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LACMA presents first retrospective of revolutionary Chicano conceptual artists, Asco
Artists are shown in an image titled "Asco '82," at a reception for the opening of "Asco: "Elite of the Obscure, A Retrosective 1972-1987," which highlights the conceptual and performance art of the Chicano collective Asco, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The exhibit runs at LACMA from Sept. 4 to Dec. 4, 2011. AP Photo/Reed Saxon.

LOS ANGELES, CA.- The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) presents Asco: Elite of the Obscure, A Retrospective, 1972–1987, the first retrospective to present the wide-ranging work of the Chicano performance and conceptual art group Asco (1972–1987), co-organized with Williams College Museum of Art and on view September 4 through December 4, 2011.

Geographically and culturally segregated from the still-nascent Los Angeles contemporary art scene and aesthetically at odds with the emerging Chicano art movement, Asco members united to explore and exploit the unlimited media of the conceptual. Creating art by any means necessary—often using their bodies and guerilla tactics—Asco merged activism and performance and, in doing so, pushed the boundaries of what Chicano art might encompass. Asco: Elite of the Obscure includes nearly 150 artworks, featuring video, sculpture, painting, performance ephemera and documentation, collage, correspondence art, photography (including their signature No Movies, or invented film stills), and a series of works commissioned on occasion of the exhibition.

Asco: Elite of the Obscure was organized by Rita Gonzalez, LACMA’s curator of contemporary art, and C. Ondine Chavoya, Williams College associate professor of art and Latina/o studies. The exhibition is also a part of Pacific Standard Time, an unprecedented collaboration, initiated by the Getty, bringing together more than sixty cultural institutions from across Southern California for six months beginning October 2011 to tell the story of the birth of the L.A. art scene.

“This is the first opportunity to expose the nearly fifteen-year output of this important yet underrated art group,” said Gonzalez. “Asco’s retrospective will include works by the artists and an extended network of collaborators, many of which have not been seen since they were produced.”

“The exhibition will provide revelations and surprises for both those who are familiar with Asco’s work, as well as those just discovering it,” said Chavoya.

The core team of artists, Gronk, Willie F. Herrón III, Harry Gamboa, Jr., and Patssi Valdez, met in and around Garfield High School in East Los Angeles in the late 1960s. The emerging artists took the name Asco from the Spanish word for disgust or nausea, and set about expressing this shared feeling through performance, public art, and multimedia in response to turbulent socio-political issues in Los Angeles, and in dialogue with a larger international context. Asco eventually expanded to include a larger group of artists and performers; and the exhibition will highlight the contributions of the group’s many participants and collaborators including Teddy Sandoval and Jerry Dreva, among others.

Throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, Asco developed a sophisticated body of work attentive to the specific neighborhoods of Los Angeles and, in particular, its urban Chicano barrios. Their work circulated more as rumor than as a documented historical account, due in part to the group’s interest in hit-and-run tactics, but even more so due to their location outside of the designated geographic centers of conceptual art production. However, the group eventually inserted themselves into a broader circuit as they became engaged with an international cast of artists involved in correspondence art.

Exhibition Highlights
Many works in the exhibition depict the group’s involvement in actions and staged photographs on the streets of Los Angeles. Asco’s first public performance, Stations of the Cross (1971), transformed the Mexican Catholic tradition of Las Posadas into a ritual of remembrance and resistance against the Vietnam War. The procession consisted of Gamboa, Gronk, and Herrón, who carried a fifteen-foot cross that had been constructed out of cardboard and layered with paint. The final rite was held in front of the Marine Corps recruiting center, where the costumed trio observed a ceremonial five minutes of silence before placing the cross at the door of the station and fleeing the scene.

Asco participated in a number of Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations in East Los Angeles that were initiated by the Chicano cultural art space, Self-Help Graphics. In photographs taken by Harry Gamboa, Seymour Rosen, and Ricardo Valverde, the group’s iconoclasm and resistance to accepted cultural symbolism is evident. Also included in the exhibition are photographs of actions that present the artists’ involvement in and critical response to muralism. Gronk, who had previously established himself alongside Herrón as a noteworthy muralist, performed as auteur in Instant Mural (1974), taping Valdez and frequent collaborator Humberto Sandoval to a wall. The performers then burst forth from the tape creating a transgressive image in the urban landscape. In Asco’s Walking Mural (1972) performance, a mural becomes so disenchanted with its immobility and environment that it breaks free from the wall and onto the streets.

Asco’s first unsanctioned display of their work occurred in 1972, when Gamboa Jr. visited LACMA and noticed the absence of Chicano and Mexican artists in the galleries. He returned later that evening with Gronk and Herrón, to sign in spray-paint an exterior footbridge on the museum campus, then came back again in the wee hours of the morning with Valdez to document what they claimed was the first Chicano conceptual art piece at the museum, which came to be known as Spray Paint LACMA (or Project Pie in De/Face). Asco cannibalized muralism as a medium, along with graffiti and later film to stage movement and possibility in exchange for static, iconic, and mythical representations.

The exhibition also features a large selection of No Movies—Asco's signature images created for the camera that imbue performance art with a cinematic feel. As a staged event, the artists would play the parts of cinema stars, and the resulting images were then disseminated as if they were stills from “authentic” Chicano motion pictures. No Movies envision the possibility of Chicanos starring in and producing a wide variety of Hollywood films while simultaneously highlighting their relative invisibility. Essentially, Asco created images to advertise films that did not exist and circulated the imagery in a variety of inventive and innovative ways: No Movies were distributed to local and national media outlets, including film distributors, and reached an international audience through mail art circuits.

Asco’s spontaneous actions of the early 1970s were, by the late 1980s, modified into scripted ensemble pieces that could highlight the interdisciplinary interests and talents of the group members.

Schedule, Catalogue, & Related Exhibitions
In conjunction with the exhibition, a fully illustrated catalogue published by Hatje Cantz features essays by the co-curators, reproductions of previously published interviews with the artists, and new critical essays by scholars from a variety of fields (including Maris Bustamante, David E. James, Amelia Jones, Josh Kun, Chon A. Noriega, and others).

Asco will travel to Williams College Museum of Art (February 4 through July 29, 2012). Additional venues may be announced at a later time.

Additional Pacific Standard Time exhibitions that will feature Asco’s work include Mapping Another L.A.: The Chicano Art Movement at the Fowler Museum at UCLA (with UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center); Under the Big Black Sun: California Art 1974–1981 at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA; and State of Mind: New California Art Circa 1970 at the Orange County Museum of Art (with the University of California Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive).

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