Harry Gamboa Jr. is sipping coffee in Philippe's, the downtown deli he's been using as his unofficial office for years. A few blocks away, the Los Angeles River separates the central city from East L.A., where he grew up--a neighborhood he has come to see as an "urban desert."
"I don't mean to imply that it's a negative place," he says, "although of course a desert can be dangerous. But if you can adapt to this harsh environment you can have fun, even though it makes you grow scales, spines and a thick skin."
Gamboa certainly adapted.
One of five children in a poor Mexican immigrant family that settled in L.A. in the late '40s, he was raised speaking Spanish, then plunked into an English-speaking school that had little patience with his language difficulties. Perpetually at odds with authority figures at school and on the streets, he remembers that by the time he graduated from high school all he wanted to do was "explode." What he did instead was become an artist, a course that was set early in life.
"When I was 6 years old, some gang members in our neighborhood rounded up a bunch of us small kids and forced us to watch them stab a guy to death," Gamboa, 43, recalls. "I realized then that gangs weren't for me."
Nonetheless, the odds were still against Gamboa going on to make 29 videos, one of which--"L.A. Familia"--will be included in next year's Whitney Biennial in New York. He's also written several plays (one of which was produced at the Los Angeles Theatre Center), landed two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, a grant from the J. Paul Getty Trust Fund for the Visual Arts, taught video at UC San Diego, and contributed a story to the catalogue for MOCA's 1992 exhibition "Helter Skelter." Tonight, his multimedia, interdisciplinary exhibition "The Urban Desert" opens at Cal State L.A. as part of LAX/94.
Working extensively in photography, Gamboa draws on cultural experience and politics for his work. However, he doesn't assume the overtly nationalist stance of many Chicano artists. Instead, his work has an experimental, avant-garde flavor that seems to have little to do with his upbringing. But then again . . .
"I barely graduated from high school, and from the first grade on only attended 50% of the time," says Gamboa. "When I first went to school I was given some construction paper and told to make a cone. The teacher wrote something on it and put it on my head, and told me to sit in front of the class. The word she'd written was Spanish , and she told me I could take it off when I learned to speak English. That was my first conflict at school, and for the next 12 years my rage increased every time I got slapped or kicked by the police or school administrators, or saw those things happen to my friends.
"I went to Garfield High School, which was very racist and anti-Mexican--in fact, all of East L.A. was extremely segregated then," continues the artist, who now lives in Silver Lake. "I was constantly organizing and putting out newspapers and flyers, and in the '60s I was involved in the early Chicano movement that led to many L.A. schools being temporarily shut-down.
"This Chicano activism was part of a larger anti-Vietnam War/civil rights movement--and unfortunately, the goals of the '60s haven't been achieved. In fact, we've lost ground since then and young Chicanos have a whole new set of problems now. The negative stereotypes haven't gone away--they've just changed. The stereotype used to be that we were simplistic, passive peasants with hat in hand, or super-loyal sidekicks; now we're seen as gang members, or illegal aliens trying to get into the country so they can become gang members.
"There wasn't much on the walls of the house I grew up in," says Gamboa, charting his early exposure to art. "But my mother's a great storyteller, my dad drew caricatures all the time, and he worked as a printer so we always had lots of colored paper in the house--we were always making collages." (Something in the household was obviously hospitable to art; one sister, Diane, is a painter, and another, Linda, is a poet and video performer.)
Art and political activism began to coalesce for Gamboa in 1972 when he co-founded ASCO with fellow artists Patssi Valdez, Gronk and Willie Herron. A guerrilla performance group with a disparate range of influences that stretched from the Mexican muralists to glitter rock, ASCO staged confrontational works about problems in the Chicano community.
"I don't think art can bring about real social change, but it can bring about subtle changes in attitude and that belief drove ASCO," says Gamboa of the group, which functioned until 1975, then re-formed occasionally for special events until 1987 when it formally disbanded. Since then, Gamboa has worked largely on his own; the Cal State show, however, incorporates the efforts of 40 people and includes performances. It marks a return to large-scale collaboration for an artist who has spent recent years concentrating on a more solitary form.
"Writing is central to everything I do, but oddly enough, I've been influenced more by filmmakers than by writers," says Gamboa, who plans to begin working on a novel after "The Urban Desert" closes. "Luis Bunuel, Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles and Buster Keaton have been hugely important for me--and the cartoons 'Heckle and Jeckle' and 'Screwball Squirrel' are in there too," he says with a laugh.
That range of influences is central to Gamboa's ability to draw on the duality of his culture in a highly personal manner, and to create experimental works that exude a quality of cool, cerebral detachment.
"I always identify myself as a Chicano in my work because I think it's necessary," he says, reflecting on the through-line in his work. "I see what I do as part of an ongoing Chicano movement and I've never intentionally made a work that wasn't political. I wouldn't say that I see myself as part of an oppressed minority, but I do think my particular group of people has been subjected to a lot of disinformation.
"I'm less angry about that now though," he adds. "One of the hard lessons I learned is that if you get angry and stay angry you get sick. I don't want to get sick so I avoid people and situations that make me angry. I've learned I need to maintain a level of stability in order to be a functioning artist, and I seem to be learning how to do that."
* "The Urban Desert" opens tonight at Cal State L.A., 5151 State University Drive with performances of "Eclipse" at 7 and ' ' Back Stabbing Party" at 8. "Pix Nix" will be performed Dec. 1 at 7 p.m. Information: (213) 343-4042.