If you imagine David Bowie moonlighting as a Chicano performance artist, you might begin to get a sense of Asco, the radical collective whose first major retrospective opened at LACMA last weekend. The exhibit immediately confronts you with the group's wacky camp costumes, complete with glitter, face paint, velvet and chiffon, topped with a slathering of ruby-red lipstick.
Yet Asco, a collective of East L.A. artists formed in 1972, wasn't interested in re-enacting glam-rock styles for fun. Instead, the group, which included the young artists Harry Gamboa Jr., Willie Herrón III, Gronk and Pattsi Valdez, staged performances on the streets of East L.A in the name of social commentary, particularly to draw attention to the marginalization of Latinos.
They created a spectacle in works such as 1972's Walking Mural, in which the group re-enacted a parody of the East Los Angeles Christmas parade, which had been put on hold that year because of police violence against Latinos. In an interview on LACMA's website, Valdez explains that over-the-top costumes were a central part of their happenings: "There comes Gronk, and his costume is this big flouncy green chiffony outfit, with Christmas balls bouncing off it. I dressed in my cardboard and glitter costume. And then when I saw Willie's costume, I was flabbergasted by what he did with a piece of masonite and foil."
The three of them walked down the streets of East L.A., scandalizing older ladies who were shopping for groceries.
In part, Asco's events seem like a bunch of kids in their early 20s having dadaist fun. They pose coyly for Gamboa's camera in pulpy, color-saturated glam shots.
And yet this self-dramatization was in the hopes of getting noticed, of shedding their outsider status to be taken seriously as artists. The LACMA exhibit's central irony is that the group famously spray-painted their names onto the museum's entrance in response to its perceived neglect of Chicanos at the time.
Asco's apparent playfulness works as a double-edged weapon: First it disarms you, then it confuses you by subverting your understanding of cultural conventions. Rita Gonzalez, assistant curator at LACMA and co-curator of the exhibit, explains that in the 1970s, the main national Mexican-American activist group was the Brown Berets, which had a similar model to the Black Panthers, wearing berets and brown military clothing as symbols of resistance.
Asco, by contrast, pursued a much freer, more evocative form of expression. "To have such an eccentric, outlandish style of dress, which they borrowed from pachuco culture" -- a 1930s Chicano subculture in the Southwest -- "glam rock and the leftovers of Hollywood costume, to take it out into the streets and claim that they were doing something political, was quite dangerous," Gonzalez says.
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Asco's performance pieces often were designed for the camera, such as their No Movie series, begun in 1974, consisting of still shots of imaginary Chicano films. These moody, glittering camera shots crafted the careful underground allure of Asco: The photographs, as they disseminated, end up legitimizing the group in a very different way from their performance-art events. Where their performances often were met with shock, the photographs invoke a more contemplative attitude.
Because they blurred genres and sent mixed messages, Asco were not only hassled by the police but also criticized by members of their own community. Both parties didn't quite know what the artists were up to. "I would question whether they were out to send a 'message' in the first place," Gonzalez says. "I feel like they were sending out a lot of potential signals."
"Asco: Elite of the Obscure" is on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art through December 4.
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