Scope, Scale, and Narratives of Identity in Axis Mundo and Radical Women in Pacific Standard Time: Latin America/Los Angeles

by Christina Yglesias


Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA is a sixteen million dollar Getty Institute initiative to put Latin American and Latino art in conversation with Los Angeles and the surrounding areas. Over seventy exhibitions, film screenings, concerts, and other public events at various museums, galleries, and institutions began in November 2018 and will run until February 2018. Some shows are monographic (Laura Aguilar: Show and Tell at the Vincent Price Art Museum and Playing with Fire: Paintings by Carlos Almaraz at the LACMA, for example) while others are broad surveys, ranging in topics from pre-columbian luxury craft and art (Golden Kingdoms: Luxury and Legacy in the Ancient Americas at the Getty Center) to video art in Latin America from the 1960’s to the present (Video art in Latin America at LAXART).

This essay will focus on two of these exhibitions, Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960-1985, curated by Cecelia Fajardo Hill and Andrea Giunta, at the Hammer Museum and Axis Mundo: Queer Networks in Chicano L.A., presented by the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives at the USC Libraries and curated by David Evans Frantz and C. Ondine Chavoya at the MOCA Pacific Design Center. Both exhibitions are focused on, and limited to, artists of a particular identity group, Latin American and Latina women artists in Radical Women and Chicano LGBTQ artists and their collaborators in Axis Mundo. The chronology and time frames of the two exhibitions are nearly identical, both focusing on the politically and socially significant period of the late 20th century. Radical Women focuses on work created between 1960 to 1985 and Axis Mundo’s works range from 1960’s to the 1990s. Both exhibitions deal with identity, politics, and allow previously suppressed, untold, and marginalized histories to emerge. In fact, Axis Mundo is the first ever exhibition focused on Queer Chicano art and Radical Women is the largest and most ambitious exhibition of Latin American and Latina artists in the United States to date. This effort to append art history manifests itself distinctly in the two shows. Radical Women presents a huge breadth and amount of work to open up many possible conversations and starting points for further research. Axis Mundo’s much more narrow scope allows an accurate and cohesive representation of a specific, localized community of queer Chicanx artists at a particular moment in time. The limited parameters of Axis Mundo makes it a more successful show, presenting viewers with a cohesive aesthetic and narrative. Radical Women’s broad scope prevents a clear aesthetic or narrative from emerging, leading to viewer confusion and fatigue.

One of the main differences between the two shows is their scale and geographic scope. Axis Mundo focuses in on about fifty Chicanx artists living and working in Los Angeles (with the exception of a few artists who were in connection and dialogue with Los Angeles, but did not live there. One such example is Pauline Oliveros, who was born in Texas and spent most of her career in Oakland and San Diego.) Many of the artists in the show knew one another and worked together, such as Patssi Valdez and Gronc of the collective ASCO. Axis Mundo includes individual works by Valdez and Gronc as well as work created by ASCO. Many of the artists lived in East Los Angeles and showed work at the same alternative arts venues such as LACE (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions), Self Help Graphics and & Art in Boyle Heights, and Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center in Venice Beach. Axis Mundo focuses on the creation of community between artists, showing us portraits of them together, zines they collectively created, and mail art they sent back and forth to one another. A cohesive sense of community emerges between the artists and the works. The wall texts and curatorial statement both emphasize these connections.

For example, two seemingly very different works, Tongue Tied by Roberto Gil de Montes and the No-Movie postcards by ASCO are linked through the context given to them by the show’s wall texts. Tongue Tied is a large black and white photographic print of a bound body lying in a field. Wires connect from the covered head of the figure in the image, which lead to the floor below the print and connect to two preserved goat’s tongues. It is a violent image, evoking political oppression, torture, and censorship. The wall text also links the etymology of the slur 'faggot' to bundles of wood that were used to burn heretics, an association that was drawn upon during the gay liberation movement.

Just a few steps away, ASCO’s No-Movie postcards are one of the many examples of mail art in the show. The postcards are arranged as a group in vertical, free standing glass, so viewers can look at both the front of the postcards and the back to see the addresses and any handwritten notes. ASCO created promotional images and stills of movies that did not, and never would, exist. The individual images evoke open-ended narratives and comment upon the lack of Chicanos in mainstream media and Hollywood. Many of the images are glamorous, full of narrative potential and have an undercurrent of sexuality and eroticism. In one postcard, No-Movie A La Mode, Patssi Valdez poses atop a table, perhaps in a diner, dressed in a white v-neck dress, black gloves, and glitzy makeup. She gazes directly into the camera, chin slightly up, with an assertive air. One gloved hand rests on her elegantly crossed legs, the other, on Gronk’s shoulder, perhaps protectively or sensually. He leans against her, eyes closed, while Henry Gamboa stands in the background observing the scene and also gazing into the camera. The postcard bears a red stamp atop the black and white image, which reads in all capital letters, “CHICANO CINEMA/ASCO”. The narrative and generic potential of this image could go in many directions. A gritty and sexy crime drama, an American road trip movie, a complex romance all seem like possibilities evoked by this constructed still of the non-existent film.

