Harry Gamboa and the Contemporary Avant-Garde


David Buuck

University of California - Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz CA

Copyright © 2002 by David Buuck, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

Review of:

Noriega, Chon A., Ed. Urban Exile: The Collected Writings of Harry Gamboa Jr. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998. 548 pp., ills.

  1. The international art world (and art market) has, in the last five to ten years, begun to recognize that both "contemporary art" and the "world" exist beyond the borders of Europe and North America. The increase in international biennials, global-themed exhibitions, and the "discovery" of new talents within the non-Western world points not only to a market attuned to the globalizing thrust of late capitalism (and the "creation" of new art markets as well as new exoticisms) but also more aware of a long-neglected transnationalism in contemporary art practice. Retrospectively, the current celebration (however fraught) of an increasingly globalized art world has compelled many art historians and critics to reassess the conventional histories of European and North American modernism(s). It has become clear that a prevalent Eurocentric bias in such histories has helped to construct certain now-canonized narratives of modernism and all its various movements and avant-gardes, such that the history of modern art is difficult to divorce from the history of the modern West. However, just as Western modernity is unthinkable without an analysis of colonialism and imperialism (the first ages of globalization), so too are our notions of modernist art history restricted by the blinders of gender, race, class, nationality, etc., that have seemingly relegated to the historical sidelines artists and movements not subsumed into the grand narratives of European and North American modernism (and postmodernism for that matter). We speak of feminist art, black artists, queer aesthetics, etc., but rarely if ever of white or male or straight art; the latter fall under the privileged category of Art itself, a category that need not be tainted with the specter of "identity politics" (as if white, male, Western, etc., were not identities).

  2. Thus, contemporary efforts to reassess art history, to "rediscover" or "recuperate" artists of color, female artists, art practices outside the dominant narratives of European-American modernism, should not be seen merely as well-intentioned projects to build counter-canons or "multi-culturalize" modernism. Rather, notions of modernism, avant-garde aesthetics, and art history are necessarily decentered, critiqued, opened up to reevaluation, in the face of so many vibrant and engaged heritages of what one might call "shadow modernisms."

  3. While Harry Gamboa Jr. is most certainly an American artist, his work (along with the collaborative projects of Asco, the Los Angeles-based collective Gamboa is most closely associated with) exists in such shadows of conventional treatments of contemporary American art. While Gamboa's work can clearly be connected to the Euro-American lineages of absurdist theater, conceptual art and performance, he is equally tethered to the alternative and marginalized aesthetics of Chicano art and politics, as well as to the almost-underground cultural politics of urban art and life in 1970s Los Angeles. Urban Exile, a collection of incredibly diverse writings, performance texts, photographs, poetry, fiction, and essays, pulls together for the first time a virtual encyclopedia of one artist's work -- and in the broader sense, a community's struggle in many of its varied forms. Politically and historically contextualized in editor Chon Noriega's concise introduction, Gamboa's work not only opens up new vistas for histories of contemporary political avant-garde art practice, but serves as a testament to a ceaseless and roving imagination that, while explorative conceptually and formally, remains firmly rooted in the urban class politics of Los Angeles and the broader U.S. Chicano community.
    "Tyranny makes its debut by pouring red wax into your ears. It's a sunny day and the waxy layer between the spoken word and its effect begins to solidify. The mad impulse to vomit on holy icons of ill repute begins to melt. The cast is set and the stage is the platform for public executions. You are judged by the smell of your hair. Guilty! The conviction that you are worthless in relation to the population at large (the sacrifice is accepted with hardly any grace). Your bones will be fed to the lepers and monkeys. Why do you resist if not completely?" ("Pseudoturquoisers," 191)

  4. Irony, black humor, wordplay, absurd theatre, "fake interviews" -- such tactics saved Gamboa and Asco from both cynicism and the romanticized purity of an often essentialist (in Asco's view), cultural-nationalist Chicano aesthetics. While certainly active and engaged in local and regional Chicano politics and cultural issues, Gamboa resisted from the beginning the perceived need to adhere to conventional standards of what "the Chicano/a artist" was expected to produce. Thus the walking and instant murals (performative and time-bound explorations of the mural form), the play with stereotypes and cultural assumptions, the upsetting of identity and ethnic norms.

  5. Still, far from rejecting a cultural politics in favor of an assimilationist aesthetics, Gamboa and Asco were just as likely to critique and deconstruct the established conventions of Hollywood, modernism and the contemporary American avant-garde.
    "I have stated in various public forums that the Hollywood sign is the ugliest example of graffiti in North America and that it should be whitewashed and replaced with a simple neon sign that points the way to Aztlan. Such heresy has been responded to with personal attacks by individuals who have invested their lives in perpetuating negative stereotypes as well as those who value the glittering falseness of playing a 'bit part' in the nullification of the important history of Chicanos and Mexicans in Los Angeles. There have been many who have been invited to drink at the fountain of the oasis only to discover that they have quenched their thirst with the sands of a vast hypnotic wasteland." ("Light at the End of Tunnel Vision," 100)
    Gamboa's (and Asco's) "No Movies" are hybrid performance pieces, usually resulting in a single photographed image, within which a staged "shot" (set inside an implied narrative) sets off a number of "cinematic" effects. Here, against the social and economic backdrop of Hollywood, Asco simulates (and stimulates) a "cinema of impoverished means" that, in its combination of photography, film, photonovella, and text, predates and anticipates the more celebrated "Picture" artists such as Cindy Sherman. "No Movies" were for Gamboa both a necessary result of limited resources and institutional support, as well as a conceptual device to critique those very limitations. In a similar vein, Asco's early intervention at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), where Gamboa, Gronk, and William F. Herron spray-painted their names on the side of the building, in effect claiming their act as the first Chicano art to be shown at the museum, demonstrates another creative attempt to use their institutional and political marginality as a kind of aesthetic weapon.

  6. The incredibly wide range of Gamboa's work and its varied locales of public presentation (obscure art and poetry journals, spontaneous street actions, small performance spaces, off-the-map galleries) are further evidence not only of the diversity of his practice, but also of the relative obscurity within which he has worked for many years. No essays in Artforum, few exhibitions at big-name museums, no published monographs devoted to his and Asco's work; this is not somehow proof of Gamboa's status as some "minor" figure in American conceptual art, but rather further evidence of the institutional bias against forms of art practice that do not fit cleanly into the dominant articulations of the time.

  7. While Gamboa and Asco have, in recent years, begun to receive public and scholarly recognition for their contributions to both Chicano and conceptual art, it is clear that during their most active years they had to create a context for their work outside of both the mainstream (and mainstream-avant-garde) institutions as well as the conventional identity-based aesthetics of Chicano art in the sixties and seventies. The inherent limitations (and shifting politics and economics) of such contexts greatly influenced Gamboa's aesthetics and, while not wishing to romanticize the marginality of their means, significantly enhanced the open, spontaneous, and collaborative elements of his art and practice. All this is to say, perhaps, that there is a crucial difference between contingency by choice and contingency by necessity. That Gamboa and Asco were able to navigate so many fields and currents with a consistently critical sense of humor (however "black" and politically-driven) is only further testament to the importance of their work as a model for contemporary aesthetic practice.

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