Artist Presentation
Harry Gamboa Jr.

 

 

Synopsis by Ellen Shershow

 

 

I was living in St. Thomas. Corzone, a skinny, impossibly blonde girl from L.A. ran up to a group of us, flushed with excitement- have you heard! she squealed, we all looked blank. It’s all over L.A.! Rioting! Stores being broken into, people running around in the streets its all over south central, spilling into east LA!

This was my first introduction to the culture of Los Angeles, and to anything to do with East L.A. specifically. I was nineteen, and had grown up in a predominantly Jewish suburb of Boston-far away from East L.A.

Last Wednesday Harry Gamboa introduced a very different picture of this enclave. Gamboa began with a summation of his life thus far. He told us that he was born in East Los Angeles. Los Angeles itself, he explained, is divided and subdivided into separate lots of religious and ethnic groups.

Gamboa grew up in a time when freeways were just being built. In order to build these freeways, houses had to be leveled. Primarily, these were houses of his friends. Gamboa told us of many hours spent helping to set these houses on fire. These freeways now surround East L.A., so that it essentially forms a kind of island, almost a separate country, composed almost entirely of Chicanos.

Gamboa continued, explaining to us that if you live in this isolated environment, than the very sense of isolation begins to pervade you life. Even without meaning to, people become insular. Other folks begin to ignore you; you begin to ignore other people. The result of such isolation breeds things like police brutality and fires. In Gamboa's own words a kind of worst case scenario. This is the world in which Harry Gamboa grew up.

East L.A. was also a place were everybody seemed to be constantly performing for others. There would be low rider cars, complete with interior chandeliers, parked in the yard of a household that had no money for food.

Gamboa continued with a story about his first day of kindergarten in Boyle Heights. He entered the classroom and was instructed by the teacher to sit in the corner of the room with a giant cone --a dunce cap-- on his head. The teacher affixed the words Spanish to the dunce cap. Gamboa was told to stay in the corner of the room with the cap atop his head until he could speak English.

They had declared cultural war on him. Gamboa accepted the offer and declared war right back.

This act continued into high school were Gamboa got straight ‘F’. The level of expectation for him and his friends was extremely low. Not surprisingly, his high school had the highest drop out rate in the country. Because of plutonium coming out of Nevada, a great many of his friends died of leukemia and most of the rest died in Vietnam. By this time, Gamboa had already witnessed close to forty murders and seen nearly forty horrible accidents. He humorously describes himself as the anti ‘Forest Gump’.

While in high school, Gamboa became very active within the Chicano movement. He found he was good at this. Along these lines, Gamboa wanted to create words that didn't yet exist. For instance, the word ‘Chicano’ carried with it racist ideas among Chicanos. Gamboa wanted to (re)claim these derogatory words and empower them. In order to do this one has got to build a history, along with a myth and image around these words.

With the idea of performing for others as well as the above ideas about the Chicano movement in mind, Harry Gamboa began to work with two friends, Patsy Valdez and Willie Heron. It was 1972. If you were Chicano and you wanted to be an artist, you essentially had the option to be a muralist. So the three embarked on a project in which they became a walking mural. Patsy was the Virgin de Guadeloupe and Willie was a Christmas tree. They came out of the wall and walked the streets of East L.A. They walked for two and a half miles, and the end of which they had a procession of over 200 people behind them. Gamboa photographed this event and sent the photograph out to several publications. The photograph got published. During that same year, Gamboa visited the L.A. county museum and discovered that there was a complete lack of Chicano artists represented. So he and Patsy Valdez and Willie Heron came back and spray painted their names on a wall outside the museum

Around this time, Gamboa and his peers began to make things they called ‘no-movies’. They would shoot false ‘film stills’, print up invites, and invite people to show up in, say, an empty parking lot for what was supposed to be a movie. When people begin arriving at the set place, they found there was nothing there except other people like them. This, among other things, was based on the notion that Chicanos are almost completely missing from Hollywood cinema.

