This month, as part of the ambitious celebration of SoCal art that is "Pacific Standard Time," KPCC and AirTalk divined our inner curator. On Wednesday, KPCC’s Larry Mantle hosted a one-night Chicano art exhibit with the artists themselves and their works in the Crawford Family Forum.
The early days of the modern American art movement were once described as "racist, aloof, pretentious and elitist" by Armando Vazquez. In his essay, "Reflection on the Chicano Art Movimiento," Vazquez said it wouldn't be until the 1950s and 60s that Chicanos, Jews, Blacks, Native Americans and women would penetrate the monolith known as "American art and culture." Los Angeles was a focal point of that fundamental shift. The birth of Chicano art coincided with the birth of L.A. as a center for contemporary art and artistic innovation distinct to Southern California.
Trailblazers of this Chicano art movement, Patssi Valdez and the artist known as "Gronk" joined Larry to reveal the roots of the vibrant and distinct school, starting with their involvement in an four-person art collective called “ASCO,” the word for nausea and disgust in Spanish.
The group brought their art to the streets, in one instance spray painting their names on a wall of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to protest the lack of Chicano artists in the space.
ASCO created numerous performance pieces such as the “Instant Mural,” where Gronk taped Valdez to a wall to poke fun at the numerous political murals being painted at the time, what Valdez called “eyesores.” She eventually removes herself from the wall, getting rid of the “eyesore.”
Gronk said that though much of ASCO’s work projects a humorous flair, they contain many layers of meaning.
“It’s about oppression; it’s about taping someone to a wall. But, again, it’s somebody who is able to break free of the bonds,” he said. “It’s like different communities in many ways, also, just stay within that community, but it’s about moving beyond that.”
A photograph of “Instant Mural” shows Valdez in heavy makeup, platform heels and a bright jacket, one of the “glamorized” outfits she dons for her compositions.
“I know something that was really disturbing for me is that whenever I saw an image of a Mexican in the media, it was usually a negative image or very limited view of what we’re all about,” Valdez said. “That’s why you see me wearing these different costumes […] I just wanted to break that limited stereotype.”
Though Valdez and Gronk often created art steeped in Chicano issues affecting the culture as a whole, Sonia Romero and Enrique Castrejon, two artists that represent the next generation, tackle art from a more individualistic perspective.
Castrejon’s pieces combine collage with drawing; he deconstructs images of war and death or homoerotic or religious iconography and uses math to measure angles and draw lines protruding from the pictures he chooses. Castrejon said he likes expressing the facets of his identity, such as being Chicano and gay, in his art, and allowing the viewer to interpret the themes within his compositions.
“For me, I like being in that inbetweeness,” he said. “I grew up in that way. I mean, growing up undocumented — that taught me how to actually just be quiet and actually be able to understand how to adapt.”
Romero said her mixed background doesn’t find a place in her art.
“I just don’t look at things that way. I just look at the tree next to me, and then I draw it and it means something to me. It’s just not part of my art practice,” she said.
Valdez said that after her period with ASCO, she looked away from the barrios and the politics to reflect on herself in her paintings. Now, she said she’s trying to find a middle ground between both realms. Both Valdez and Gronk agree that the older generation is “still growing up” and changing with the times.
“I think for me, it was a learning experience growing up in a particular moment in time. You have shared experiences, but you don’t stay there. You always continue to grow and experience things, and take in a lot of information,” Gronk said.
What separates this class of creative expression from the rest? What was the genesis of Chicano art? How did the blend of culture, of ethnicity, location and time influence the art? What do you find striking about the works?
Patssi Valdez, contemporary artist & original member of the ASCO collective
Gronk, artist & original member of the ASCO collection
Sonia Romero, contemporary & public artist based in Los Angeles
Enrique Castrejon, artist (measured and fragment collage drawing)