It’s the tip of the iceberg
Picturing the unseen
In 1990, my friend José Galvez, who was then working as a photographer for The Times, took me to UCLA to check out an exhibition at the university’s Wight Art Gallery. I had no idea what we were going to see, only that José had a couple of images in the show and that afterward we’d go grab dinner.
That exhibition ended up being transformative. “Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation, 1965-1985,” known as CARA, was a traveling exhibition of art, photography and graphics — what was then one of the largest group shows ever dedicated to work by Chicano artists. On the lineup were key figures such as Judy Baca, Yolanda López, Gilbert “Magú” Luján and Asco. I was particularly compelled by the photography, including portraiture, street photography and conceptual pieces by Ricardo Valverde, Harry Gamboa Jr. and, of course, José, who was showing images from the ’70s. I am not Chicana — I am South American — but in that exhibition I felt as if I was finally seeing, within the context of an art gallery, people whose culture, experiences and aesthetics in some way resembled mine. People whom I knew and saw every day in L.A.
I’ve thought a lot about CARA and the importance of presence as I’ve pored over issue No. 245 of Aperture magazine, which was guest edited by Pilar Tompkins Rivas, chief curator at the under-construction Lucas Museum of Narrative Art. The magazine, which is published by the Aperture Foundation, a New York-based arts organization devoted to showcasing photography in its gallery and in standalone publications, has taken for its most recent issue the theme of “Latinx.”
The issue is compelling for a lot of reasons, but it’s particularly insightful for the ways in which it highlights how Latino visual culture has been maintained not by institutions but by so many individuals. As Tompkins Rivas notes in her introduction, vernacular photography has played a critical role in recording a community whose presence in mainstream culture remains evanescent. When asked to edit the issue, she writes, “the first pictures that came to my mind were not the many artworks and documentary images that I have had the fortune of working with as a curator, but rather the personal photographs that have helped me piece together the story of my family’s history as Latinos in the United States.”
In recent years, archives amassed by Latinx artists have been key to illuminating aspects of American culture that have been overlooked elsewhere. I think of L.A. artists such as Guadalupe Rosales, whose Instagram account Veteranas and Rucas chronicles the ’90s party crew scene (she was covered in a 2018 issue of Aperture), or Vincent Ramos, who maintains an extensive archive of Latino themes in mass media. In the current issue, Ramos’ collection is highlighted over six pages, accompanied by an essay by LACMA curator Rita Gonzalez, and features everything from the El Pollo Loco chicken mascot to a member of the Monkees dressed up as a bandido. (I would love to hang out in his files.)
Especially illuminating is the article devoted to the personal collection of Ken Gonzales-Day. An artist who has long engaged photography and the history of California in his work (and who currently has a show on view at Luis De Jesus Los Angeles). Gonzales-Day has spent years gathering vernacular images of Latinos in Southern California in the period that spans the 1850s to the 1950s. California seems only to exist in the U.S. public imagination after becoming a state in 1850. Gonzales-Day’s collection reveals who was here when the U.S. military rolled in.
The artist showed fragments of this collection in the group exhibition “Imagen Angeleno,” which was on view at the Museum of Art and History in Lancaster in 2017 during PST: LA/LA. But here’s hoping we get to see much more of it closer to home. (If I were a photography curator at the Getty Museum or the Huntington Library, I’d be burning a path to his door.)
Throughout “Latinx” are portfolios of work by names familiar and not: Bibs Moreno’s saturated images of artist Gabriela Ruiz’s flamboyant personas. Louis Carlos Bernal’s stark and elegant images of Mexican Americans in the Southwest during the 1970s. Reynaldo Rivera’s cinematic chronicles of the intersecting circles of L.A. subcultures in the ’70s and ’80s. And Steven Molina Contreras’ tender photographs of his Salvadoran milieu.
To read full article in the LA TIMES
Image: “Three daughters from the Ybarra-Lopez family in celebration of Mexican Independence Day, Los Angeles, 1886,” by C. Golsh, appears in the “Latinx” issue, No. 245, of Aperture magazine. (Collection of Darlene Bailey)