Boys of Summer, an art collective with origins in the Inland Empire, is one of the few in the Los Angeles area that addresses the experience of living in the area. The individual artists in the collective also engage with this theme in their own work; each grew up in the IE — Southern California shorthand for the immense and often amorphously defined region that has become an amalgam of bedroom communities and a hinterland of logistics operations for the likes of Amazon. The region is home to big-box warehouses, diesel trucks and working class neighborhoods; gravel pits, train yards, and here and there, some remaining working farms. Often seen in L.A. as another world, geographically isolated and culturally backward, the IE often suffers from an image problem.
Boys of Summer implicitly address the Inland Empire’s fraught relationship to Los Angeles. “We get the joke: People from the IE are less sophisticated, lifted-truck obsessed, trashy,” says Chet Glaze, who first exhibited with Boys of Summer in 2009 for a small show in San Francisco. But, he adds, it’s not without reason that Angelenos look down on IE residents. He knows the territory as well as anyone. Born in Fontana and raised in Bloomington, his family has been in the area since the 1950s. The generalizations, he says, are based on real-life examples.
Boys of Summer have been collectively exploring these themes since the early 2000s when Ryan Perez and Kristofferson San Pablo exhibited their work together in a Chino Hills skate shop. The crew began expanding shortly after. Most of them met in their early twenties while they were studying at Cal State San Bernardino (Perez and San Pablo have been “chilling” together since they were in the 6th grade). In addition to the two founding members, Perez and San Pablo, Glaze, Mark Batongmalaque, Emilio Santoyo and Conrad Ruiz are also regular contributors. Other artists have rotated in periodically. Photographer and artist Minami Haynes collaborated on a zine; Jenny Ziomek, Elizabeth Renstrom, BFGF and Kara Joslyn have also worked with Boys of Summer.
Part of life in the IE that is reflected by Boys of Summer is the immigrant experience. The region is so vast, Ruiz says, that it contains within it a great diversity of stories. He points out that the neighborhoods of Fontana and Rialto were once predominantly Italian and dotted with vineyards. And though it is more densely developed now, he says, “it continues to be a little bit cowboy, a little bit suburbia.” And it continues to sustain immigrants. “Most of the recent waves have been Mexican and Filipino, which sums up a lot of the group. Although our work is not specifically about that, it does create a framework to develop our perspective,” Ruiz says.
San Pablo echoes these interests. “Our conversations usually come from a place of responding to the world and the culture around us. Definitely, with the current political climate, we do have discussions about those things, particularly about diversity, race,” he says. “It's pretty cool that we're all different persons of color—two Filipinos, one Filipino-Mexican, two Mexicans, and one white—making work. That’s also something we talk about a lot, especially pertaining to the art world, art history and the lack of diversity it has.”
The group came together and began to cohere, especially as it expanded beyond the original two members, over shared experience and mutual respect. According to Perez, they all shared the inclination and the ability to question authority — authority, he says, that “always directed unmerited questions toward us, no matter how young, old, innocent or guilty we were.” And those questions continued throughout college, where their experiences “not only paralleled this troubling institutional structure, but it also magnified this sense of displaced authority, in that all of our art teachers came from very different cultural backgrounds from us,” Perez explains.
They found examples elsewhere. Ruiz’s work in particular addresses tropes of masculinity. Television and pop-culture influenced that direction from an early age. His interest in drawing the figure was shaped by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and G.I. Joe. The museum exhibition “Beautiful Losers,” which “brought in perspectives from outside the capital A art world, such as graffiti, gang and skate culture,” was also a singularly important influence, Ruiz says. “It was exciting to see art that had a conversation with our experiences — hip-hop, punk, drugs, gangs, violence — and that it was possible to develop a voice and have it be relevant.”
The influence of popular culture features prominently in their work. Perez responds to the region’s car culture with photographs of donut-marks on asphalt and fetish mixed-media works featuring automotive curves and finishes. The “super elite” car culture — as Glaze remembers it, “you had to have a lot of social capital to be in one of the car clubs, even if you had a nice car” — is a cousin to the machismo culture that San Pablo’s homoerotic drawings mirthfully subvert. Glaze’s paintings esoterically examine the influence of Disney.
Glaze, whose studio is in Riverside, still lives in the Inland Empire; the others continue to maintain ties to the area through family and frequent visits. Perez doesn’t consider the art that’s being made there to be different than art that’s being made in other places. “What we don’t have is money,” he observes, “art collectors don’t live in the IE. But that doesn’t stop people from making art, and trust me, there’s a lot of really good art being made in the IE.”
None of them have any special reverence for Los Angeles. “I have always believed that art is meant to represent the different cultures that the people of the city bring to the community. Sadly, in Los Angeles, you’re not going to get this experience with art because most major art museums are barely starting to acknowledge the work of under-represented cultures within the arts, even though these are the cultures that make up the majority of the Southern California landscape,” Perez asserts.
Batongmalaque thinks of their work as critiquing LA and the IE equally. “There’s a lack of luster with both places,” he says. None of them are “enamored with either one,” he adds. “LA isn’t metropolitan enough to shake off its marriage to the suburbs that serve it. The work we make is a byproduct of going back and forth between both places seamlessly.”
Santoyo, who left the IE for Pasadena when he started college, finds it a remarkable region: “It’s a place with a crazy and unique visual library. Ninety-eight percent of the images I create can be tied back to something I’ve seen, or experienced, or heard [while] growing up there.”
Top Image: Kristofferson San Pablo Install | Boys of Summer