Asco were formed in the early 1970s by four Chicano artists - Harry Gamboa Jr, Gronk, Willie F. Herrón III and Patssi Valdez - who met in high school in East LA, the centre of Los Angeles’s Mexican American community. They emerged from the Chicano civil rights movement of the late 60s and early 70s, which fought labour exploitation, the Vietnam draft, police brutality, and other forms of discrimination and deprivation.
Their name means disgust or nausea in Spanish, and their work had a low budget look reflecting their circumstances – Gronk called it aesthetics of poverty. In the 70s, a Chicano artist was expected to paint murals – the Chicano Movement borrowed from the Mexican political mural tradition of the early 20th century. While sharing the Movement’s opposition to racial discrimination, Asco were also determined to free themselves from the straightjacket of muralism. They sometimes did this by parodying it. Walking Mural and Instant Mural were outrageous street performances rather than paintings on walls.
Asco’s performances in and around East LA resembled scenes from movies that were never made – or fashion shoots, or promotional images of rock bands. They called some of these No Movies. Made in the shadow of Hollywood, yet in a community ghettoised from the wider metropolis, Harry Gamboa Jr’s photographs of Asco’s performances anticipate the staged photography of Cindy Sherman, Jeff Walls and other major figures in postmodern art working with photography. The imagery they used was linked to fantasy and fiction, Asco retained a dangerous political edge. Their actions were made without notice or permission in a public sphere fraught with political tension and police curfews. Some were made at sites where a violent incident had taken place the previous day – the site of a gang conflict or the fatal shooting of demonstrators by the Los Angeles Police Department.
This exhibition builds on Asco’s acclaimed retrospective, Elite of the Obscure, at Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Williams College Museum of Art in 2011-12, curated by Rita Gonzalez and Ondine Chavoya. It travels to de Appel in Amsterdam 8 February to 13 April 2014 and CAPC in Bordeaux 26 June to 21 September 2014.
For this exhibition Patssi Valdez is making new costumes and a performance installation inspired by Asco’s Paper Fashion Show (1980) and Walking Mural (1972), with fashion students from Nottingham Trent University. See the Talks and Discussions pages for further details.