Asco: Elite of the Obscure

Asco À La Mode, 1976, black and white photograph

Asco À La Mode, 1976, black and white photograph

‘Shimmering, shining, vomiting, glitter’ exclaims the Asco drawing in issue two of the magazine Regeneración (1974–5). It’s one possible paradoxical definition of this four-member group, which existed from 1972–87. Its four members were Harry Gamboa Jr., Patssi Valdez, Gronk and Willy Herrón, and some of their many attributes were wildness, wit, whimsy, flamboyance as resistance, double-entendres, gender-bending, revelry and rebellion.

In Spanish, asco means disgust, nausea or revulsion, although their exhibition at LACMA, ‘Asco: Elite of the Obscure’, prompted anything but. In the midst of intense activity from counter-cultural movements – not least that of the Chicano Movement in East Los Angeles, where they lived – these four artists found in their disgust for the mainstream a way of creating, of vomiting up all the glitter and the grit in their surroundings.

Including documentation of happenings, murals, mail-art, photocopies, urban ready-mades, ‘No-movies’, performances, costumes, drawings and paintings, this exhibition was an essential guide to Asco’s many years of blending art and activism at levels so subtle, so full of humour and with such a sense of ephemerality, that it’s a challenge to grasp. Curators Rita González and C. Ondine Chavoya rose to their task and presented a rare glimpse of works that ‘were often created in transitory and easily degradable materials that crumble at the slightest prodding and fade quickly upon exposure to any glimmer of hope’, as Gamboa Jr. perhaps not so ironically declared in ‘Light at the End of Tunnelvision’ (a paper he presented at the Hammer Museum in 1994).

If Asco’s members were incited by disgust not only at the Vietnam War, and the WASP status quo, they also reacted to a relatively conservative (in terms of sexuality and gender, at least) Chicano community and to a certain definition of what Chicano art could be. As Gamboa Jr. observed, ‘instead of creating Social Realism protest art, social surrealism seemed to be more the point’. This was clear in their many ‘No-movies’ – 35mm still photographs that document a movie that was never shot as an actual moving image. These are not just about glamour, they document self-transformation, androgyny and sexuality, in ways that could be described as Ziggy Stardust-goes-Mexicana, with a rasquachismo, an ‘aesthetics of poverty’, as Gronk has called it, that yielded a maximum amount of visual experiment, glam and gore, but that also spoofed and critiqued mainstream Hollywood films, mainstream identity, and the imagery that accompanied both.

The ‘No-movies’ – with titles such as Ascozilla (1975), Fountain of Aloof (1978), Slasher no.9 (1975) or À La Mode (1976) – feature montages of funny performances, theatricality, camp impersonations, cult gore,costumes and dime-store glamour, but alsoan aspect of documentary and urban realismas well. And, like any good movies, they received awards: specifically the golden (plaster) cobra Asco Award.

Asco’s sharp interventions, hoaxes, art and social commentary find echoes in work as varied as that of Kenneth Anger, Fluxus, Chris Burden, No-Grupo, Maurizio Cattelan (whose A Perfect Day, 1999, is strikingly similar to their Instant Mural, 1974), Paul McCarthy, Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Mike Kelley, to name but a few. In Instant Mural, Gronk taped Patssi Valdez and Humberto Sandoval to a wall, only to have Valdez burst free of the tape, while Gamboa documented it photographically. Their murals blur the distinction between performance and muralism, and especially muralism and graffiti, as is revealed by a mural/graffiti on Sunset Boulevard that advertised their ‘No-movie’ production company ‘Midnight Art Productions’.

What this retrospective puts in perspective is the importance of Asco’s work, but also, within the larger context of the multi-institutional ‘Pacific Standard Time’ initiative, it underscores the vibrancy of an underground, out-of-the-closet, trans-border,overboard arts scene in LA. The city is the fifth member of Asco, a constant presence in their works – as scenery, as pretext, context and texture, as danger, oppression,segregation and playground, or as the place of potential revolt – in the sense of both disgust and revolution.

Issue 144

First published in Issue 144

Jan - Feb 2012