While Tongue Tied and the No-Movie postcards are materially, conceptually, and thematically very different works, the wall texts connects the two by outlining that Tounge Tied was originally created for ASCO’s No-Movie show, which they had promoted with these postcards, at 1978 at LACE in downtown LA. Displayed next to Tongue-Tied is a portrait of Roberto Gil de Montes posing and performing with the piece in its original installation at the No-Movie Exhibition. He lays below the print, wires extending from the print to his supine body. This photograph was taken by Gronc of ASCO, and makes up part of a series of artists with their work at LACE. Since much of the work created at LACE was ephemeral in nature, these portraits take on greater historical and archival significance.

The works in Axis Mundo are not being placed into conversation with one another for the first time through the exhibition. They were originally shown together, calling attention once again to the existing ties between the artists. The curation from the ONE archives allows the full scope of LA’s queer Chicano community activity to emerge cohesively for the first time. Since the work is already linked, conceptual connections can then be made between Chicano exclusions from media representation in ASCO’s work to larger systems of political violence and oppression in Latin America and the US in Gil de Montes’ work. A theme of silencing emerges, with both works speaking to and against this method of oppression. In the context of the Gay Rights movement and the AIDS epidemic of the 80s and 90s, ideas of silence take on further weight. The Gay Rights movement challenged the lack of action and silence of the government, health organizations, and the Catholic church in the face of the AIDS epidemic, which deeply affected queer Chicano communities. These connections in Axis Mundo allow viewers to enter in a deep dialogue with the subject matter of the works. Additionally, a cohesive narrative of what LA’s queer Chicano community and artistic production was like in the 70s, 80’s, and 90’s is revealed in the show. Although the show includes a range of mediums, namely painting, film and video, mail art, zines, and ephemera and documentations of performances, an overall aesthetic emerges. The LA queer Chicano aesthetic is one that is DIY (do-it-yourself), sometimes campy and/or satirical, references and refigures popular culture, and tied to both activism and punk.

In contrast to the fifty Chicano artists in Axis Mundo, Radical Women includes over one hundred artists from many countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as Chicana artists such as Judy Baca, Laura Aguilar, and, once again, Patssi Valdez. The show represents twenty-three artists from Brazil, sixteen artists from Argentina and Mexico, respectively, fourteen artists from Columbia, thirteen artists from Chile, eleven artists from the United States, seven artists from Venezuela, four artists from Cuba and Peru, respectively, two artists from Uruguay, Paraguay, and Puerto Rico, respectively, and one artist from Guatemala, one from Panama, and one from Costa Rica. Due to this vast geography, many of the artists have spent their careers working in isolation from one another. Cecelia Fajardo Hill, one of the curators of Radical Women, pointed out that although, as an art historian,  she saw the artists as being in conversation with one another, many of them met for the first time at the opening of the show. Radical Women seeks to put work and artists that were previously separated in conversation with one another, creating connections and unifying artists under the theme of radical Latin American and Latina women.

The massive amount of works in Radical Women is grouped not by these different countries of origin or chronologically, but thematically. This grouping strategy is what places the disparately created works in relationship to one another. The nine themes of the show are: The Self Portrait, Body Landscape, Performing the Body, Mapping the Body, Resistance and Fear, The Power of Words, Feminisms, Social Places, and the Erotic. Two very different works, created by artists from two different countries, organized under the theme, Resistance and Fear, will illustrate how the curatorial groupings create connection. The description of the Resistance and Fear theme, as found in the exhibition catalog is as follows:

With unapologetic force, the artists in this section approach in their artworks the extreme violence practiced by oppressive political regimes. As powerful forms of resistance, these works stand against officially sanctioned methods of instilling fear and record traumatic events that official archives have failed to document (Fajardo-Hill, et al. 2017 49).

