LOS ANGELES — Last Saturday afternoon, April 22, a crowd gathered in a strip mall parking lot in LA’s Arts District to witness Rafa Esparza’s futuristic performance “Corpo RanfLA: Terra Cruiser.” With handlebars sprouting from his head, and his legs encased in a sparking green fiberglass shell, Esparaza had become a half-human/half-lowrider cyborg. Artist Karla Ekatherine Canseco and other collaborators took turns “riding” on his back, as they listened on headphones to a narrative about a time-traveling cyborg sent back in time to preserve land for the future. The sculpture was mounted on a frame adapted from a 25-cent children’s pony ride, and in between each rider, the whole contraption emulated the bounce of a lowrider car.
This performance was part of a weekend-long pop-up show, ASCO and the Next Gen, which drew connections between ASCO, the influential Chicano art group from East LA that lasted from 1972 to 1987, and a handful of contemporary Latino/a/x artists. The exhibition was organized in conjunction with an upcoming documentary film executive produced by Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna and directed by Travis Gutiérrez Senger, ASCO: Without Permission. Footage of the show and accompanying performances will be included in the film.
“A big approach of the film is not only telling ASCO’s story, but also thinking about how their methodology, ethos, and work is relevant today,” Gutiérrez Senger told Hyperallergic. “The way in which we’ve addressed that relevancy is through this next generation of artists who are trying to utilize that creative modality, that sort of framework to create work.”
Formed in 1972 by Harry Gamboa Jr., Gronk (Glugio Gronk Nicandro), Willie Herrón, and Patssi Valdez, ASCO (“disgust” in Spanish) operated across a wildly diverse spectrum of media, including performance, photography, painting, video, and muralism. They emerged alongside the Chicano Movement with radical, confrontational, and incendiary work, including theatrical street performances protesting the Vietnam War and police violence. They also staged photographic stills for films that didn’t exist dubbed “No Movies,” which challenged the misrepresentation or simply absence of Chicanos in Hollywood films. In frustration over a curator’s dismissal of Chicano art, they spray painted their names on the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, “Spray Paint LACMA” (1972), turning the whole museum into their own ready-made.
Their unorthodox, DIY approach proved influential for younger artists in the exhibition. “[I could relate to] the whole thing of not having a space for yourself, not fitting in,” singer and performer San Cha told Hyperallergic. “We started doing performances just for ourselves, forming processions on the street, taking up space in places that aren’t traditional, that aren’t meant for us.”
“They made performances where I grew up,” Guadalupe Rosales told Hyperallergic. “It was empowering to see these sites activated by artists.” Rosales presented moody, evocative nighttime images of her neighborhood, countering associations with violence, police, and gangs often linked to nocturnal scenes of East LA in the popular imagination. “I wasn’t a person who grew up thinking, ‘I’m gonna be an artist.’ I didn’t have the language to describe that,” she added. “ASCO provided the visual language that I’d been seeking.”
Although ASCO’s work can be antagonistic, there is often a sense of irreverence and fun woven through it. “There’s a rawness, a punkness, the idea you don’t need to make art for a show … It was more about having fun, not taking things too seriously. That was always intriguing to me,” said artist Ruben Ulises Rodriguez Montoya. Drawing on pre-Columbian mythologies, Montoya creates hybrid creatures made from car parts, silicone, fur, horns, and items symbolic of Mexican culture, like sombreros and luchador masks.
Montoya was one of three artists, along with San Cha and Maria Maea, with whom Gutiérrez Senger collaborated to create new “No Movies,” this time actually making short films from which the stills are taken. In his No Movie “The Possessed,” a group of possessed migrants hijacks a right-wing news station. Maea’s short film follows an alien who meets four children making artwork in a garage, similar to the early days of ASCO, whose members would work together in the garage behind Herron’s mother’s house. As San Cha notes, Hollywood still lags behind in Latino/a/x representation decades after ASCO began highlighting their absence. “We’re in LA. Where are the Mexicans in these films? We’re here, but somehow they manage to skip over an entire population.”
Dorian Wood’s film “O” (2013) features the artist and performer reclaiming Hollywood glamor, as they sing a sultry, melancholic torch song in a black-and-white “fever dream in which I embody a femme version of myself,” they explain. Also featuring Rafa Esparza and Taryn Piana, it highlights an intimacy between two Brown artists that conveys solidarity and mutual support.
This sense of collaboration and community is another throughline of the show. “One of the big takeaways for me in regards to ASCO is what makes them for me so unique and so inspiring and special, is that it was a group,” said Gutiérrez Senger. “That has really influenced how we made the film, leaning into that through these collaborations … You can have a really sharp point of view and do something original but that can still be very collaborative.”
Although its members made work together, they also worked independently, and Gamboa was quick to point out that they were a “group,” not a “collective.” The contemporary artists highlighted similarly each have their own unique practices, but are linked through meaningful creative networks.
On Friday night, Gabriela Ruiz staged her performance, climbing aboard a shiny metal palette mounted on a forklift and dancing with the construction machine. The idea for the performance goes back to her adolescence when a family member mocked her weight as she prepared for her quinceañera, suggesting her chambelanes would need a forklift to lift her. “I envisioned myself dancing with this forklift every time people would bring up a quinceañera,” she said. Clad in a black dress with fierce makeup, she held her own quinceañera of sorts for a chosen family of friends. “I remember listening to Patssi [Valdez] talk about how growing up, she felt different … I resonated with her the most, her theatricality, her fashion, make-up. I was doing similar things before I discovered her.”
The legacy of ASCO has grown since the group disbanded almost 40 years ago, first through stories, rumors, and the limited visual evidence of their practice, and later through more institutional intervention. Two seminal Los Angles County Museum of Art exhibitions, Phantom Sightings (2008) and a retrospective ASCO: Elite of the Obscure (2011), were instrumental in introducing ASCO to a larger audience.
“It has been re-envisioned numerous times, first through academia, then the art canon, critics, writers, curators, and museums,” said Gamboa. Given the years since they disbanded and the varied perspectives and recollections of the members of the group, Gamboa questions whether the film “will read like a Chicano Rashomon, or tell a straightforward narrative … ASCO continues to evolve. It’s not a fixed thing.”