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1970s L.A. Chicano Conceptual Art Group Gets its Due

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I'm worried. The internet is not a history book and if the book is dead, maybe so will be the exploits of ASCO. For the time being there's hope. I got my hands on a copy of the exhibition catalogue, "ASCO: Elite of the Obscure, A Retrospective, 1972-1987." The show is currently on display at the L.A. County Museum of Art.

My fingertips gorge as they read the raised, printed images on the cover: an old razor blade, Patssi Valdez's piercing eyes inside two lips. I thumb through some of the 432 pages like a deck of cards -- the house always wins -- and there on pages 258 and 259, a two-page spread of a photograph depicting that which has become legendary in the Latino art world: the 1972 graffiti spray painting of a wall outside LACMA. The placazo heard around the Chicano world. The four ASCO founding members are represented: Harry Gamboa Jr., Gronk, Willie Herron with their spray painted tags, and Patssi Valdez standing behind the chest-high wall white wall, looking to her left, at someone or something coming, maybe in the distance of time.

As Marcel Duchamp signed a urinal and made it art, the four artists signed LACMA and turned it into the largest piece of Chicano art. It was a response to a curator having told one of the members that Chicanos didn't belong in the museum's galleries. ASCO outdid Duchamp.

I was out of town last Wednesday so I couldn't sip the wine and chew the cheese at LACMA's opening for the show. I emailed a few people to hear how it went and to hear about how the exhibit deals with the lesser known members of the group. I've written about ASCO here and there. A few weeks ago The New York Times published a lengthy article about ASCO's current show. It was meant to bring New Yorkers and non-Chicanos up to date. The article hit all the points well known in these parts: the LACMA graffiti, the founders all met at Garfield High School, the first happenings as marriage of civil rights politics and conceptual art, and in one long sentence near the end of the article a reference to a sizeable group of collaborators and the group's implosion due to longstanding rivalries and grudges.

Who were these collaborators? What did they do? Why couldn't everyone get along? The last time I'd heard anything significant on the topic was four years ago from then-L.A. Weekly reporter Daniel Hernandez. His lengthy piece caused some former ASCO members to spit at the very mention of his name.

Hernandez's article reported the fissures that have turned into San Andreas-sized faults between the four founding members of the group and the more numerous ASCO collaborators who joined to various degrees later. Their calzones are in a twist over credit, who deserves it and for what. Some of the artists who joined ASCO later or contributed serious work to the group feel that the founding members have erased their participation in essays and other documentary writing. Some of the founding members believe the collaborators were part of a junior varsity ASCO.

Hernandez's article may read as gossip and soap opera but on my re-reading of it four years later I find that he plays it down the middle much more than I remembered. He went out and talked to as many people as possible to get a broader picture of the story.

So, how does this LACMA art show reconcile any of the fissures? It seems like the only time all the ASCO members and collaborators will be on the same page is being on the same pages of the exhibition catalogue. The curators of the exhibition, Rita Gonzalez and C. Ondine Chavoya, told me by email that giving the collaborators credit was an important part of their curatorial work.

"The core members Valdez, Gamboa, Gronk, Herrón, and quite frequently Humberto Sandoval and Diane Gamboa, were present over the fifteen years of Asco's activity while others might have been intensely involved for two or three years (Marisela Norte, Sean Carrillo, Daniel Villarreal, Consuelo Flores, Maria Elena Gaitán, Barbara Carrasco, etc, etc). There are many artists and performers who also developed their work in conversation with Asco, such as Jerry Dreva, Louis Jacinto, Teddy Sandoval, and Ricardo Valverde. We were well aware that we could not produce the definitive or comprehensive account of the extent of all contributions to Asco by these various participants. That, we hope, is for future scholarship and through exhibitions and stagings of Asco's scripted performances."

Several members won't talk about it, to me at least. "I do not discuss anything to do with the entity called asco," is what accomplished artist and UC Irvine professor Daniel Joseph Martinez emailed me.

