Usually associated with long-winded art historical articles and page after page of gallery ads, Artforum made an unexpected but exciting move in their October issue by placing Asco, a politically radical Chicano artist collective from the 1970s on the cover. Perhaps igniting a real art historical interest in Asco, Artforum highlights Asco’s merging of art and protest, which could directly inspire Occupy Wall Street (and now, other cities)’s own art and culture committee.
Asco was formed in 1971 in the rough neighborhood of East Los Angeles, which was the sight of the burgeoning Chicano civil rights movement. While Asco changed members occasionally, the core group was Gronk (Glugio Nicandro), Willie F. Herron III, Harry Gamboa Jr. and Patssi Valdez. Asco’s art pieces ranged from graffiti to performance art to photography. Angry, experimental and politically motivated, Asco’s name comes from the Spanish word for “disgust” and “nausea.”
Fighting for Mexican American civil rights along with many in Los Angeles during the early 1970s, including Dr. Hunter S. Thompson’s Dr Gonzo or Oscar Acosta, Asco managed to make political art that was visually stunning and politically relevant. Revisiting Asco could help sharpen the art associated with Occupy Wall Street, which in my opinion hasn’t been as noteworthy as the protests themselves.
For example, the photograph on the cover of Artforum is of an Asco piece entitled “Gang War Victim” (1974), in which Asco took this photograph and sent it to various sensational Los Angeles newspapers that loved to cover nightly gang violence in East LA. The photograph was sent with a caption that the last gang member had been killed.
As Harry Gamboa Jr. explains in Artforum:
The project was a response to the incendiary tabloid-style journalism of the two major Los Angeles newspapers, which often listed the names, addresses, workplaces, and gang affiliations of victims or their family members in an effort to maintain high levels of reciprocal gang violence, thus selling more newspapers. The desired effect of “Decoy Gang War Victim” was to generate a pause in the violence in order to rob the newspapers of their daily list of victims.
Even taking out the political ramifications of what Asco did with the photograph, the photograph itself is stunning with its somber blue tones highlighted by the red traffic lights and the lone figure on a desolate street.
In addition to the Artforum cover Asco is also the subject of a large retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The choice of LACMA as the location for the Asco retrospective is certainly an interesting and unexpected one since Asco illegally tagged LACMA in 1972. Apparently angered over reports that a LACMA curator had not included Chicano artists in an exhibition, stating Chicanos did not make art but joined gangs, Asco spray-painted a part of LACMA with their names.
Completed during the very early stages of graffiti when the New York subway trains were just beginning to be covered in tags, Spray Paint LACMA was a radical protest against museums and racism. Essentially signing the entire museum as their own work of art, Asco forced themselves into the museum, declaring the presence of real Chicano artists.
In addition to tagging walls, Asco also did performances, usually in public, such as “Instant Mural” (1972). A take on traditional Chicano muralism in LA, Gronk taped Patssi Valdez and Humberto Sandoval to a wall. Even though its pretty literal, Asco made a mural out of the actual bodies that would be represented in the murals scattered among Los Angeles. Forcing the general public to confront the Chicano body, Asco again deftly merged art and politics.
This specific photograph from the performance “First Supper (After a Major Riot)” (1974) has always fascinated me because of its surreal and dream-like use of traditional Mexican imagery such as the death masks. On a traffic island between Arizona Street and Whittier Boulevard in LA, this same island was the sight of a police shooting during a riot between Chicano anti-war protesters and police.
For me, the beauty of Asco is the guerrilla-style performances and the political relevance to their choices. As Gronk remembers in Bomb magazine:
Again, historically we all see it differently, but for me it was just a dinner party on Whittier Boulevard. We were all attempting to eat the meal as fast as we could before the police came. So we did. We set the whole thing up and then we were out of there! It documents a certain moment of time. It was done without asking for permission. That was one of ASCO’s principles, to just go out and do things.
Going out and doing things seems to be a principle that is coming back in style with the Occupy Wall Street protests. I only with the art surrounding the protests would be more articulate and hard-hitting as Asco. Rather than dressing up like zombies to terrorize some executive assistants, maybe it would be better to take a look back at the effective, beautiful and to me at least, inspirational guerrilla artistic protest tactics of Asco.
Asco: Elite of the Obscure, A Retrospective, 1972-1987 will be on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Wilshire Boulevard and South Fairfax Avenue, Los Angeles) until December 4, 2011.
Also, Asco’s work was covered in a cover article titled “How Chicano Is It?” in the September 2010 edition of ARTnews.