CHICAGO — Carlos Cortéz, the beloved artist, poet, labor journalist, and community organizer, would have turned 100 on August 13, 2023. What better way to celebrate his centennial than to fill the city of Chicago, where he lived from 1965 until his death in 2005, with a trio of exhibitions dedicated to the intersections between Latine printmaking and politics — Carlos Cortéz: 100 Años at the National Museum of Mexican Arts (NMMA), William Estrada: Multiples & Multitudes at the Hyde Park Art Center, and entre horizontes: Art and Activism Between Chicago and Puerto Rico at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA).
Only the NMMA show was planned as a Cortéz tribute, but the coincidence of all three presentations is due in no small part to the enduring influence his decades of printing, mural-painting, and protest have had in a city where nearly 30 percent of the population identifies as Hispanic or Latino. Born in South Milwaukee to immigrant parents who met at a Socialist Party convention, Cortéz was raised in a milieu of blue-collar work, multiple languages, pacifism, and poetry; his father was an Indigenous Mexican of the Yaqui people, his mother hailed from Germany. He made a living in factories, sometimes helping to organize his fellow workers, and was a longstanding columnist and illustrator for the Industrial Worker newspaper. He helped found MARCH, the first Mexican arts organization in Illinois, and was a fervent supporter of the NMMA, which today holds his archives and displays his basement press, a workhorse nicknamed Gato Negro, in its permanent collection.
Nearly 50 of Cortéz’s wood and linoleum printing blocks — classic portraits of Civil Rights heroes like Rosa Luxemburg and Joe Hill; unrestrained calls of support for miners, farm workers, and immigrants; stern critiques of police violence and war — open the NMMA show. (Five can be downloaded from the museum website for home printing, in keeping with Cortéz’s dedication to accessibility.) Also featured are photographs and ephemera documenting his life, among them a painting of the prison cell he occupied for 18 months as a conscientious objector during WWII. The Cortéz materials, arranged along a T-shaped temporary wall at the center of the gallery, are encircled by his legacy, hung on the surrounding walls: art by some of the many practitioners who continue to fight for social justice through murals, printmaking, and related forms — many of them as influenced as he himself was by the Taller de Gráfica Popular of Mexico City and the radical Mexican illustrator José Guadalupe Posada, as well as by the Chicano mural movement, to which Cortéz belonged.
Filling the back wall is a cheery, 10-foot-tall unstretched canvas depicting Cortéz’s smiling, extravagantly mustachioed face by Héctor Duarte, creator of more than 50 murals throughout the city, but especially in Pilsen, the heart of Mexican Chicago and home to the NMMA. A memorial portfolio organized by Arceo Press, comprising 28 prints by an intergenerational array of artists, includes standouts from Carlos Barberena, Janet Schill, and Salvador Jiménez-Flores. Nicole Marroquin’s psychedelic silkscreen poster memorializes the 1968 Harrison High School student uprising, a series of walk-outs and sit-ins led by Black and Latin American students to end discrimination in CPS schools. A bold, festive banner by CHema Skandal! proclaims that “La lucha continua/The struggle is on,” a Cortézian message held aloft by masked, skeletal, Indigenous and cosmic protesters, each of whom lends it particular meaning. Sam Kirk’s stylized portraits of Latino men set against a backdrop of street scenes overlap and merge with unexpected emotional heft in a single lenticular print. Zeke Peña mixes the past, present, and future of the Rio Grande — floods, colonial soldiers, turtles, kids, sacred rituals, and spaceships — in a panoramic comic as weird and fragmentary as it is curious and epic.
It must have been impossibly hard to choose among Chicago’s flourishing activist art and printmaking communities for inclusion in the Cortéz show. One notable absence is fixed by visiting the Hyde Park Art Center, where William Estrada: Multiples & Multitudes pulls together a decade’s worth of projects by one of the city’s most dedicated social practice artists. Rather than asking people to come to the art, Estrada — sometimes working solo, sometimes with collaborators — has always brought art to the people, both geographically and topically.
The oldest work on view is a portable portrait studio used to shoot, print, and freely give away over 15,000 family and individual photographs in neighborhoods of predominantly Black and Brown populations throughout Chicago; a grid of 140 are on view, exuding joy, belonging, and self-presentation. Estrada’s bubblegum-colored “Mobile Street Art Cart,” modeled on paletas and elotes vendors, has been making the rounds for years; it can be pushed or bicycled wherever needed, then folded out into a studio for open-air crafting, button-making, and discussion. For the “Radical Printshop Project,” Estrada sets up collaborative screen-printing workshops in marginal community spaces, helping grassroots organizations and neighbors create graphic messages in support of their own causes, from abolishing ICE and prisons to fighting gentrification in North Lawndale and pollution in Little Village. “Chicago neighborhoods are full of brilliance,” said the poster being lettered in bold fuchsia the day I was at the gallery. It is indicative of Estrada’s generally feel-good approach, but its uplift ought not eclipse the radical generosity, approachability, and critique that undergird the entirety of his practice. Everyone, especially those with under-heard voices, should have access to messaging as hard hitting and well designed as Estrada provides.
Cortéz and Estrada might be said to wear their hearts on their sleeves, but the connections between creativity, community, and politics are not always so clear. That tension suffuses the MCA’s entre horizontes: Art and Activism Between Chicago and Puerto Rico. The show arranges 20 large paintings, installations, videos, and sculptures by Puerto Rican artists with Chicago connections, most of whom came here to study art, around a central display of ephemera and street photography documenting Puerto Rican Chicago, from the founding of the Young Lords in the 1960s to the Division Street and Humboldt Park rebellions and the eventual establishment of the Paseo Boricua neighborhood. That context sits uneasily alongside much of the included art, with the exception of a few cryptically cool pieces by Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, Ramón Miranda Beltrán, and Edra Soto. The real stars of entre horizontes are big, lush paintings invoking no particular politics but using a variety of techniques borrowed from printmaking: Ángel Otero’s and Arnaldo Roche Rabell’s messy kitchen tables, with collaged fabrics and impressed textures; José Lerma’s breathtakingly confident profile of a woman, brushed in inch-thick acrylics with a commercial broom; Nora Maité Nieves’s “Magnetic Field” — two pairs of iridescent geometric patterned canvases, the smaller ones used to print the larger.
Art and activism, together and not. You don’t have to choose.
Carlos Cortéz: 100 Años continues at the National Museum of Mexican Arts (1852 West 19th Street, Chicago, Illinois) through February 18, 2024. The exhibition was curated by Cesáreo Moreno.
William Estrada: Multiples & Multitudes continues at the Hyde Park Art Center (5020 South Cornell Avenue, Chicago, Illinois) through October 29. The exhibition was curated by Mariela Acuña in collaboration with the artist.
entre horizontes: Art and Activism Between Chicago and Puerto Rico continues at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (220 East Chicago Avenue, Chicago, Illinois) through May 5, 2024. The exhibition was curated by Carla Acevedo-Yates with Iris Colburn.