Diane Gamboa, sister of ASCO founder Harry Gamboa Jr., isn't happy with the current show.

"It is obvious that the macho con game in manipulating history continues. I was a significant member of Asco from 1980 to 1987, not just one of the many collaborators or groupies. The popular elite Chicano Art Culture of 2011 and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art selected to shun the Chicana / female involvement, voice and creative expression within the Asco period. Is this part of the dumbing down of society in general or is it simply sleazy?" is what Gamboa emailed me.

The catalogue is chock full of photos, oral histories, and academic evaluations of the paintings, performances, music, and happenings staged by the group over a decade and a half.

Since its founding, most of what young Chicanos knew about ASCO was piecemeal through a few group show art catalogues, second hand accounts, and a lot of myths about the East L.A. group that rocked the L.A. art house for 15 years.

Photo Courtesy of LACMA
Photo Courtesy of LACMA

Poet Consuelo Flores participated in ASCO movies and performances. She said lots of people came up to her at the LACMA opening surprised that she'd been in the group.

"Many of the artists who weren't necessarily featured in the show - or historically for that matter - are actually very well known in their own right and within their specific community - I count myself among them. The fact that a general public may not know of their participation in this group has more to do with the way the group has been promoted than it has to do with the specific work of these individuals. I understand the limitations the curators had with trying to present the entire work of this group. Would I have done it differently - yes, but I also have a vested interest in the way it would have been presented. Each person who was at some point part of ASCO served the group at that specific point in time. And for better or for worse, we each took something from that experience as well. The fact that everyone - except the original four - was less featured is because of the way the group was marketed. Perception is reality and the perception continues to be that despite what work was done by other important artists as part of ASCO, the original four were going to be the focus because that was who ASCO was," Flores told me by email.

On page 324 in the catalogue Joey Terrill's fake magazine cover screams "Homeboy Beautiful" and "Homo-Homeboys!" around the picture of a dark haired, dark mustachioed, young Latino man. It's just one of several queer collaborations that are part of the ASCO story. By email Terrill told me he saw the exhibition on opening night and liked it a lot.

the curators have done a great job in presenting as comprehensive an overview of the work generated by ASCO especially given the ephemeral and conceptual strategies that they employed which resist not just categorization but the accumulation of "art objects" usually showcased in museums. I believe the show does a pretty good job in putting their output in the context of the times both culturally and politically. I was also pleased to be present as LACMA the institution recognized the contribution of ASCO as the homegrown art phenom that it was. For years LA seemed to turn a blind eye to the creative output in their own backyard even as ASCO members (and "Chicano art" in general) received more investigation and review in other countries and cities.

The rap is that European museums and curators have been more interested in the merits of Chicano art from the get go.

Gonzalez tells me this isn't the final telling of the ASCO story. Wow. Really? What other hometown museum will put this much work and resources (Williams College of Art co-organized the show) to an exhaustive showing of the group? The contemporary art museum on Bunker Hill that will soon be exhibiting the black and white photos of Weegee's years in Los Angeles?

"We are really lucky that the Asco retrospective is happening in tandem with Pacific Standard Time. Asco and the work of their peers in Chicano art, performance art, and conceptual art, will be included in the shows at the Fowler (by the curatorial team at UCLA's Chicano Studies Research Center), the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, the Orange County Museum of Art, and the Museum of Latin American Art. Although ours might be the largest, none of the curators working with this material could ever represent the long ranging and complex history that is Asco or Chicano art history, for that matter. Looking at the exhibition walls, Ondine and I see there are so many other curatorial approaches that one could formulate out of the art works on the checklist--so many different approaches."

That's the beauty of laying it all out in black and white and with a nice cover. In the following decades the catalogue of the ASCO retrospective may reach the hands of someone with Gonzalez's sky's-the-limit attitude. After all, as the story goes, it was only 40 years ago that a LACMA curator told two young Chicanos that art by people like them didn't belong in the museum.

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