By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
As the four remember it now, they made their formative creative breakthroughs while sitting at kitchen tables and all-night coffee shops.
“Sometimes Harry and I would get in his car after a few cups of coffee at Tiny Naylor’s, there in Atlantic Square, then we would just cruise around,” Herrón recalled in an interview. “We’d hang out, but it was a very productive type of hanging out.”
Gamboa, Asco’s most devoted documentarian, listed in a 1991 essay an array of subjects he and the others talked about, a decadent palette of all the pop and political residue of their particular urban moment: “Drop drills,” he wrote, “Guadalupe tattoos, smeared lipstick, no privacy, off ramps, foreignness, disagreements, blind curves, comics, pinkeye, jump starts, Dick and Jane, no heat, stray bullets, Spam, alleys, fake genuflections, riot squads, photo booths, cucarachas, bongos, dunce caps, low riders, Molotov cocktails, the twist, lard, dead ends, grinding without music, Che, pompadours . . .”
Once they materialized their ideas into street art, the results were dazzling, confrontational and biting, but still ironic and humorous.
Asco gathered on a traffic island in the middle of Whittier Boulevard and staged “Dinner Party After a Major Riot.” On another day out on the streets, Gronk taped Valdez and actor Humberto Sandoval, a close Asco affiliate, to a wall and invented the “Instant Mural.” They made impromptu plays, “no-movies” (with “no-movie” award shows) that were designed to look like still lifes out of films that didn’t exist, and they created the “Walking Mural.”
“Willie devised this piece that was like a large wall with his head sticking through it,” Gronk said in a Smithsonian Archives of American Art interview. “Patssi was the Virgin of Guadalupe, but done up in this see-through outfit. And I was a Christmas tree.”
They took their “Walking Mural” down Whittier Boulevard in processionlike fashion while Gamboa documented the piece in photographs. Asco became a truly organic avant-garde scene born on the streets of Los Angeles, remarkable for a group of young artists with no formal art training.
“I didn’t grow up in a vacuum because I grew up in East L.A.,” Gronk told me. “The world existed, and I knew about a lot of different things that were going on in the world, different movements in art, performance, film.”
When the men donned elaborate costumes on Christmas Eve in 1971 and marched solemnly on Whittier Boulevard to a military recruiting station to protest working-class Mexican-American deaths in Vietnam, “the immediate reaction of the audience was primarily confusion laced with verbal hostility,” Gamboa later wrote.
That sort of reaction to their work, from artists and nonartists alike, led to the adoption of the group’s name: Their art, people told them, gave them “asco.”
And so Asco existed in a happy contradiction. It was not “Chicano enough” for the Chicano art community, and “too Chicano” for the mainstream art world. When LACMA finally showcased Chicano art, two years after Spraypaint LACMA, the museum chose the work of Los Four, a collective of university-trained artists — Asco was barely on their radar. Asco’s response was to operate as total art bandits, needling mass junk culture, the art elite and Chicano icons almost equally. And they made efforts to look good while doing it, says Ondine Chavoya, an art historian at Williams College who is researching Asco for a book.
“When you look at the images of them, they have this real kind of glitter-rock-meets-pachuco look. They are so seductive, in their pose, and in their fashion sense, and in their relationship to the camera,” Chavoya says. “And then you learn later that they were also producing under this kind of aesthetics of poverty. They were able to look like glamour, but it was constructed from whatever materials they had.”
Valdez recalls during an interview in her Echo Park home that her fixation on outrageous clothing was rooted in a longing going back to her girlhood. “I had this taste, I wanted things,” Valdez says. “I always liked nice things and I never had them. My mother went, ‘When you get older.’ And I go, ‘I’m sick of it, I gotta make something of myself, I gotta be somebody.’ The environment around me was not the world I lived in, I lived in my head, in a fantasy, so I created my own look, through movies and fashion.”
In old Asco photographs, Valdez personifies a nostalgic ideal of L.A. pachuca glamour. There she is, in short skirts and high heels, gloves, extreme eye makeup, fishnets, leather, bold colors, lots of black, eye-catching jewelry — the sort of vintage Eastside look some women still reference and replicate today. The men were often just as stylish and outrageous.
“In East L.A. in the ’60s, you didn’t wear jeans to school, you wore slacks. So it was again pushing that notion of limitations,” Gronk said. “I used to think, if you could walk, wear it. That was the motto that I had.”
The early 1980s brought major shifts for Asco. Herrón and Valdez distanced themselves from the scene — Herrón to concentrate on playing with the seminal Chicano punk band Los Illegals (he also co-founded the East L.A. punk club Vex), and Valdez to pursue more formal training as a painter. But the group had grown larger than its founding parts.
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