Gerardo Velasquez was punk as fuck. In the late 1970s, the young artist had co-founded Nervous Gender, a seminal force not only within Los Angeles' punk scene but in the development of synthesizer-based music. A decade later, he was making visual art on computers. Velasquez embraced then-nascent technology to make work that was bold, fearless and challenging, not just in its production but in its themes: Religion and sex were just a few of the subjects that came up in his work.
But his career was cut short. Velasquez died in 1992, at the age of 33, due to AIDS-related complications. Now, more than 25 years later, the artist is having a moment as Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA runs across Southern California. His work is part of the group exhibition “Axis Mundo: Queer Networks in Chicano L.A.” at MOCA Pacific Design Center. A photo of him is included in Harry Gamboa Jr.'s show, “Chicano Male Unbonded,” at the Autry Museum of the American West. Meanwhile, at Coagula Curatorial, a full show is dedicated to the artist. “Nervously Engendered: The Art of Gerardo Velasquez” explores his work through the flyers he made for Nervous Gender shows, his photography — including snapshots of his computer-based art — and zines, as well as photos of Velasquez taken by show curator Louis Jacinto.
Inside Coagula Curatorial, there's a wall loaded with part of an archive of Velazquez's photos. The images are varied. There are photos of friends, self-portraits made with the assistance of mirrors and photos of his digital art. It's all arranged together like a well-organized Instagram feed, where selfies, #TBT photos and work-in-progress shots all live together.
Coagula's owner, Mat Gleason, points to a small image from one of Velasquez's computer graphics. It takes on an abstract quality in this shot with its yellow and black pixels. Gleason recalls seeing the full piece at Velasquez's MFA show, “Piss and Blood.” He remembers how, in its completed form, a keystroke on the computer would trigger a story of seduction. “It was very creepy,” Gleason says. It's something that struck Gleason upon seeing the initial exhibition: “He knows exactly how to be creepy. His aesthetic from Nervous Gender translated into his art.”
Gleason had long wanted to put together an exhibition of Velasquez's work, but the idea didn't begin to manifest until he met Louis Jacinto, the L.A.-based photographer, and the two realized that they both knew Velasquez at different points in the artist's career.
Gleason was an undergraduate at Cal State L.A. when he met Velasquez early in 1988. At the time Velasquez was working on his master's degree. Gleason, who grew up in La Mirada, had already spent enough time in the local punk scene to recognize the graduate student as the Gerardo Velasquez of Nervous Gender. He hadn't seen the band at this point— that would come a little later— but Velasquez's reputation preceded him. “Nervous Gender was a thing of legend,” Gleason says. “Everything about them was always an extreme.”
Jacinto met Velasquez in the mid-1970s, after moving from Bakersfield to attend Cal State L.A. Velasquez, who was from East L.A., became Jacinto's first friend in his newly adopted town. In the calm before punk, the two bonded over their mutual admiration for Yoko Ono. Jacinto remembers Velasquez as looking “very John Lennon, Bed In for Peace,” with long hair and white linen outfits.
Then punk hit Los Angeles and everything changed: the music, the fashion, the art. “The kids were like us. They were just making it up as it went along,” Jacinto says. “It was all of this great excitement that we didn't have to get permission from a big record company anymore. We didn't have to get permission from a big publishing house anymore. We didn't have to get permission from some legitimate gallery anymore. We could just do it ourselves. It was so liberating.”
Jacinto entered the scene as a photographer. He snapped pics of bands like The Go-Go's, The Bags and The Patti Smith Group. He didn't personally know most of the musicians whose photos he captured; Nervous Gender were an exception. The closeness between him and Velasquez is noticeable in his images on view in “Nervously Engendered.” The concert photos express the raw energy of live music. But, there's also the Velasquez that audiences may not have seen onstage, a young man with a shy smile flipping through a fashion magazine at a newsstand.
“Even to this day, Gerardo was one of the kindest, gentlest, sweetest people I've ever met,” Jacinto says. “He was soft-spoken. He was always smiling. He would listen to you. He understood me artistically, personally. But, when he got onstage with Nervous Gender, it was the complete opposite.”
Recordings of Nervous Gender are scant. Listen to the band's lone studio album, Music From Hell, now and it doesn't sound particularly out of sorts with the music that audiences in 2017 know. It's fast-paced and filled with analog synth sounds and warbling vocals. It sounds like a lot of bands that have emerged in the past 20 or 30 years. In 1981, in the United States, though, punk was still weird. Synthesizer music was still weird. Plus, Nervous Gender had already been honing this sound for a few years by the time of the album's release. Then, there was the future-fetish aesthetic. “The band was always visually kind of futuristic. A sense of paranoia,” Jacinto says. Nervous Gender were ahead of their time.
“Gerardo was a leader,” Jacinto says. “I wanted to be like him.”
By the end of the '80s, Nervous Gender, which had gone through multiple lineup changes, played only sporadically. While working on his master's at Cal State L.A., Velasquez was showing visible signs of illness. Gleason recalls hearing the whispers about Velasquez on campus. “It was an ugly, ugly, ugly time,” Gleason says. “The mainstream of America wasn't just oblivious to AIDS, they were antagonistic to AIDS.”
By the late 1980s, groups like ACT UP were channeling their anger and frustration over the AIDS crisis (and lack of response to it) into grassroots activism. Similarly, Velasquez was bringing this narrative into his art through zines. Gleason flips through the pages of the publications with titles like The Annals of Selective Annihilation: Interplanetary Journal for the Retention of Power Through the Elimination of a Targeted Population. There's a frustration and pain in his work of this era that speaks not only of the artist's experience but of a time when so many were dying and so few seemed to care.
Velasquez died only a couple of years after his MFA show, yet at that point he was already well-accomplished. Now, as people begin to revisit his work, it's with bittersweetness. “I'm really grateful that Mat wanted to recognize Gerardo,” Jacinto says. Moments later, he adds, “I would give it all up just to be able to see him in his 50s, but it's not to be.”