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Instant Mural (1974) Courtesy of LACMA

Asco: Elite of the Obscure at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)

Megan Hoetger | University of California, Berkeley

Asco: Elite of the Obscure, A Retrospective, 1972-1987. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA, September 4 to December 4, 2011; Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown, MA, February 4 to July 29, 2012.

Asco, Instant Mural (1974) Courtesy of LACMA

The art collective Asco (Sp. “disgust”) was formed in 1972 by East Los Angeles-based artists Harry Gamboa Jr., Willie F. Herrón III, Gronk (Glugio Nicandro), and Patssi Valdez. The group first met as students at Garfield High School and by 1970 were producing the political journal Regeneración. In 1972, they began to perform collective actions, such as the now infamous Spray Paint LACMA (1972), in which the artists claimed the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) as a readymade art object, tagging their names on the campus’s east footbridge. In this act, Gamboa, Gronk, and Herrón simultaneously evoked the Duchampian gesture of authorship and marked their territory, as would a gang. The next day, shortly before the signatures were painted over, Gamboa photographed Valdez next to the names, inserting her—via the image—as the fourth participant. Nearly forty years later, LACMA has mounted Asco: Elite of the Obscure, A Retrospective, 1972-1987, the first major retrospective of the group’s work.1 The exhibition includes materials produced by individual members and collaborators, but the primary focus is on their collaborative works, outlining a sprawling body of experimental photographic, filmic, performance, print publication, and mail art projects.

A work such as Spray Paint LACMA not only points to the interventionist origins of Asco and their antagonistic relation to LACMA and the museum apparatus, but also reveals the political stakes involved in their conceptual gestures as members of a marginalized community operating in a hostile environment. In 1970, the same year the four artists began working on Regeneración, 30,000 demonstrators from around the United States marched through the streets of East L.A. in an anti-Vietnam War protest. This action, known as the 1970 Chicano Moratorium, was a turning point for the community, galvanizing a sense of shared identity, history, and voice. It was against this backdrop, as well as other protests and cultural movements happening across the country, that Asco was formed. Like many other collective and collaborative groups operating in that period, Asco’s “work” resides primarily in the archives, such as the photograph and accompanying story that constitute Spray Paint LACMA. It is, in fact, the quite intentional defining of the center (the “work”) through its peripheries (the supposedly “supplemental” materials of the archive) that characterizes much of Asco’s production.

Gronk, Untitled (ca.1978) Courtesy of LACMA

The shifting relation between work and supplement can be seen in a general move from the group’s early street actions, to their No Movies, and into their later Fotonovelas. In street actions such as Walking Mural (1972), Instant Mural (1974), First Supper (After a Major Riot) (1974), and Decoy Gang War Victim (1974), the notions of center and periphery take on political dimensions as the group enacted the peripheral cultural politics of the Chicano experience―from the Catholic tradition to urban street violence. Already in this early work one sees a combining of glam, punk, and queer underground cultures with symbols of Chicano identity and a muralist tradition. In Instant Mural, a now quintessential image in the history of performance, we see a highly posed Patssi Valdez in New Wave make-up, cut-off denim shorts, and staggeringly high platforms being taped to a wall by an in-motion (although no less chic) Gronk. Documented and circulated internationally in varying formats, different images of Instant Mural were paired with texts in order to pose questions about who is being represented in this piece.

The treatment of artists’ bodies as sites on which to display conflicting and overlapping cultural referents is further emphasized in the performance of personas enacted in Asco’s No Movies, such as The Gores (1974) and À La Mode (1976), in which action was eliminated, such that the “movie” (the presumed work) is constituted by a series of still images (its documents). In À La Mode, a black and white photograph, Valdez provocatively sits on a tabletop with Gronk’s upward-tilted head resting against her and Gamboa leaning against a wall in the background. Shot at Philippe’s, a historical L.A. restaurant, the dramatic scene seems to convey a tension and alienation suggestive of film noir. The psychological drama is broken by the presence of text on the image: the boldly rubber-stamped words “Chicano Cinema/Asco” in red run across the top and a listing of the title and actors along the bottom, recalling the form of the movie poster. But there is no movie. Pointing to the invisibility of the very narrative it promised to make visible for viewers, À La Mode merged the performance with its documents, insistently blurring the line between the two.

Asco,  ASco Goes to the Universe (1975)
Courtesy of LACMA
In continually playing center against periphery, as Chon A. Noriega has noted, the members of Asco, “examine the conceptual dimensions of invisibility rather than fill the void with new or reclaimed iconographies….”2 In other words, rather than making visible any singular or unified history, identity, or even performance, Asco’s projects activate the invisible mechanisms by which identities are performed across images, narratives, and language. Circulating around such invisible centers, the “work” takes the form of materialized supplements, which, in the Derridean notion of the archive, simultaneously produce and record the group’s (non)events.3 Bringing to mind questions such as whose histories are being housed and recorded in archives, as well as who has the agency to determine inclusion and exclusion in these histories, the projects charted in Asco: Elite of the Obscure reveal a practice invested in examining and outing the contours of power along which representation and visibility are formulated. As Derrida explains, “there is no political power without control of the archive....”4 In claiming authorship in the production and construction of the archive, Asco’s works deploy the conceptual underpinnings of invisibility as a means to problematize the very notion of the archive and simultaneously assert the political power of which Derrida speaks.  Amidst the hundreds of works in the retrospective, what one begins to see is a collaborative practice that early on recognized the performative instantiation of identity and, by extension, history and the archives that are presumed to record it.

 


Megan Hoetger is a Los Angeles-based historian, critic, and curator. In 2011 Hoetger completed her M.A. at California State University, Long Beach and was awarded a DAAD summer grant to study and undertake research in Kassel. Hoetger’s work is primarily focused on Viennese Actionism, engaging in current discourses in order to explore the complexities of performing identity(ies) after fascism, although her writing also extends into a number of issues surrounding contemporary performance art practices. In Fall 2012, she will join the Performance Studies program at the University of California, Berkeley. 


Notes
1 The retrospective was part of Pacific Standard Time (PST), an initiative began by the Getty Foundation in 2002 to celebrate the birth of the L.A. art scene. PST  has been described as an unprecedented collaboration of institutions from across California, which includes 68 major museum exhibitions, over 125 gallery exhibitions, and the work of more than 1300 artists. For more information see http://www.pacificstandartime.org.

2 Chon A Noriega, “The Orphans of Modernism,” in Phantom Sightings: Art After the Chicano Movement, edited by Rita Gonzalez, Howanrd N. Fox, and Chon A. Noriega (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2008), 20.

3 This idea is drawn from Jacques Derrida’s “Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression,” Diacritics 25, no. 2 (Summer 1995): 9-63.

4 See the first footnote in Derrida’s “Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression,” 11.