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Earlier this year Ramiro Gomez “interrupted” David Hockney’s iconic painting of Californian leisure and luxury, “A Bigger Splash” (1967), by inserting two Hispanic-looking people cleaning the pool and the patio of the luxury home. Gone is the large splash that gives the work its name, and in its place Gomez has created a more mundane scene that is instantly recognizable but rarely captured in art.
The 27-year-old Gomez was born into a Mexican working class family in San Bernardino, California. He currently lives in West Hollywood and his artwork often probes the invisibility of the working class in the images of luxury that flood the media, and by extension the world around us.
I first encountered his Happy Hills series at the Charlie James Gallery booth at Aqua Art Miami (he will have his first solo show with the LA-based gallery next month), and I was taken aback by the powerful simplicity of his series. In the artist’s own words, Happy Hills documents the “predominantly Hispanic workforce who work tirelessly behind the scenes to maintain the beautiful imagery of these affluent areas.” His interruptions of the glossy images feel effortless, transforming pictures we overlook but are influenced by every day.
Gomez’s work seems intentionally provocative, particularly in an art fair setting, where many of the buyers will have help at home for cleaning and other household chores. The artist doesn’t shy away from making plain uncomfortable realities: last year he propped up images of Latino domestic workers on bushes near the home of Hollywood star George Clooney before President Obama was expected to attend a fundraiser there.
I spoke to Gomez about his Happy Hills series and how an artist from a working class background represents his world while acknowledging that he is creating work for middle and upper class collectors.
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Hrag Vartanian: What initiated this series?
Ramiro Gomez: What initiated the series was my job as a live-in nanny for a family in the Hollywood Hills that lasted about two years, 2009–2011. There was no specific date the series started, no specific moment when I decided to focus on my job as a subject. It just sort of happened. I didn’t plan on the job leading into a series, I had taken the job out of necessity.
In early 2009, I had to endure a period of incredible instability. I had dropped out of school and had no steady source of income to fall back on. My living situation was in flux and had no idea how I was going to move on. Coming from a working class Mexican immigrant family, failure wasn’t an option and yet, there I was having failed at something.
Furthermore, in May of 2009, my grandmother, who had been a caretaker for me growing up while my parents worked and was a vital part of my upbringing, passed away from a sudden heart attack, which threw me deeper into uncertainty. I was confronted with the death of a loved one, and around the same time, August of 2009, also presented with an opportunity to move in with a family and take care of their children. I chose the job as an escape from the loss and immediately started working in September 2009, without much thought to where it would lead, I simply went with my instinct and trusted it would lead me somewhere new.
Initially, the routine and new family provided a stability I desperately needed at the time. I went about my day planning things for the children, primarily on my own, and went into my little room at the end of my workday. I missed my own family, but I was also aware that this new living situation was best for me.
With all of that said, the series began to form little by little, from my daily experience, routine, and observations of the other people working with me in the home and neighborhood. They were people who came from backgrounds similar to mine, primarily Latino immigrants that reminded me of my own family. As an artist, they became my muse.
I mentioned the death of my grandma because it was her loss that allowed me to appreciate what she meant to me in my life, and curiously through chance, I was in the position to influence the upbringing of kids in my care and share with them the love my grandmother shared with me. I wondered what it all meant. I wondered what I could do about my feelings. Those questions led me to spend time in my little room painting about my experience and observations during the nap-time break or at night when my shift was done. It became my little studio.
That appreciation for people and their labor is what informs my work, and what initiated it was probably my realization that at any moment, those people could disappear.
HV: Is it fair to say the series represents your attempt to reinsert people who have been erased from these media-friendly images?
RG: With the magazine painting series, it is fair to say I’ve set that as a primary goal. I insert people who have been selectively erased from the media-friendly images to appropriate the original intention of the image, which is to sell a luxury lifestyle. By painting a figure who’s task it would be to maintain a living space such as those advertised, I am interrupting the strategy of the advertiser, which was to present an ideal living room, or kitchen, or garden without acknowledging what it takes to maintain that ideal living room, or kitchen, or garden. The advertisement is only worried about selling the image, what happens in reality, after a luxury item is purchased, is none of their concern. That is precisely where my subjects come in, because when these luxury items are acquired, or these homes are purchased, it takes people’s labor to maintain them and keep up appearances. From my experience working as a nanny, I’ve observed that so much about the affluent lifestyle is image based, and yet, behind the image is a reality that isn’t easy for people to see.
I mention my experience as nanny because that is vital to the production of this series. When I worked for the family in the Hollywood Hills, they would have Luxe magazine and Dwell issues laying around the house that gave me a glimpse into how the world I was working in was shaped, but I did not see the people I was working with reflected in the images, so I decided to insert them.
That decision was inspired by many things. I took it personally that the images presented an ideal devoid of the people working, as if we did not exist in that world. As I would turn the pages of these magazines, the feelings of a quiet rage at being excluded began to simmer and build up. I realized I had an opportunity to respond to the image presented to me and so I did, in the only way I could at the time, with paint.
