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Images can be sites of resistance. I was reminded of this at a recent visit to LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, where the group exhibition, L.A. Memo: Chicana/o Art from 1972-1989, brought together 31 artists who sought to subvert and critique the expanding media culture of the ’60s and express cultural pride. The works were primarily drawn from the collection of community healthcare provider AltaMed, which concentrates its holdings on Chicanx artists,1 resulting in a slightly hemmed-in vision. Since the exhibition drew from a corporate collection, some of the more experimental, conceptual, and collaborative practices of the era—for instance, the photographs of Laura Aguilar, Kathy Vargas, and Ricardo Valverde; the genre-defying paintings of Yolanda López, René Yañez, and Charles “Chaz” Bojorquez; or the pioneering performance and installation work of artists like Edmundo “Mundo” Meza—were notably absent, ultimately offering a somewhat neater and teleological story of Chicanx resistance. Despite its circumscribed focus, L.A. Memo highlighted the impact that these artists have had on the city and its art discourse, and, in turn, the impressions the city left on them.
The works in the exhibition were loosely grouped into two categories: media critique and Chicanx identity. In the first gallery, artists took aim at mainstream media, commenting on the lack of cultural representation in advertising and Hollywood. In Pillow Talk (1979–80), Patssi Valdez imagined the female Latinx icons she yearned for, but wasn’t seeing in the glossy magazines of the time, by inserting her friend Betty Salas into a fashion spread pastiche. Wearing a strapless, skintight bodysuit, long gloves, and heart-shaped sunglasses, Salas lounges nonchalantly on plush yellow cushions. Other works address a Hollywood interpretation of Los Angeles: Teddy Sandoval’s mixed-media works explore the physical ideals perpetuated by the film industry; Joey Terrill’s paintings reimagine storyboard music titles as queer love narratives; and in Linda Vallejo’s video Take a Bite (1977–2017), the artist hijacks Warhol-esque screentests in a melee of color and gestural markings.
AltaMed Curatorial Assistant Rafael Barrientos Martínez, who guest curated the show, focused the exhibition on the years following the 1970 National Chicano Moratorium, a demonstration led by Chicanx activists in protest of the disproportionately high number of Latinx individuals who were sent to fight, and ultimately die, in the Vietnam War.2 While the Chicanx community was fighting for civil rights and representation, their stories remained absent from mainstream media; L.A. Memo’s first gallery succinctly, albeit safely, articulated both the explosion of activism and its subsequent silencing. Harry Gamboa Jr.’s photograph Iris Crisis (1982) depicts his body obliterated by pieces of white tape. In the image, he is a blank canvas, his identity invisible. Only one work in this gallery directly addressed the war: Roberto Gutierrez’s Madness in Vietnam (1987), a haunting oil pastel self-portrait. The artist’s eyes are wide, his brow is furrowed, and his hair stands on end. Staring out from behind a metal window, he appears to scream and gasp for breath, invoking the grim reality of PTSD suffered by many individuals in Gutierrez’s community. The drawing is one of the few in the exhibition that is not part of the AltaMed Art Collection, which, given how few works in the show, at least on the surface, grapple with overtly controversial issues, I can only speculate is due to its scope and objective. The Chicano Moratorium provided a curatorial framework for the exhibition, yet, in artwork form, references to the Vietnam War were scant.
The second gallery moved away from media critique to explore a sense of place. Many artists explored ideas of indigenismo, a belief that counters the dominance of colonial influence, by making work that honors their Indigenous cultural heritage and a connection to the land. A notable shift from the first gallery, these works looked at how the Chicanx community developed personal and collective identity within their relationships to visual traditions from what are today the American Southwest and Northern Mexico. Carlos Almaraz’s L.A. Memo (1980), from which the exhibition took its title, fuses an exported ideology of Los Angeles—palm trees, sunshine, and glamor—with his experiences as a Chicanx man. Swirling together in a jumble of oil pastels, Almaraz’s scene suggests that these parallel identities are not mutually exclusive, but equally important aspects of his personhood. Nearby, Arturo Urista’s Welcome to Aztlan (1987) laid out a map of the original homeland in Aztec migration stories—a place where the regions that now sit on either side of the U.S./Mexico border were not separated by arbitrary demarcations and where inhabitants could travel freely. The themes of this gallery felt in contrast to those of the first, revering and reaching toward the land, while looking back on cultural histories, rather than using contemporary culture as a framework. The different camps are an affecting combination across the show, and work to explicate the variety of approaches adopted by Chicanx artists of the time. This tension was well articulated by Randy Kennedy in 2011, who wrote that for Gamboa, “the best way to exercise artistic freedom and express solidarity with the Mexican-American cause was, paradoxically, to run screaming from most Mexican-American art.”3 A founding member of the influential Chicanx performance collective Asco, Gamboa and his peers wanted to distinguish themselves from the stereotypes imposed by mainstream culture. Meanwhile, others, like Lujan and Urista, embraced cultural iconography as a pathway toward inclusion.
While L.A. Memo attempted to flesh out these histories, it was at times limited by the curatorial constraint of its provenance—the AltaMed Art Collection. Collection shows will always be affected by an institution’s overarching aims and themes: As part of their holistic approach to healthcare, AltaMed places art throughout their service sites. These are usually clinical spaces that are open to the public and in which the artworks are not closely attended, so, understandably, practicality would influence the works collected —often meaning that they are domestically scaled, on paper, and under glass. Inevitably, curating from a collection leads to a partisan approach, and the ambitions of L.A. Memo felt limited by the practical concerns of the collection. Nevertheless, the exhibition produced a welcome presentation of the core ideas and ideologies most urgent to Chicanx artists in this specific era of L.A.’s history, a time marked by a multifaceted and complex vision of what it meant to be Chicanx.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 30.