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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Our Boys and Girls Club

Diane Gamboa "Supreme Spirit" 2006
ROUND TRIP
Group Exhibition
Vincent Price Museum
East Los Angeles College
1301 Avenida Cesar Chavez, Monterey Park, CA 91754
May 20-August 19, 2011

The opening of the new Vincent Price Museum at East Los Angeles College is approriately anointed by "ROUND TRIP" an exhibition of eight alumni artists.  Diane Gamboa, Gronk, Clement S. Hanami, Judithe Hernandez, Willie Herron III, Kent Twitchell, John Valadez and Patssi Valdez are a group of artists that have developed stellar reputations in the Los Angeles art world and beyond.  They are part of an art historical family in East Los Angeles filled with myths, legends, and political artistic forces.  When I spoke with Karen Rapp, the museum director, she said she thought the public would be asking her many provocative questions regarding the exhibition.  She said she was suprised that people's curiosity centered on her selection of the artists.  Rapp stated that the artists were chosen because of their connection with each other.  Some of the artists worked together such as Herron and Hanami and others were former assistants and students such as Gamboa with Twitchell.  Rapp believed it was fitting to choose local artists that have integrated the politics of their innate cultural creativity with contemporary art, music, and politics.  Also, she defined the title "ROUND TRIP" as a way for these artists to "come back around" to their community.  Rapp is enthusiastic about exposing the college students to a serious museum that is filled with the private art collection of Vincent Price, future art exhibitions and cultural productions.

With a successful, museum filled, opening night, I was unable to speak with all the artists and luxuriate amongst the artwork.  However, I made two additional trips; one the following week when I spoke with Karen Rapp and closely revisited the artwork and on July 9th at a heartfelt lecture with four of the eight artists.  I was grateful that I postponed writing this article until I attended the first of two artists' lectures for this exhibit.  With Rapp as the moderator, Diane Gamboa, Willie Herron III, Kent Twitchell and Clement S. Hanami generoulsly shared their personal connections with East Los Angeles College and how it served as an artistic overture and santurary from their home environments and the dangers of the political climates of the l960's, l970's and l980's.  Diane Gamboa from Boyle Heights said she grew up in violence.  For Gamboa East Los Angeles College became "a natural place to land".  She spoke of being exposed to "tear gas" and the fear of the largest gang of all-the LAPD.  She stressed the safety of obtaining a student ID to curtail existing student harrassment.  She said she wasn't the best student.  She could be found in the vaults of the original Vincent Price Museum.  Gamboa appreciates the structure of the artwork, how a painting is framed and constructed.  She was fascinated with the architecture of the college windows.  Gamboa's paintings reflect women's voices through the politics of art.  She emphasized how Mexicans are called "illegal aliens" while other ethnic groups are referred to as "immigrants".  Also, she observed how aliens, from outer space, are frequently portrayed almost exclusively as males.  In the exhibition, there are paintings of female aliens.  "Physical Shift and a Pinch" and "Supreme Spirit" exist as blue skinned women with indifferent expressions.  Gamboa calls these women "sexy aliens sent to seduce violent men on earth and control them through sex".  She is also opposed to the rampant use of "Viagra" by men.

During the lecture Willie Herron III spoke of his association with Diane Gamboa and her brother.  He described familial evenings at Gamboa's home creating music and art.  Like Gamboa college life was nuturing and provided a balance between his job at his uncle's bakery and high school life.  Herron described the influence of Mr. Chavez who had him blow up 30 balloons in order to learn about perspective and reflections of images. In high school he had an art teacher that taught him to create images from feelings and to express them by using only black and white paint.  This method helped him to "tap into consciousness and connect to the earth in monochrome".  Additionally, Herron used rust created by leaving cans of water outdoors.  His large scale paintings "have a rotten smell".  Herron identified with the mixed cultures of his neighborhood in City Terrace.  The band he formed, "The Illegals", grew out of what was happening in the streets of his youth.  He wanted the Chicano influences to go beyond "Santana".  His art and music "bastardize" the English language-beginning with one thought in English and ending in Spanish".  That's the way they spoke in his home.  He included Ruben Salazar who "always liked to use first hand experiences" in his work.  "Negativity in the neighborhood" still influences Herron's work.

