– Autumn/Winter 2008

Early Asco: 'Your Art Disgusts Me’

Chon A. Noriega

Asco, 'Instant Mural', 1974, colour photograph. Photograph: Harry Gamboa, Jr, showing Gronk and Patssi Valdez

Asco, 'Instant Mural', 1974, colour photograph. Photograph: Harry Gamboa, Jr, showing Gronk and Patssi Valdez

In the late 1960s, four young Chicano artists in East Los Angeles began collaborating in various combinations, eventually forming an art collective and taking the name Asco - as in 'me da asco' or 'it (your art) disgusts me'.

One evening in 1972, three of its members - Harry Gamboa Jr, Gronk (aka Guglio Nicandro) and Willie Herrón III - signed their names to the entrance of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), claiming the public institution as their own private creation and thus making the world's largest work of Chicano art in the affluent and white mid-Wilshire area of the city.1 Spray Paint LACMA (1972), sometimes later referred to as Project Pie in De/Face, was conceived in response to a LACMA curator's dismissive statement that Chicanos made graffiti not art, hence their absence from the gallery walls. In other words, 'Chicano art' was a categorical impossibility.

In signing the museum, Asco collapsed the space between graffiti and conceptual art, at once fulfilling the biased thinking that justified their exclusion and refiguring the entire museum as an art object itself, in accordance with the terms of institutional critique that were being developed at the time. Because the signed museum could not possibly fit within the museum gallery walls, it became the objective correlative for that categorical impossibility of Chicano art, the very condition that the institution helped to sustain. With Spray Paint LACMA, Asco made briefly visible the fact that the public mission of the institution - to be representative - was at odds with the aesthetic criteria that determined the curatorial agenda and thus what was installed on the interior walls.

  1. The next morning, Gamboa photographed the fourth member of the group, Patssi Valdez, standing by the men's signatures, an image that circulated widely and has become iconic of the group's public actions. Writing about this piece, art historian Mario Ontiveros wonders whether 'Asco might have enacted the very gender politics that they criticised in the movement'. He quotes from his 1997 interview with Valdez: 'I was not allowed to go. They said, "You cannot run fast enough. What if we get arrested and go to jail?" They were sort of protecting me, but at the same time I was pissed off. Especially since [Willie] was my boyfriend and was trying to protect me, but I was like "Get a life, I want to go".' Mario Ontiveros, Retheorizing Activism: The Aesthetics of Social Responsibility in the work of Asco, Group Material, Gran Fury, and Félix González-Torres, Ph.D. Thesis, University of California, Los Angeles, 2005, p.98, fn.138.

  2. The invitation is reproduced in Catherine Grenier (ed.), Los Angeles, 1955-1985: Birth of an Art Capital (exh. cat.), Paris: Centre Pompidou and Panama Musées, 2006, p.180.

  3. Alexandra Schwartz, '"Second City": Ed Ruscha and the Reception of Los Angeles Pop', October, vol.111, Winter 2005, p.35. Interestingly, Edward Kienholz is quoted in a Los Angeles MagazineLos Angeles, 1955-1985, op. cit., p.180. Kienholz's Back Seat Dodge '38Los Angeles County Museum on Fire was purchased in 1968 by Joseph H. Hirshhorn and then donated in 1972 to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, which opened in 1974. In 2007, El Museo del Barrio in New York acquired a set of prints of Gamboa's photographs of Asco street performances and No Movies, including Spray Paint LACMA, that it exhibited in the context of a pan-American exhibition titled 'Arte =/= Vida: Actions by Artists of the Americas'.

  4. Interview with the author, 27 May 1991.

  5. Gronk, Cyclona and Mundo Meza collaborated on four other performances between 1969 and 1971.

  6. M. Ontiveros, Retheorizing Activism, op. cit., p.66.

  7. Ibid., p.69.

  8. These performances included Stations of the Cross (1971), Spray Paint LACMA (1972), First Supper (After a Major Riot) (1974) and Decoy Gang War Victim (1975).

  9. See Max Benavidez, Gronk, Los Angeles: UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center Press, 2007, pp.26-30.

  10. Harry Gamboa, Jr, 'In the City of Angels, Chameleons, and Phantoms: Asco, a Case Study of Chicano Art in Urban Tones (Or, Asco Was a Four-Member Word)', Urban Exile: Collected Writings of Harry Gamboa, Jr (ed. Chon A. Noriega), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998, p.85.

  11. Harry Gamboa, Jr, 'Harry Gamboa, Jr: No Movie Maker. Interview by Marisela Norte', El Tecolote, n.d. (c.1983), p.3.

  12. Quoted in Harry Gamboa, Jr, Urban Exile, op. cit., p.27.

  13. See Sheldon Renan, An Introduction to the American Undergound Film, New York: Dutton, 1967, pp.227-53; and Gene Youngblood, Expanded Cinema, New York: Dutton, 1970.

  14. Interview with the author, 27 May 1991.

  15. See David E. James, 'Hollywood Extras: One Tradition of "Avant-Garde" Film in Los Angeles', October, vol.90, Fall 1999, pp.2-24.

  16. C. Ondine Chavoya, 'Pseudographic Cinema: Asco's No Movies', Performance Research, vol.3.1, 1998.

  17. Chon A. Noriega, 'No Introduction', in Harry Gamboa, Jr, Urban Exile, op. cit., pp.3-4.

  18. I am a co-curator of this exhibition (together with Rita Gonzalez and Howard Fox) and also an adjunct curator at LACMA.

  19. See Rita Gonzalez, 'Strangeways Here We Come', in John C. Welchman (ed.), Recent Pasts: Art in Southern California from the '90s to Now, Zürich: JRP/Ringier, 2005. Both groups name themselves by conjoining references to the 'uncultured' and to systems for generating meaning or knowledge - Slanguage through its pun on 'slang' and 'language', and The Pocho Research Society by juxtaposing 'pocho' (a Mexican American who is badly educated on or ignorant of his/her Mexican heritage) with organised 'research'.