Art review: ‘Asco: Elite of the Obscure, 1972-1987’ at LACMA


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In 1973, the Chicano art-collective called Asco came up with an inventive project that played off the ambiguities of an increasingly media-dominated culture. Called ‘No Movies,’ the works consist of public relations photographs and promotional stills related to movies starring themselves -- albeit movies that do not actually exist.

At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where a thorough and absorbing retrospective of Asco’s work opened on Sunday, one No Movie photograph looks like a scene clipped from working-class Italian Neo-Realist or French New Wave cinema. ‘First Supper (After a Major Riot)’ shows four people -- artists Patssi Valdez, Willie Herrón III, Gronk and occasional Asco contributor Humberto Sandoval -- some wearing masks and all elaborately costumed, partaking of a meal at a table set up on a traffic island beneath a Whittier Blvd. street-sign in East L.A.


A big, baby Jesus-like doll is laid at their feet, a Baroque mirror leaning against the table. Day of the Dead skulls abound, while a stark painting of a headless, spread-eagle figure is propped behind them.

The title’s ‘major riot’ was the 1970 Chicano Moratorium in nearby Laguna Park, an anti-Vietnam War and pro-social justice rally that turned into a notorious police-led melee. Asco’s ‘first supper’ is a kind of secular resurrection -- a determined return to the street as a scene of political activity, years after such action was suppressed.

The No Movie photograph, shot by Harry Gamboa Jr., Asco’s fourth member, poses a trenchant question: What does cultural invisibility mean? The invocation of Hollywood as L.A.’s representative culture industry, plus the absence of an actual movie linked to the photographic image, creates a resounding void that echoes with aching irony. Akin to wondering whether a sound is made in the forest if a tree falls and no one is there to hear it, Asco simultaneously asserts and erases its artistic voice.

Among the most disconcerting (and funniest) No Movie photographs is another showing a beaming, glamorously done-up Valdez clutching an absurd trophy, awarded for her achievement as best actress at the No Movie Awards. Illuminated by a flashbulb’s pop, the over-size trophy is a gilded cobra, its golden hue neatly matching her glittery dress. With the cobra’s inescapable reference to a menacing gang-sign, the prize turns the Oscars into just another tribute from a thuggish art academy -- one that Asco approaches with the same ambivalence that, say, painter Edouard Manet did the French academy a century before, rebuking its awful standards while yearning for its acceptance.

Such is the method of Asco, a Spanish word meaning disgust. Andy Warhol meets Bertolt Brecht under the direction of José Guadalupe Posada, Mexico’s Daumier.

Most of the show’s 172 works are photographs, although several films, a few paintings and sculptures, some posters and assorted ephemera (the cobra!) are also on view. They track collaborations undertaken with another 16 artists -- Jerry Dreva, Diane Gamboa, Cyclona, Louis Jacinto, etc. -- either by Asco as a whole or individual participants, as well as works made individually by the four primary Asco members. A relevant excerpt from ‘Mur murs,’ the 1981 documentary on L.A. graffiti and murals by French filmmaker Agnes Varda that was disappointingly missing from the summer’s ‘Art in the Streets’ exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, is included.


One great feature of the group’s early years, before it fell into evident disarray in the 1980s (Asco finally disbanded in 1987), is how assertively stylish the artists are in the abundant photo-documentation. Posing like bored fashion models around a grungy Malibu sewage drainpipe, Asco put the chic in Chicano. Some of it comes from turning up the heat on cliches of Hollywood glamour; some from post-Pachuco wardrobes; some from the mannered codes of gay drag and punk and more.

The strategy -- for that’s what it appears to be -- is savvy. What could seem more trivial, especially for socially engaged Chicano artists in the politically minded 1970s, than high-style attentiveness to fashionable presentation? The seeming contradiction actually suggests a restive relationship with the newly emergent Chicano art movement. Asco’s work demonstrates a healthy artistic ambivalence toward any organized campaign.

In some respects the Chicano art movement was like any other, whether for art or social justice. Its idealized self-perceptions, claims for legitimacy and creed of acceptable and unacceptable aesthetic propositions inevitably formed. Asco’s artistic queasiness was partly directed toward those limitations, as well as toward easier objections about the larger culture. The group’s best work -- mostly made over five or six focused years, before about 1978 -- found ways to flourish inside Chicano culture and outside it at the same time.

Take ‘Instant Mural,’ among Asco’s best-known works. One photograph shows Valdez, done up to the nines, being taped to a wall by a male figure (Gronk). Shadows of street-signs loom above. He’s a blur of rapid activity; she reacts with melodramatic exaggeration. With the economy and wit of a movie ad, this descendant of an old fotonovela image implies a larger narrative -- ‘The Perils of Pauline,’ relocated from rural train tracks to a barrio street.

A damsel in distress suffers at the hands of a constricting villain, making a sly swipe at traditional gender notions around Mexican machismo. The idealized legacy of modern Mexican murals -- exclusively produced by male artists, empowered to speak through public art -- is upended. In this even-more-modern mural, an actual woman retains her voice, however absurdly held down.

The retrospective was jointly organized by LACMA curator Rita Gonzalez and professor C. Ondine Chavoya at Williams College in Massachusetts, where it travels next. The fat catalog (432 pages) is a bit of an academic slog, but it does chronicle virtually every scrap of Asco material imaginable. ‘Asco: Elite of the Obscure,’ as the handsomely installed show is wryly called, is a prime example of the importance of the Getty-sponsored Pacific Standard Time, charting L.A.’s 1945-1980 art history -- itself a kind of No Movie, now coming to a museum near you. Asco: Elite of the Obscure, A Retrospective, 1972-1987, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., (323) 857-6000. Through Dec. 4. Closed Weds.


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Michele Bachmann is worried about the Renaissance

-- Christopher Knight