HV: What I like about the figures is they aren’t portraits of specific people from what I can tell but have a glitchy quality, like they could still disappear. Was that your intention?
RG: Precisely, the figures are rendered in that manner intended to express their impermanence. These figures are not meant to be in these magazines, and so I paint them in a way that highlights their transitory nature. Technically, because I don’t do an underdrawing, nor apply a primer, the figures can be scratched out of the magazine i’ve interrupted. They only exist on the surface, and can actually disappear. They are ephemeral. In real life, people are constantly moving, and the workers I focus on move quickly in order to stay on schedule.
A magazine painting of them is intended as a pause, an image of a moment that can last longer than the actual moment. The figures are painted in various states of work, a blend of reality based situations and imagined poses. They are painted without faces or other details because they don’t exactly belong in those homes. Through the paintings, one can stop and look at what I feel deserves to be seen in the way that I feel best represents what I see. Artistic choices are made and presented in each magazine to capture that which a photograph cannot. This process allows for me to construct my own images that reflect my real environment using images that have been constructed previously to sell an ideal environment — it’s sort of like Photoshop by hand. Technology has allowed for new advances in painting but I feel nothing can replace the traditional hand and the mind of an artist. You can see my physical brushstrokes on the surface of the magazine, juxtaposed against the digital photograph print.
Speaking of which, the fear of being replaced is always present. My intentions are on highlighting the instability of jobs. My nanny hours were set, but sometimes my hours would be cut or added depending on the family’s situation. When I started working, there was a housekeeper that would come in every Thursday and had been with the family for many years. I grew to expect her on Thursday until one day she didn’t show up. Several weeks later, two new housekeepers appeared on a Thursday and I never heard from the previous one again.
These are stories I also heard time and time again from the other people I met on the job. There is never any certainty and one always has to maintain an open network in case something happens. It is a lonely job at times, with no protections or safety nets. Many of the job’s stresses are internalized and one must navigate on their own regardless of the treacherous journey.
I found it was a tough lesson to learn when I realized that I too could be replaced at any moment. I intend for the figures I paint to reflect that realization.
HV: How do you resolve your interest in representing working class people but making luxury objects for a different class of people, which, of course, is what most artists do. I know every artist resolves and rationalizes that differently in their life and work, so I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter.
RG: You bring up a very good question, and one I’ve been dealing with more as I transition from a nanny into an artist painting about being a nanny. I come from the working class and yet, as an artist, I am part of the leisure class — it’s a complex situation to be in. I can move between classes, which is a freedom not available to many. This realization was formed while I worked in the home, simultaneously being able to enjoy a glass of wine and conversation with my employers, but also having to take directions and being able to speak with the housekeeper and gardener. I was on an hourly wage providing physical labor and that was all my family and I ever knew. My parents are Mexican immigrants and work physically demanding jobs; my mother is a custodian and my father is a truck driver. They never had the luxury to choose a career, they took what was available to survive and I internalized all of that. Taking the nanny job allowed me to understand some of their stresses. The long hours on my feet, the cleaning duties, the responsibility of children. I took the job because it was available at the time I needed it most. I didn’t plan for it to become a doorway into an art career, but that’s what it became.
Having the ability to work in my chosen career is something I struggle with currently. It would take me two weeks of nanny work to make what a painting of mine can now sell for through a gallery at an art fair. That’s not something that I take lightly. It’s a necessary progression as an artist to make a living, and it took me a while to even decide to work with a gallery because of the contradictions that would be presented.
I am not the first, nor the last artist that has had to deal with painting about these complex social issues and find a way into the art world. I don’t consider myself anything more than one more voice added to the chorus of a struggle that has been going on longer than I’ve been alive. As the late African-American artist Benny Andrews eloquently put, “Life is like a relay race, and we were lucky that we had the bar a little while, but we got it from somebody, and we’ll pass it on to somebody, so that little stretch that we ran, is just a link and a chain that runs both ways, and you have to understand that, that you are no alpha or no omega of anything, you are lucky to have had that little thing for awhile.”
Your question has opened up deep wounds within me. The people I paint are surrogates for my own family, people who are destined to work their entire lives and disappear without a trace in the world history books. That realization also happened while I worked as a nanny and has provided my need to preserve them in paintings at least. To deal with the ongoing need to address these social issues in creative ways, I developed a practice of placing hand painted cardboard cutouts of workers in public and private property throughout Beverly Hills. I place them there with no intention for a monetary exchange. It’s street art to bring attention to those working in the area. They are free to see and be taken. Which is often what happens with those. That practice allows me to get artwork out for free and available to everyone. More so, it allows for me to insert art in a space that that had none before. Concurrently, I work on the magazines as well as the cutouts because they both allow for me to exercise different parts of my process. The magazines are an intimate object that can be framed, where as the cutouts become public ephemera and are not intended to be contained.
The magazines addressing the maintenance of luxury objects become a luxury object themselves. Contradictions arise in the difference in value applied to the paintings as opposed to the value applied in real life to the subjects of my work. We live and operate under a capitalist system we cannot escape, I must simply adjust and navigate as best I can.