Rolando Briseño’s pursuit of his artistic muse led him on a convoluted journey from his native San Antonio. He began his studies in Mexico City at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) and in New York City at the Cooper Union; he then earned two degrees in art from the University of Texas, studying in between at La Universidad Católica in Lima, Peru—all on scholarships. After earning his M.F.A. from Columbia University in 1979, he remained in New York City while receiving a series of grants, some from institutions as far afield as the Bellagio Study Center on the Lago di Como, Italy. His formative years as an artist focused on an intense exploration of his identity as a Chicano. During this time, searching for a personal artistic approach, Briseño hit upon the motif of the table “as a life source, a symbol for communication, and a locus of community.” The table became his medium for approaching a variety of subject matter, including political and cultural material. Beginning in graduate school, he constructed cutout tables to represent ancient ceremonial rituals and relate them to contemporary life. As his work continued to evolve, Briseño, embracing more universal themes, constructed larger tables and mounted them on walls. He noted that his tables were now “teeming with movement—the movement referring to the smallest formations of nature, the proton, echoing the largest formation, the universe.” Further development in his work led him to “a more culturally personal ‘table,’ ” thereby reexamining his own cultural roots in the light of his intervening experiences and concerns. Briseño’s appropriation of the table is at once sentimental and realistic in that it expresses a longing for familial and ritual bonding.
Bicultural Tablesetting elucidates the table’s centrality to communication in both a traditional and a contemporary sense. In this work a place setting is set atop a table that is covered on the left with a colorful mantel, a patterned oilcloth used by Mexican and Latino families, and on the right with a more sedate blue and white checkerboard-patterned tablecloth, one frequently seen draped over picnic tables. The distinction that Briseño makes between the patterns of the two table covers effectively embodies his preoccupation with personal identity, one that is here explicitly bicultural and hybrid. The harsh division of the two patterns creates a border in the composition, one that refers to cultural division, segregation, and disconnection. The left side of the print makes reference to the artist’s Mexican heritage; this is evident not only in the distinctly Mexican color and pattern of the tablecloth, but also in the brown hand that points to the plate located in the center of the work. The plate, featuring a swirling, circular design, anchors the composition and also refers to the process of mestizaje, or cultural mixing, one that is characteristic of Mexican American culture. The right side of the print prominently and deliberately contains the colors associated with the United States flag as well as a cellular phone, an icon of contemporary culture and technology that has replaced and, ultimately, depersonalized human communication and interaction.