They enter the Winchell’s just as the artist Harry Gamboa Jr. instructs: Take a seat anywhere you can, grab a doughnut, and try not to look at the camera.
It’s a picturesque Saturday afternoon in March. Gamboa has gathered some 25 fellow artists, former students and writers, young and old, to participate in the guerrilla-style performance art. The group, neatly dressed all in black, enters the somewhat sad little doughnut shop, a relic of grungier times marooned on Pasadena’s thoroughly gentrified Lake Avenue, and sits among a few bleary-eyed and unsuspecting customers. Arabic newspapers are scattered about the booths.
“Laugh, everyone,” Gamboa says, moving about the tables with his video camera. “On the count of three, I want everyone to laugh a little lightheartedly.”
On the count of three, the performers laugh.
“Quick, everyone go brain-dead.”
Their faces slacken, turn grim and blank.
“What do you think about the war?” Gamboa asks.
The performers ad-lib.
“It’s a distraction.”
“I don’t want to talk about it!”
“I think it should stop.”
The actual Winchell’s customers appear stunned, trapped, but they don’t move. A worker behind the counter seems utterly uninterested. As Gamboa films, two white-haired ladies enter the shop from the ?rear door.
“Can we come in?” one whispers, after hesitating.
Gamboa, out of the corner of an eye, waves them in, signaling that it’s okay. Then he instructs his troupe to leave their half-eaten doughnuts on the tables and walk past him on their way out of the shop, without looking at the camera. The art piece is done. The shop is left silent and hollow once more.
“That was the usual troupe,” Gamboa says outside, characteristically morose and inexplicit in answering what the piece was about. “They only come together momentarily, briefly, and then they all go home alone.”
Harry Gamboa Jr. has been making art more or less in this style for more than 30 years. Spontaneously bringing disparate people together, he creates an ephemeral scene or moment, and documents it. Then, as soon as he gives the signal, everyone disperses. As if nothing had ever happened.
Long before flash mobs, Gamboa began perfecting the practice of the spontaneous art action when he and three other East L.A. artists formed the venerated avant-garde performance group known as Asco, named after the Spanish word for “nausea.” Here you had, in the middle of the 1970s, four style-conscious art jesters — three men, one woman — cavorting in outrageous outfits around the streets and empty lots of East L.A., making a scene, actions sprinkled with cutting social commentary, then disappearing. A Dada daydream in Chicanoville, USA.
“The group’s name made it wickedly redolent of commercial corporate logos — sort of ACME with a hangover,” L.A. Times critic Christopher Knight wrote in 1994. “Inspired in part by the contemporaneous spirit of the Chicano civil rights movement, Pop art, anti-war activism, feminism, post-Stonewall gay liberation and other complex currents of the day, the artists brought Zurich Dada of the late-1910s to 1970s Los Angeles.”
By the early ’80s, Asco’s four original members — Glugio Gronk Nicandro, better known as Gronk, Willie Herrón III, Patssi Valdez and Gamboa — had grown into an ever-expanding informal collective experimenting in film, muralism, photography, fashion, drama and graffiti. For a time, Asco was the superheated core of the East L.A. art scene, an underground legend in the making. Everyone wanted to join the fun, and the art party became more raucous. But then one day, Asco disappeared, and its many famous and almost-famous members dispersed, just like the participants in one of its art actions. As if Asco had never happened.
For many years after, even as Gronk went on to achieve international stardom and other members found success in art, music and university life, the impact of Asco was largely ignored by the mainstream art establishment. But the story of Asco is worth exploring — it’s a drama-filled tale of talent and daring, love and betrayal.
“This was beyond any novela you could possibly imagine,” says artist and former Asco member Diane Gamboa, Harry’s sister. “Who’s gonna be the art star? Who’s gonna get the tenure? Who’s gonna get the book written about them? Who’s getting the perks?”
In the coming months, you’re likely to hear “Asco” uttered more and more frequently. Last year, Paris’ Centre Pompidou staged a much-hyped show on art from Los Angeles that included images from early Asco performances. (They were the only Chicano artists in the show.) Next April, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art will unveil what promises to be a groundbreaking exhibit focused on Asco called “Phantom Sightings: Art After the Chicano Movement.” One of the curators, Rita Gonzalez, says the show will position Asco as the creative forebears of subsequent generations of artists working in L.A. in “Asco-like” tactics: guerrilla street theater, interventions, performance, video, graffiti, photography, “hit-and-run.” Many acclaimed young artists, including Mario Ybarra Jr. and Sandra de la Loza, cite Asco as a major influence.