Abel Alejandre’s Chicano Cosmologies

LOS ANGELES — Abel Alejandre’s exhibition of pristine, meticulously rendered paintings at Launch Gallery, The Chicano Moon Landing of 1968, presents a captivating alternative history of the first moon landing. Using a grayscale palette in all but two works to mimic graphic novels, the artist has constructed a narrative that begins with “1968” (2023), a painting of a bull charging through the cosmos with fierce determination, under a banner that sets the event in 1968, a year prior to the actual moon landing and also the artist’s birth year.

In “The Chicano Moon Landing of 1968” (2023), based on an iconic photo of Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin planting the US flag on the moon, the fictitious astronauts are revealed as Mexican American by the motif on their flag, which was inspired by patterns from Indigenous architecture and warriors’ shields. Also in the painting is a 1960s sedan that could have been in a typical Chicano lowrider car parade. A narrative unfolds in the other paintings whereby the Chicano moon landing led to the creation of Xicanoland, an imagined civilization that the artist, in a press release, calls  “the indigenous empire’s crowning achievement.”

In several works, Alejandre joins his figurative imagery with abstract markings inspired by Pre-Columbian hieroglyphics, codices, and contemporary Cholo and Chicano writing. While representing the language of Xicanoland, these configurations also animate the compositions by moving through them like spiritual energies, as in “Xolo I” and “Xolo II” (2023) — depictions of hairless Mexican dogs known as Xoloitzcuintles, who serve as Xicanoland’s guardians. Their heads emerging through networks of parallel lines, the dogs are bathed in a seemingly mystical glowing light.

Abel Alejandre, “1968” (2023), acrylic on wood panel, 24 x 24 inches

The citizens of Xicanoland include a number of Indigenous male astronauts, seen in heroic portraits wearing helmets abstracted as white lines superimposed over their heads. In honor of his ancestors, Alejandre depicts one as a saintly figure with a Christ-like hairstyle. Another, shown in profile, resembles the Native American portrait on a Buffalo nickel. Others appear amid matrices of abstract lines and calligraphic markings in rectangular paintings that simulate paper money. 

By employing science fiction as a vehicle to probe the complexities of being an immigrant in the United States, Alejandre joins a number of Latinx artists who have taken a similar course, as documented in the illuminating 2017 exhibition Mundos Alternos: Art and Science Fiction in the Americas, curated by Robb Hernández and Tyler Stallings for the University of Riverside, California ARTSblock. With his depictions of Xicanoland’s currency, citizens, and spiritual guardians, however, he draws a connection between his sci-fi universe and the Indigenous histories erased from the annals of US history by White colonialist revisionism. 

One of Alejandre’s most potent paintings transcends the specificity of the show’s narrative. “Lost Astronaut” (2023) is a stunning memento mori that would feel at home in the company of Andy Warhol’s skull paintings or Robert Mapplethorpe’s 1988 self-portrait that references his struggle with AIDS, or any number of artworks that touch on the universal subject of death. Wedged between two white circles that appear to be symbolic bookends to a life journey, the skull in “Lost Astronaut” could be the remains of anyone, of any nationality, heritage, or identity.

Abel Alejandre, “Lost Astronaut” (2023), acrylic on wood panel, 20 x 16 inches
Abel Alejandre, “Xolo II” and “Xolo I” (2023), acrylic on paper, 9 x 12 inches each
Abel Alejandre, “Astronaut III” and “Astronaut II” (2023), acrylic on wood panel, 18 3/4 x 15 1/4 inches each

Abel Alejandre: The Chicano Moon Landing of 1968 continues at Launch Gallery (170 South La Brea Avenue, Hancock Park, Los Angeles) through December 2. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

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