Eat it up! Culture-pirating serious and silly

It seems almost painfully self-evident that humorous things make people laugh, except that it’s not always true. There is a secondary category of things– sometimes brainy, pointed, and/or satirical things– which people find humorous in a way, even though they don’t make them laugh.
The typical response to these sorts of things is to think, “Hey, that’s funny.” This sort of detached humor finds a home in “Codices Canibales,” Enrique Chagoya’s first east coast exhibit currently on display at Second Street Gallery in conjunction with the Festival of the Book. Chagoya shows a healthy sense of the absurd and a wild imagination, but his work bears the mark of the satirist’s biting purposefulness.
Many of Chagoya’s work comes in the form of codices, or long pieces of paper divided up, very loosely, into panels much like a comic book. The form, Chagoya claims, comes from traditional Pre-Columbian formats. Read from one end to the other, the codices seem to have narratives, though it’s not really possible to follow any sort of story line.
Chagoya is more interested in an explosion of symbols, sometimes presented without explanation, sometimes subverted, but frequently crammed into panels that also draw influence from comic strips. 
In fact, comic strip and comic book characters, mostly American, appear throughout his work, including Captain America, Wonder Woman, Superman, and Astrix the Gaul–though its clear that these characters aren’t necessarily appearing as themselves. 
Sometimes Chagoya seems to use as characters in his nebulous story lines, which follow roughly two themes throughout the exhibit, a fractured meso-American history and images of cannibalism. 
In Chagoya’s culture-pirating work, the serious and the silly, the political and pop culture stew together in a work that suggests a political or satirical bent, but in which meaning seems lost or obfuscated in his ragingly anarchist impulse to create all symbols interchangeable.
“,” which places the cartoonish image of a native in place of G.W. on the dollar bill, and Mao’s head on the body of a dog, seems to delight in pointing out that all symbols of any culture are ripe for plunder, and that they can and will be put to use in ways very different from the ones that their creators intended, no matter how important or central they are in their original culture. 
Chagoya’s small obsession with cannibalism only gives it a more sinister bent. 

Second Street Gallery presents the satirical “Codices Canibales: Books and Prints,” by Enrique Chagoya, through April 27. 201 Second St. NW. 977-7284.

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