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LACMA Organizes Major Exhibit of Chicano Art

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A large exhibition of Chicano art opens at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art this Sunday. The show explores how a branch of art produced by Mexican-American activists 40 years ago has blossomed and inspired a slew of young Latino artists today.

Adolfo Guzman-Lopez: Writer and artist Harry Gamboa begins to recognize the path behind the L.A. County Museum of Art.

Harry Gamboa: Here we return to the scene of the art crime...

Guzman-Lopez: Thirty-six years ago, Gamboa was 21 years old. He took a date to LACMA. It was going well until the two Mexican-Americans from East L.A. reached the last gallery. Chicano art was absent, a phantom, in L.A.'s most important museum.

Gamboa: I asked her to excuse me for a second, I started pounding on doors. Found my way through the labyrinth, and somehow came to face to face with an unnamed curator who I demanded to know, why don't they have Chicano art? He turned around and he says, "Well, you know, Chicanos, they don't make art, they're in gangs."

Guzman-Lopez: Gamboa left fuming. The date was over. He returned in the dead of night with two friends from East L.A. The three scrawled their names in red and black spray paint on the museum's entrances.

Gamboa: I think the crime at the time was the fact that there was no Chicano art here. We basically took care of that by signing the museum and creating the museum itself into the first work of conceptual art.

Guzman-Lopez: Well, Frenchman Marcel Duchamp usually gets that credit. More than 50 years before Gamboa, Duchamp signed a urinal and called it his ready-made work of art. Gamboa and three others formed the first Chicano conceptual art group. They called themselves ASCO, the Spanish word for nausea.

The group dissolved two decades ago, but the founders continue to create. The museum they desecrated, Rita Gonzalez says consecrated, is mapping their influence now. Gonzalez is one of three curators of Phantom Sightings: Art After the Chicano Movement.

Rita Gonzalez: I see the artists of today operating in the same kind of obstinate spirit of ASCO. They want to do their own thing. They want to be recognized as artists. They're not cutting their ties with where they come from.

Guzman-Lopez: East L.A.'s fashions, poverty, and crime were all fair game for ASCO. Plenty of artists in the LACMA show also look to their neighborhoods for inspiration.

Carolyn Castaño: So this is historic Filipino-town, and it's the neighborhood that I grew up in. We used to just call it Rampart, after the police station.

Guzman-Lopez: Artist Carolyn Castaño's studio is on Beverly Boulevard. It's across the street from Fernando's Tires, where somebody's hand-lettered the name of the business in crooked, black, three-foot-high characters on a canary yellow background. A nearby barber shop and beauty salon post similar homemade signs. Commercial art stencils of chiseled European faces beckon Latino immigrant patrons to walk on in.

Castaño: It is commercial art, but it's also interesting in the way that the neighbors or people at a local level use it to sell something, but also it represents beauty to them. And it also represents something that they're very proud of, like having a business.

Guzman-Lopez: Castaño paints with screaming colors that echo the neighborhood signs, and depicts her friend's faces on her work with extravagant hairdos. San Francisco-based Julio Morales created seven watercolors for the show, inspired by the neighborhood where he grew up, Tijuana's Zona Norte.

Julio Morales: This is where you get body work done and upholstery and essentially this is where you can actually get your car altered for your body. So for example, with this image that we're looking at right now, there's someone who's actually imbedded in the, what do you call this, the dashboard of the car. So essentially, they take all the guts out of the dashboard. They put the person in there, and then they reassemble it.

Guzman-Lopez: A companion video projects fragmented images of Tijuana street scenes onto a wall. It's what an immigrant might see from a car speeding toward the border. The borders between race and class surface in New York City-based artist Alejandro Diaz's photos of urban performances.

Alejandro Diaz: It's a political intervention, the piece is called "Breakfast Tacos at Tiffany's," and I'm selling these pieces dressed up as a wealthy New Yorker in front of Tiffany's, and they're cardboard signs that you don't normally see, that usually homeless people make.

Guzman-Lopez: The signs read, "Wetback by Popular Demand," "Make Tacos Not War," and "Get Off Your Trust Fund and Do Something." All 28 of the exhibition's artists are Latinos. Most represent the second and third generation in the United States, while others are immigrants. Nearly all of them earned art degrees. Museum of Contemporary Art curator Alma Ruiz praises LACMA's effort to explore uncharted territory. Most museums, she says, stopped mounting ethnic-themed shows a decade ago.

Alma Ruiz: The contemporary art world is now so diverse that curators are more interested in bringing together different voices from different continents as opposed to perhaps just focusing on one city, or one movement, or one ethnic group.

Guzman-Lopez: To the people behind the LACMA show, that places most museums right back where they were three decades ago. The Phantom Sightings exhibit, they suggest, should help to end Chicano and Latino artists' phantom status in the museum world.