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No escaping politics at L.A. exhibition of Mexican-American art

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"When we were conceptualizing the show, the social and political moments were a bit more in the distance," says Rita Gonzalez, LACMA assistant curator for special exhibitions. "But as we started to install the show, things like the Barack Obama speech [about race] happened as well as the debate over the triple-border fence."

All these things, she says, are giving the show a new urgency and casting an important national spotlight on the subtext of the show. "We hope to make this culture a bit more discernible or less phantom," says Howard Fox, LACMA curator of contemporary art, "by asking people to question what they think they know about this group."

The show opens with a nod to the artists who birthed the Chicano art movement, a radical group of young Mexican-American guerrilla street artists known as Asco (Spanish for "nausea"). The collective put itself on the city's cultural map in 1972 after being told by the LACMA curators of the day that the reason Chicano art was not on display inside the museum was that Chicano creativity "wasn't art."

Those were fighting words to the young Harry Gamboa, who, along with his youthful cohorts, decided to take Chicano art to LACMA. They spray-painted the front of the museum in the style of graffiti taggers of the day.

Photos of their handiwork open the show. Mr. Gamboa, the spiritual godfather of Chicano art, offers contextual perspective about the exhibition that follows. "I found that Chicanos were put in a bad light, never identified as human beings," says the artist, who grew up on the mean streets of east Los Angeles. "They are always identified as a single group, and not covalued as any other group in America is."

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