The late actor and art collector Vincent Price once said, “I play men besieged by fate…” East Los Angeles College’s new Vincent Price Art Museum (VPAM), which opened on May 21, 2011, is a mark of destiny. For generations, the Eastside was usually seen as an add-on to L.A.’s cultural world, “that” place over there where the Mexicans lived. But, now, due to VPAM’s opening, there is a sleek space in East L.A. that can show the art that has its aesthetic roots and inspirations on the Eastside. VPAM’s very existence tips the cultural balance in the City of Angels. No longer is every important visual art venue on the Westside, midtown or downtown.
I recently wrote the lead essay for “Round Trip,” VPAM’s main opening show. The show brings together eight alumni from ELAC. Quite a crew: Gronk, Patssi, Valdez, Diane Gamboa, Kent Twitchell, Clement Hanami, Willie Herron, John Valadez, and Judithe Hernandez. Their work christens VPAM and launches it on its way as a cultural touchstone in Los Angeles.
There’s an old saying that if an artist could say something in words, he or she wouldn’t paint or draw or sculpt. It’s true. Art is like an axis around which rotate innumerable visions and realities. For the eight artists in “Round Trip,” art is also concrete and real, never platonic.
What is the job of the artist? We can easily describe the job of an engineer, a teacher or an auto mechanic but what does an artist really do? The painter Francis Bacon once said, “The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery.” How does one do that?
These eight artists do it by bringing their pasts and their secrets with them. Gronk is famously known to have slept on the roof of the college during his years there as if he were a living installation and the college campus was his museum. In “Queen of Denial,” a work in the show, Gronk seems to bury the secrets within tattooed layers upon layers of paint, chalk, and embedded signs, scrawls and markings. Could the queen in this work be denying death, as is often thought to be the artist’s ultimate goal? Or, as Mark Twain was fond of saying, “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.”
Diane Gamboa says that by the time she attended ELAC she had a radical perspective: “Everything that could happen to a girl, had happened to me. I had already seen monsters, molesters and kidnappers by the time I got here.” One simply has to view “Urban Warrior,” a 1990 work that underlines Gamboa’s view that life is a dangerous illusion.
Or is it a disillusion? What did it mean to drop a nuclear bomb on innocent citizens as the U.S. did at the end of World War II on Japan, evil? Clement Hanami’s mother is a hibakusha, an atomic bomb survivor. Perhaps in “See Bomb Drop” or “Bang You’re Dead,” he’s recalling that stark historical reality. He gives us an image that subtly indicates the racial undertow that caused the U.S. to use the atomic bomb on Asian Japan but not on European Germany.
Kent Twitchell says, “I discovered fine art at ELAC. All my life I’ve been trying to make monumental pieces. Stonehenge. Christ in Rio. Mount Rushmore. The Statue of Liberty. These are things that you have to look up to and the sublime feeling that comes with that. There’s something inspiring about it.”
For Willie Herron, art is a complex interplay between creativity and violence. In his 2009 “Moratorium,” Herron goes back to a famous image taken from a mural painted at an earlier time: the 1972 “Black and White Mural.” In the more recent piece, Herron extracts a dominant image from the mural. It’s a woman screaming because she has witnessed horror: a riot, an assassination, a police occupation.
Another artist in the show, Patssi Valdez, is the artistic embodiment of pain and contradiction. For many years, she was best known as a work of art herself. As she says, “I was my art and nobody made me do it.” She was sexually and physically abused and had to grow beyond that to find her path as an artist. In Valdez’ “The Dream” we see the paradoxical result of her personal and artistic cultivation. A woman is sleeping in a bed that is floating on a limpid ocean. Is she safe or in danger?
We never really know dreams. All we have is a memory of our dreams and it has often been said that all waking is a dream. In many ways, “The Dream” is the perfect artistic image.
Judith Hernandez paints visions. In “La muerte en el este de Edén/Death in the East of Eden,” Hernandez has painted Eve, our foremother, as a dead naked woman wearing the mask of a luchador with orange antlers. She is sprawled atop a sensual golden convertible, as psychedelic purple palm trees seem to wave like tentacles reaching into a turquoise sky behind her. Eve is dead but there is an electric air, the breath of life still hovering around her.
Sleep, nightmares, dreams, and visions are what artists bring to the world. They show us what we sometimes dare not consider. Perhaps that is how they deepen the mystery. John Valadez deepens it by capturing moments as realistically as a photograph but with a twist. On close inspection his images are explosions of emotion, almost tinctures of pathos displayed for all to see.
These eight artists have done their job.
VPAM’s Round Trip succeeds because it brings together eight visions whose creators each, once upon a time, lived and learned on ELAC’s grounds and found something that they have carried with them ever since and shared it with us.
And VPAM just being there, like a gleaming silver spaceship on the ELAC campus, means that it is now playing a fateful role in L.A culture.
This post first appeared on The Huffington Post.