What does it mean to be a Mexican-American person in Los Angeles? How do we balance American culture and Hispanic culture? How do things like food and religion affect our upbringing or our values? And what role do Chicanos play and how are we perceived within the different communities that we exist in? Einar and Jamex de la Torre, Harry Gamboa Jr., Shizu Saldamando, and John Valadez are artists that ask themselves these questions every day. They’re careers span more than four decades and their diverse works include paintings, photographs, sculptures, drawings and video that address race and identity in some way or form. It all comes together in the latest exhibition at Koplin del Rio.
The first room in the gallery primarily features the work of John Valadez. His realist paintings are full of iconography which at times is represented by objects of contemporary culture, such as low-riders, and at other times makes reference to more timeless motifs, such as the ocean or the female nude. In "Ascension" (above), a female nude bathes in the ocean as another ascends into the heavens opening up above. Meanwhile, a Hispanic man with his arm on fire flees from something outside the picture frame. Spirituality seems to be a theme of the painting. The man's faith burns as strong as the flame on his arm, which is not extinguished in the vastness of the ocean. Yet there is also a sense of struggle, as the man's face and pose tell us he is escaping from something unseen. "Lover's Lane" (below) is a much more serene painting. Here we have a scene of a river, with a quaint town in the distance and a couple making out in the bushes. Again we have a female nude, a conservatively dressed Hispanic man, and a body of water. Across the room we have "Streetlight" which consists of a darker palette. In comparison of the light tan soil and bright blue sky, here we have a more abstracted background that almost looks like a black and red cosmos. At the forefront we have a group of people that could either be waiting in line for a night club, or entering another realm. To the right there is a woman in the process of taking off her clothes. It is interesting that it is always the females that are nude, never the men. The artist combines figures of classical art with modern Hispanic males, which elevates the working class, presumably immigrant, men to a higher status.
While the people in Valadez's work exist in some sort metaphorical plane, artistShizu creates drawings taken more directly from the real word. Her colored pencil drawings depict young Hispanic people engaged in everyday life moments. The photorealistic drawings almost feel like candid photographs taken from someone’s home collection. “In between sets, waiting for the band” shows us a group of friends sitting and laughing as they wait for a performance. The young girls wear Ramones and Misfits shirts and dyed hair. The artist shows us not the spectacle that these girls are about to witness, but the intimate moment they share. In “Joel with Gran Legacy” we see a young man slumped over in a chair with a bottle of liquor on the floor. He wears black jeans and a denim jacket with pins on it. The people in the drawings often wear outfits typical of SoCal punk, and as I stare at some of these I feel like I could easily have hung out with some of these people when I was in high school. It makes me nostalgic for the days of listening to Blink 182 and going to The Warped Tour. Compositionally, the focus of the works is on the people and the backgrounds tempt to be empty. For the most part they are de-contextualized, save for a few props like a chair or table. Yet even without an environment for these figures to exist in, the sort of space that they could occupy is crystal clear. The artist celebrates these people, yet leaves it up to the viewer to place them in the world.
Einar and Jamex de la Torre's sculptures mashup of blown glass, printed images, and household items are a visual spectacle that can easily leave a viewer looking at them for hours. Within the assemblage could be found everything from plastic fruit to beer bottle caps (imported Mexican beer of course) to bundt pans. Every time I came back to a piece, I found something new. Food and religion appeared to be the main focus of the sculptures. Some looked almost like altar pieces, objects to be prayed to before a meal. Some pieces contained sculptures of sorts of tribal gods, agricultural perhaps. Other pieces contained images of actual Catholic saints and figures. This made the works very nostalgic and reminded me of all the religious objects in my home throughout my childhood, and I am sure that is a similar feeling held by any 2nd generation Mexican-American. One piece had images of ancient Greek gods, which along with the food referencing still life's, made these pieces very embedded in art history. Overall they are fun and colorful objects can be interested as having many meanings, and also would look amazing hanging in a home.
Harry Gamboa Jr. has been at the forefront of LA Chicano art since the early 70’s. As part of Asco, he ran around East LA creating conceptual and performance art that influenced generations of Mexican-American artists to come. His work often attempts to find or create a place for Hispanic people, and in the works in this exhibit he decontextualizes Chicano bodies in order to highlight the way that they are perceived by their appearance. Standing alone against an urban background, these men are presented to us without their stories. Their names and job titles are given to us, but because the photos are presented in a grid, it takes a bit of time to match the title to the photo. This actually makes things interesting. First of all, the name of the person is not immediate, giving the viewer a moment to judge the person in the photo and create their own story for them. Secondly, figuring out the name of the person in the photo becomes almost like a scavenger hunt and forces the viewer to look back and forth between the wall of photos and the long list of names. It is fun trying to guess what sort of life these men may have, and then seeing how close you actually were. But be careful, you may find yourself embracing certain negative stereotypes and realize that you really can’t judge a book by its cover.
Artifex is on view until June 29. There is a panel discussion with the artists and mediated by Cheech Marin on May 29th at 8pm. Anyone interested in learning more about the local Chicano art scene should check it out.
Words by Noé Gaytán. Images via the gallery.