L.A. Memo Paints a Dynamic Picture of Chicana/o Art
One of the first works in L.A. Memo: Chicana/o Art From 1972-1989 at LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes is “El Arte Chicano (Color)” (1974), a small, vibrant text painting by Roberto “Beto” de la Rocha (father of Rage Against the Machine frontman Zack de la Rocha). In graffiti-esque bubble letters, the work proclaims simply: “El Arte Chicano Existe” (Chicano Art Exists). The phrase is covered with the signatures of other Chicana/o artists, making the work a statement of collective solidarity. Given the rising profile of Latina/o art over the past several years — with a recent version of the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time initiative dedicated to the connection between Los Angeles and Latin America, and last week’s long-awaited opening of the Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art & Culture in Riverside — it may seem like an obvious conclusion. However, the fact that de la Rocha felt that the existence of his art needed to be professed just affirms how different the cultural climate was in the US, and even in LA, 50 years ago.
L.A. Memo features work by 31 LA-based Chicana/o artists working in the 1970s and ’80s, drawing largely from the collection of AltaMed, a community-based healthcare provider founded in 1969 as the East LA Barrio Free Clinic that distributes works from its art collection throughout its network of nearly 50 clinics in LA and Orange County. (AltaMed’s current president Cástulo de la Rocha is a relative of Beto’s.) “Certain populations have not always felt welcome in institutions,” says Rafael Barrientos Martínez, AltaMed Curatorial Assistant, who organized the show in conjunction with LA Plaza. “We’ve been bringing artworks to them.”
The exhibition takes as its starting point the years following the Chicano Moratorium, an anti-war protest movement that grew in response to the disproportionately high number of Latinos sent to fight and die in Vietnam. Thousands of young Chicanas/os across California and the Southwest joined the struggle, fighting not just against the war, but for social justice at home. The Moratorium was a part of the larger Chicano Movement, which fused progressive political activism with a celebration of Chicana/o culture and identity. L.A. Memo showcases artists working in this formative period — after the blossoming of cultural pride and empowerment, but before widespread institutional recognition.
This is not a “greatest hits” show, but rather features many influential Chicana/o artists experimenting with both medium and message, a freedom afforded them by their relative obscurity at the time. For example, Linda Vallejo is represented by three works: “Pyramid City: Anahuac” (1980), a paper and wire model of futuristic urbanism named for the Nahuatl word for a region in central Mexico; “Complex Woman” (c. 1976), a black-and-white screen print of a female figure within a triangular form; and “Take a Bite” (1977–2017), a hand-colored experimental short film in playful dialogue with Warhol’s screen tests. Vallejo still avoids being hemmed in stylistically, although much of her recent work featured in her 2019 LA Plaza show Brown Belongings focuses on aesthetic and cultural associations of “Brown identity,” from the geometric abstractions of Datos Sagrados that visualize demographic data regarding Latinas/os, to the media send-ups of her Make ‘Em All Mexican series, in which she tints White movie stars and entertainers various shades of coffee, chocolate, and canela.
One throughline in the show deals with how artists respond to media representation, or lack thereof. “Many artists are able to respond to an image culture that represents them,” says Martínez, adding that Latinas/os were generally absent from the mainstream American image culture. In response, they critique, subvert, and insert themselves into it.
Patssi Valdez’s photograph “Pillow Talk (Betti Salas)” (c. 1978–80) resembles a fashion spread with Salas in a hot pink, skin-tight outfit with heart-shaped sunglasses, her black leather gloves giving a hint of danger. Judy Baca’s serigraph “Tres Pachucas” (2018) is a trio of images of the campy, bad girl persona she developed for performances in 1976, characterized by a mixture of parody and pride. Two works by Harry Gamboa Jr. — a member of seminal art collective ASCO alongside Valdez, Glugio “Gronk” Nicandro, and Willie Herrón — explore issues of erasure and stereotyping. “Iris Crisis” (1982) is a self-portrait in which Gamboa has covered his face and body with tape, rendering him unrecognizable, a cypher to be projected upon. “Decoy Gang War Victim” (1974) features Gronk lying in the middle of the street surrounded by road flares, a staged crime scene that calls out the one-dimensional portrayal of Latinas/os in Hollywood.
Joey Terrill and Teddy Sandoval offer queer Chicano visibility through appropriation and collage. Sandoval’s untitled xerox collage from 1977–79 sandwiches a male figure taken from a fashion magazine between two macho, mustachioed hunks, enlisting him as an ally in queer solidarity. Terrill utilizes a punk cut-and-paste technique in his 1977 collages that combine Spanish titles of heterosexual love songs with homoerotic imagery, cartoons, and Hollywood film stills.
L.A. Memo moves from media critique to an exploration of place and identity, both Angelena/o and Chicana/o, contemporary and traditional. The exhibition takes its name from a 1980 pastel drawing by Carlos Almaraz, part of another influential Chicana/o collective, Los Four, alongside de la Rocha, Frank Romero, Gilbert “Magu” Lujan, and later Judithe Hernández, all of whom are included in the show. With a nod to Frida Kahlo’s 1938 painting “What the Water Gave Me,” Almaraz creates an expressionistic map of personal, enigmatic moments. Magu’s screenprint “Cruising Turtle Island” (1986) fuses indigenous symbols and animal deities with custom car culture. Most Angelenos are familiar with Eloy Torrez’s 1984 mural in downtown LA depicting Mexican-born actor Anthony Quinn (Manuel Antonio Rodolfo Quinn Oaxaca) in his role as Zorba the Greek from the 1964 film. The image is reproduced here in Torrez’s 2011 painting “The Pope of Broadway,” which pays homage to the intersection of two facets of LA: Hollywood and the Mexican American community.
Although L.A. Memo features a diverse range of media, printmaking features prominently. During the Chicano Movement and the Moratorium, printmaking emerged as a democratic medium that could inexpensively and quickly disseminate ideas and images. Several prominent artists are represented here through prints, including Gronk, Herrón, Barbara Carrasco, and John Valadez. Many of these were printed by Self-Help Graphics, an influential community-based printmaking studio founded in 1973, although this is not highlighted in any of the exhibition text, a notable oversight given the role that Self-Help Graphics has played in producing and promoting Chicana/o art.
There are other omissions, like the late photographer Laura Aguilar, who documented her LGBTQ+ Latina/o community candidly and unapologetically. But L.A. Memo is not a comprehensive survey. Rather, it is a starting point to reconsider an expansive vision of Chicana/o art. Those hoping for a singular answer to what Chicana/o art is will likely leave with more questions, and that’s a good thing. “One thing they all had in common,” Karen Crews, senior curator at LA Plaza says of the artists in the show, “[is that] they didn’t have to ask permission.”
L.A. Memo: Chicana/o Art From 1972-1989 continues at LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes (501 North Main Street, Downtown, Los Angeles) through August 14. The exhibition was organized by AltaMed and LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, and guest curated by Rafael Barrientos Martínez, AltaMed curatorial assistant, Collections.