Clement S. Hanami is the youngest of the group and mentioned how he was the "chino" in his neighborhood.  Hanami openly discussed "taking ownership of the American myth of the Asian stereotype being successful at trickery".  His mother was a survivor of the atom bomb. Hanami stated that she hasn't really shared much of her experience.  The paintings and installations are tributes to her. Graduating from Garfield High School in l975, he attended East Los Angeles College from l979 to l985. He said it took him six years to finish his associate's degree.  His English teacher Stan Oropesa helped him to "refine basic fundamentals and lead him to UCLA" where he received his BA and MFA.  Like his colleagues in the exhibition, he said he was "trying to find himself" and also began to observe how artists use social commentary to have an impact on society. His education also extended outside the classroom by working with Herron and his band "The Illegals".

Kent Twitchell is connected to most of the artists in the exhibition and the proof holds true by the drawings and paintings that are displayed.  There are drawings of Diane Gamboa, Judithe Hernandez and Willie Herron III.  Twitchell considers himself "a drawer not a painter-just sneaky drawings".  Twitchell is a visual presence in Los Angeles with murals throughout the city.  He discussed his art history class at East Los Angeles College and how he was taught to divide images of Renoir into grids and values.  This technique is still an essential part of his drawings and paintings.

Judithe Hernandez' assertive images of women complement Diane Gamboa's work in the exhibition. "La Muerte en el este de Eden/Death in the East of Eden", on one level suggests men's stereotypes of women and cars.  This cocktail can be seen at the local car shows which are a cultural event in the neighborhoods of East Los Angeles.  This woman is also a resilient figure who is in your face and naked to the world. Her draped posture proposes the sacrificial virgin of the Aztecs. Her head gear and mask are a combination of the wrestling icons of "Lucha Libre" with antlers found on Native American headdresses.  The woman as a time traveler is here and holds your attention in the beauty of form and the science of color.  Hernandez' amble agility with pastels reflects the light of the American Southwest. 

John Valadez and Judithe Hernandez share dexterity in their use of pastels as a medium to define their neighborhoods and tell their stories.  Valadez' pastel drawings are edible, luscious and invite the viewer to join in the experience.  They expose Valadez' trained eye with a need to record personal experiences of his environment in East Los Angeles. "Tony & Edie, The Guest is Leaving" is humorous, graphic, and honest. "The Preacher" reveals a subtle battle of simultaneous contrasts.  I thought about Monet's haystacks and the concept of "mouches volantes" which are particles floating in the fluid of the eye.  These particles are enhanced by staring directly into the sunlight.  As seen in Valadez' work, colors occur in the artist's personal field of vision.

Patssi Valdez' paintings invite us into her personal home environments.  Her palette and images are reminiscent of Matisse's interiors with a local "sabor" of East Los Angeles via Mexican primary colors.  She is known for her dream-like paintings of interiors that appear pollinated by ancestral fables.  There was a shift from her interiors in "The Enchanted Garden (2005)", which reveals a Buddha-like figure in a personalized garden of indigenous cactus and transplanted succulents.  The garden with the eastern guide symbolizes the importance of an artist's continual search for innovative stimulation with nature as a reliable remedy.

Gronk is also an iconic figure in Los Angeles.  I remember listening to him speak at his one-person show at the Los Angeles County Museum.  As he spoke to a group of kids on a field trip, he was open, honest, and encouraging to his young audience.  He added an anecdote or two about his mother.  The actual stories are not clear, but I recall the deep emotions he was transmitting. Over twenty years have passed and I am still impressed by his presentation.  About seven years ago, I shared a dinner with him and some mutual friends.  At the dinner he spoke of his favorite English teacher at Garfield High School that was also instrumental in exposing him to literature and philosophy.  This experience was also motivating for me.  Gronk's work at the exhibit includes his signature "Tormenta" figure.  Whenever I see this image I am reminded of how artists are born to be vehicles for mankind's emotional battles and mores.  Gronk along with the other alumni expose their bravery, "carry their hearts on their sleeves" and promote "peronal truths".

I have been promoting the Vincent Price Museum and this exhibit to anyone that will listen.  I am surprised how many people on the "Westside" are unaware of this new museum.  Karen Rapp jokingly said, "I like keeping this place to ourselves".  What I have learned from these artists is how important it is for young people, from lower socio-economic backgrounds, to have safe places to learn and to be nutured.  Each one of these artists included stories of teachers that fostered and believed in their creativity and their voices. They are shining examples why society has to continue to support the arts in their local and global communities.

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