Gamboa continued with an extensive list of his performative pieces. The most striking to me was a fictional photograph of a dead man, lying in the middle of a busy Los Angeles street. Gamboa convinced the media that this was a photograph of the last gang member killed. Subsequently, this photograph was published with such a caption, so that it was viewed within the media as truth. After its publication, there was a significant decrease in gang activity for the next two weeks.

As an artist, Gamboa believes that it is good to create work, but that that work should not just get stuck in a drawer, forgotten about by all except its creator. Following his idea about empowering Chicanos, Gamboa uses his ideas as visual elements that will change the very way Chicanos are viewed in our culture.

 

 

Analysis by Joseph Sweeney

 

 

Born in Los Angeles, California, Harry Gamboa, Jr. grew up in East L.A. As the freeways grew larger, East L.A. became increasingly separated from the rest of the city. It now exists, Gamboa says, as an ‘island.’ An island populated mostly by Chicanos, which is ignored by the rest of the community surrounding it. Gamboa talks of the educational system, the actions of people in his home community, and the governmental neglect and hostility that contributed to his dissatisfaction with the dominant culture of the United States, and provided for him the material on which to base his art and activism. The journey he describes is that of an outsider artist, and a group of artists, satirizing the absurdity of their daily lives in order to shed light on deeply rooted social problems.

Early in life he was forced to learn English to survive in the educational system, and was made to feel bad about speaking Spanish. Once, a teacher placed a kind of dunce cap upon his head, with the word ‘Spanish’ on it, and was told that he would wear it until he spoke English. Gamboa describes this as the moment where, ‘cultural war,’ was declared on him, and his community, and he had to fight back. As he grew up, he saw the people in his neighborhood performing for each other. They would dress elaborately just to do simple things like go to the corner market, or invest a great deal of money in detailing their cars, while other aspects of life, such as food and education became secondary concerns. Education was also a secondary concern for those supposed to teach in East L.A. The faculty and the police on the campuses of the local high schools often contributed to the violent conditions in the schools. This ‘educational’ environment, combined with the death of many of Gamboa’s childhood friends from leukemia (courtesy of the fallout from the US Government’s nuclear testing sites being carried into L.A. by the Santa Anna winds), and many more deaths of friends in Vietnam (another US Government action that resulted in the deaths of a disproportionate number of Chicanos), caused Gamboa to become a political activist in high school and college.

College was the alternative to the army or poverty for men from East L.A., so when he was graduated from high school, Gamboa entered college. It was during and after college, when he was in his early 20s, that he realized he wanted to create Chicano stars in Hollywood. This was a reaction to the fact that he had been bombarded by the pop culture of the United States that presented images only of white America. The small domestic performances observed in East L.A. as a child can be seen in the performances and spectacles that Gamboa and his artist friends in the group Asco constructed. The two aspects of the work that come through most clearly are themes from Gamboa’s early life: absurdity and the creation of a positive experience from a negative one. By creating a ‘walking mural,’ and making (or at least creating advertising for) ‘No-Movies,’ two fairly ridiculous sounding proposals, Gamboa and his colleagues questioned the believability of the media. They made the statement that good Chicano artists were not just muralists as the art presses, and other outlets would have liked to believe and sometimes the public is told about or taught events that simply do not happen. Also, when surrounded by the multiple deaths of young people due to gang violence, fabricating and photographing a scene called, Last Gang Member produced a temporary cease fire in a street war. An image that could have been seen as just another death in a series of violent acts was altered by the accompanying text, The Last Gang Member Killed in East L.A. In the same way the name ‘Asco,’ which means nausea, came to signify a healthy experience, and a derogatory term like, ‘Chicano’ came to be an empowering word, an image of death seems to have spared lives.

Further Questions:

Does the apparent absurdity in the art of Asco have roots in Dadaism, or does it simply stem from the preposterous situations experienced while growing up in East L.A.?

Must a textual or verbal explanation accompany some or all of these art projects in order to fully understand or participate in them?

Is a conscious and/or immediate understanding of a work by an audience needed to make ‘political’ art function in the way it was intended?