y Allá, in part sponsored by the City of Los Angeles and by interested parties in the private sector. None of the stories about roots and alienation that he encountered along the way, as he discovered, could truly reflect the reality of the situation.
What was important about the attempt was the conversation it engendered and the work it inspired. The issues raised in the curatorial process were addressed in a bilingual catalogue assembled for the exhibition, designed and published in Mexico City. It included essays by the highly regarded critics Max Benevidez and Olivier Debrois, who wrote about the ideas brought forward by the exhibition and the work of the artists included. Benevidez and Debrois articulated the dynamics of personal and cultural identity from their respective viewpoints, secure in their difference, outspoken and uncertain about the importance of a culturally defined identity. They were skeptical of the existence of any common ground, as though an estrangement from the course of history had become an appropriate condition at century’s end. For their part, the artists were introduced to a wider international audience through the vehicle of the exhibition. The conversation they had engaged continued.
As it happened, Aquí y Allá was also an incidental and at first misunderstood component of an international exchange program conceived by the City of Los Angeles as a celebration of the cultures of the Pacific Rim. Occupied with the economic spectacle of California looking across the Pacific Islands to Asia, the festival organizers made colorful excursions into the cultural life of developing nations strewn across the festival’s path, while failing to imagine a role for Mexico in their marketing program. In any case, the Pacific-oriented festival established a broader context for questions raised by Aquí y Allá, if not immediately clarifying the issues brought to the table. As Siqueiros had suspected all along, the shared ground he had hoped to identify in the process of organizing the exhibition was, simply, the making and dissemination of art. He argued for what he terms the “hybridization” of cultural symbols, a cross-cultural phenomenon rather than a multi-cultural paradigm.
In its first years of operation, El Nopal might have been best characterized as “underground.” Employed as master printer at Cirrus Editions, a highly regarded fine arts press, the moonlighting Siqueiros gave much thought and work to the establishment of his own press. By 1993, he succeeded in devoting his full attention to the work of El Nopal and its economic survival. In the years since then he has extended the good will of the press and its printing facilities to many highly visible artists. In the spirit of Aquí y Allá, in 1994, El Nopal Press published the portfolio “LAX-Benito Juarez,” named after the international airports of Los Angeles and Mexico City. The artists included Mexican artists Rocio Maldonado, German Venegas, Eloy Tarcisio and Rubén Ortiz Torres, as well as Los Angeles artists Yreina Cervántez, John Valadez, Daniel J. Martinez and Victor Estrada. Siqueiros has recently produced a portfolio of lithographs by seven Mexican photographers printed with a screenless lithographic technique developed at the press. “Nopal Photo” includes the work of Eniac Martinez, Pablo Ortiz Monasterio, Rubén Ortiz Torres, Daniela Rossell, Carlos Somontes, Laureana Toledo and Alberto Tovalin. While the history of El Nopal is closely identified with Mexican and Chicano artists, its primary thrust is the production of art that in some way incorporates the border as an idea. To that end, artists who have published with the press are Robert Gil de Montes, Yishai Jusidman, John Baldessari, Peter Liashkov, Pia Elizondo, Mark Bennett, Darren Waterston, Roy Dowell, Alberto Korda and Mario Rangel Faz.
The prints produced by these artists, executed as lithographs, woodcuts, etchings and combinations of these processes, express considerations that range from the social and the ethical to issues of identity. The artists are often inspired by or draw on the popular culture that bears on these themes. As a fine arts business strategically involved in the representation, production and dissemination of ideas relating to specific cultural issues and ideas, El Nopal responds to a constituency of both artists and collectors. It seeks to foster respect for the proficiency of the medium and a responsibility for the ideological direction of the press. Finally, El Nopal Press seeks recognition for the work of the artists who are associated with the press as collaborators in its enterprise.
Los Angeles Printmaking Society talk (Cal State Northridge, circa 2014)
El Nopal Press is a project in progress; these are some ideas surrounding its definition.
The industrial revolution engendered the capacity to mechanically reproduced objects and also to better the need to demystify power: a movement towards secularism. The authority of the aura of an original object imbued with historicity and authenticity was and is compromised by its reproduction. The evolving impact of this equation changed the paradigm of the way we view objects and the purpose of the objects especially object of cult or object of historic meaning. The shift from singularity to plurality of images and objects of persuasion constitutes a camp of interpretations and philosophical positioning in the politics of culture. Politics of culture meaning the dynamics of power of authority and the brinkmanship of legitimate representation of a narrative of images and historical events that brings forth meaning in society of that which is revered and emulated.
Art for art sake and art that provokes insight and informed social engagement are two poles or views in the art practice that manifest this idea of cultural politics. It is on this landscape that instigated the birth of El Nopal Press in 1990. The whole of the project is to be viewed as a social sculpture that litigates for a heterogeneous society and recognition of a plurality of modernisms, a not a hegemonic manifestation of the elite. The border as a geographical location, a psychological state, a metaphor and a delineation of limits is what inspired the selection of artists in the publications.