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“One of the key ingredients to be successful as a Chicano,” Gamboa said as he walked the streets of Mexico City last fall, “is to make sure you never call yourself one.”
He was in the Mexican capital for a conference, talking about the parallel and contradictory imperatives of Chicano art: that it must “evolve,” but at the same time must still fight for its proper place in history.
“It’s been quite obvious that Chicano art has been specifically targeted to be denied entry,” Gamboa told me during our walk. “And that contradicts the market, which, of course, loves Chicano art. But a certain kind of Chicano art.”
By that he meant well-mined folkloric icons: farm workers, Aztec warriors, maize and pyramids, protest slogans — all of the images Asco specifically avoided and challenged. That working-class Mexican-Americans in marginalized East L.A. could make conceptual art rivaling anything produced at the time in New York, Gamboa said, threatens the entire narrative of modern art history, which remains stubbornly Anglocentric: “It means that the whole structure would have to allocate a space for that, and that would cause people to be reshuffled.”
The artist, now 55, speaks laconically, in flat declarative sentences. His words usually dance around ideas of irony, the absurd and a sense of what he calls the “urban exile” that he feels he’s inhabited for most of his life. Although Gamboa now lives in Venice with his children and second wife, the artist Barbara Carrasco, and teaches at Cal State Northridge, he does not drive. Gamboa finds inspiration in using public transit. There’s a clip on YouTube, for instance, of the artist riding the Red Line beneath Hollywood. We see Gamboa up close, in slow motion. His graying, stringy hair is slicked back, his face sullen and serious. We hear a creepy instrumental soundtrack as sentence fragments appear on the screen: “I was lost underground for three years . . . When I resurfaced everything had changed . . . The city was now a faint memory of ash.”
You might say the phrases reflect the arc of Gamboa’s career. Decades of producing work in Los Angeles — he rarely travels — have given Gamboa respect and acclaim among Chicano artists and art historians on an international scale. Yet Gamboa remains a shadowy, almost invisible presence in the broader art world.
Some of Gamboa’s former collaborators have had more success.
Asco co-founder Gronk has built a lucrative career as a gallery and museum artist. In 1993, he became the first Chicano artist to have a solo show at LACMA. He’s worked with director Peter Sellars and the Kronos Quartet, and earlier this year the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center published Gronk, a book about the artist by Max Benavidez. The book is accompanied by a DVD packed with images from the Asco days: the shows, the street art, the parties, the clothes. When I ask Gamboa one day if he has seen Gronk’s book and video, he responds by saying that until he watched Gronk’s DVD, he had never heard someone say “me” so much.
The strains in Gronk and Gamboa’s relationship are commonly known among people who were close to the scene. When I visit Gronk downtown at his cavernous studio loft on Spring Street, he laughs incredulously when I ask if he remembers when and how Asco crumbled apart.
“How did we crumble apart? That’s probably one person’s view,” Gronk says. “I think maybe perhaps Harry has a date on it, which is ’87. We did a performance at LACE [Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions] and it wasn’t quite up to Harry’s expectation of what the piece [should be], and that’s kind of the point where he just went home with the ball and said we’re not going to play anymore.”
Gamboa chooses to not address Gronk much. He also refuses to speak about his own sister, the painter and photographer Diane Gamboa, or his ex-girlfriend, the writer Marisela Norte. Both women joined Asco in the early 1980s.
Gamboa’s silence is deafening. Although Norte participated in Asco pieces in the 1980s, she is completely absent from Gamboa’s collected writings, Urban Exile, published in 1998 by the University of Minnesota. No mention of Norte, an accomplished writer in her own right, in almost 550 pages of essays, poems and plays. Today, Gamboa can barely say Norte’s name out loud.
“Um, sometimes some memories do vanish,” Gamboa says, when I ask him about Norte’s absence in his book. “It’s basically an omission, but on purpose.”
And don’t even think of asking Gamboa about Daniel J. Martinez, another Asco affiliate in the 1980s who went on to become a prominent international artist — and a controversial personality in the local art community. Martinez, Gamboa complains, is “always involved in some kind of theft of ideas, property or emotions . . . I wish I could tell you more. It’s so intense with Daniel. I really can’t get into it.”
When I ask Martinez for an interview about his participation in Asco, he responds in an e-mail: “The history of Asco is completely fabricated and they are comfortable with living in a lie. I will respectfully decline your offer for a conversation due to the fact there is no real reason to alter the consensual hallucination everyone holds of an Asco that never existed.”