Popsicles (1982-1984) by Gloria Camiruaga is a single channel video that explores the connection between children, innocence, the Catholic Church, and military rule from a Chilean perspective. The video depicts the artist’s two young daughters licking popsicles and repeating the Hail Mary prayer ad nauseam. The video is projected relatively largely (compared to the small video monitors that we see in other parts of the show) and utilizes speakers rather than headphones, so the videos sound moves through the space, greeting the viewer before they arrive at the piece. As the video continues, a toy soldier frozen inside each popsicle is revealed as the girls lick away the outer portions of the popsicles. Their mouths and tongues turn garishly colorful with the red and blue of the popsicles. When they are done eating, they place the toy soldiers on the Chilean flag. Watching the gesture of licking, combined with the young age and gender of the subjects, makes the watching feel transgressive and even perverse. A child eating ice cream is an emblematically innocent image of childhood, which is flipped on its head and given new meaning in this work. The political context that Camiragua is responding to with this work is the period of violence and instability in Chile after the military coup of 1973 that overthrew the elected leftist party headed by Salvador Allende. The coup resulted in the exile of many Chileans and the repression of leftist ideas in the country through torture and violence. The imagery of the toy soldier in Popsicles suggests the impossibility of innocence in a violent state, doubly so for women and girls. The recitation of the Hail Mary implicates the Catholic church in this violence, repression, and loss of innocence.

Y con uno lazes me izaron (And they lifted me up with a rope), 1977 is a painting by Sonia Gutiérrez that utilizes a pop art aesthetic to represent torture and violence in Colombia. (A total of five of her paintings of this style and subject matter are featured in the show, but this essay will focus on only Y con unos lazos me izaron as an example.) The painting is relatively large compared to many of the other works in the show (and on the surrounding wall space), giving it a noticeable presence and importance. Guiterrez’ works are also some of the few examples of painting in a show that is overwhelming comprised of photo, video, and film works (including performance works documented by photography or film/video), making it stand out further.

Y con unos lazos me izaron depicts the figure of a woman, tied to a rope by her ankles, hanging upside down. Gutierrez cites the case of Olga Lopez, a doctor who was jailed and tortured by the military after allegedly aiding a wounded guerrilla fighter of the leftist M-19 group, as the basis for this work. The background is a neutral green and the figure’s dress, or perhaps nightgown, is a cheery purple with a flowered pattern. We do not see the subject’s face, and the painting is comprised of solid blocks of color and graphic, expressive lines, evoking illustration, comic books, and pop art. The dissonance of the cheery aesthetic with the disturbing, slightly abstracted, subject matter of torture is poignant. Pop Art’s usual association with American commodity culture, as exemplified with the work of Andy Warhol, is re-contextualized with this imagery of violence in Colombia. The violence in Colombia at the time of this painting was due largely to the drug trafficking, which was amplified by political corruption and militia groups. It is important to note, especially with the adoption and reimagining of an American pop art aesthetic in Guitiérez’ work, that US consumption of cocaine played a huge role in the narco-trafficking trade and violence in Colombia.

The thematic grouping of Popsicles, and y con uno lazes me izaron, and of all of the works under the nine themes in Radical Women, creates connections but it also runs the risk of flattening, rather than expanding meaning. Popsicles, and y con unos lazos me izaron utilize different materials, aesthetics, and methods to make visible and challenge violence and oppression in their respective countries of origin, Chile and Colombia. The risk of placing these works together, along with hundreds of other works from Latin America and the US, is that the specific contexts will become muddled or lost completely. The further risk of this loss of context is that existing stereotypes or dominant narratives of Latin America may unintentionally become reinforced by the show. Racist, US imperialist, and colonialist narratives often paint a picture of Latin America as a dangerous, corrupt, and exotic third-world, rather than a complex continent of many different countries with distinct cultures and histories. Radical Women may unintentionally reinforce aspects of this harmful narrative. The sheer amount and variety of work in the show was intended to append an exclusive art history that has previously barred women, especially Latin American and Latina women, from scholarship, recognition, and visibility. However, this same vastness also contributes to viewer fatigue, which leads to a dissolving of context for the individual works and artists, which is of utmost importance when dealing with political work like the ones discussed.

The so-called multicultural moment of the 1980’s and 1990’s began the work (and subsequent debates on the role of identity politics and art institutions) of inclusion of more artists of color, women, and artists with alternative practices In 2017, that work is still being continued, especially as MFA programs and education at large open their doors a more diverse body of students. One might think that showing more works by more artists will do a better job of rewriting and appending an art history that has long ignored all but a few Latinx and Chicanx artists in the dominant narratives. Axis Mundo and Radical Women, in comparison to one another, show the opposite effect. Axis Mundo is more successful in contributing a clear, yet still expansive, narrative and aesthetic of Queer Chicano Art in Los Angeles from the 1960’s to the 1990’s through the limitations of its scope and its emphasis on connections between works and artists. Radical Women, while an important show to give exposure and scholarship to more Latin American and Latina women artists, its scale and thematic organization confuses the viewer as much as it exposes those works and artists to that viewer.

Works Cited

Fajardo-Hill, Cecilia, et al. Radical Women Latin American Art, 1960-1985. Prestel, 2017.