Axis Mundo: Queer Networks in Chicano L.A.by Gillian Sneed
Hunter College Art Galleries: 205 Hudson Gallery & Bertha and Karl Leubsdorf Gallery | June 22 – August 19, 2018
Axis Mundo: Queer Networks in Chicano L.A.—on view at Hunter College’s 205 Hudson and Leubsdorf galleries—is the first exhibition to excavate the understudied experimental practices and exchanges of a generation of queer Chicanx artists in Southern California from the late 1960s to the early 1990s. The sprawling multimedia show presents the work of over fifty established and lesser-known queer Chicanx artists—many for the first time since their deaths—as well as other artists from different communities, cultural backgrounds, and sexual orientations, who were connected to them through national and international networks. It claims some artists who have not been traditionally linked to Chicanx culture, like the Tejana experimental composer and electronic music innovator Pauline Oliveros, and highlights the sexuality of other artists who have been embraced for their contributions to Chicanx art, and yet not widely explored from a queer perspective, like muralist Judith Baca and painter Carlos Almaraz.
More importantly, it re-examines queer histories that have often only focused on white gays and lesbians, focusing instead on queer people of color. The exhibition situates all of these artists’ contributions within the aftermath of the Chicano Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, and amid the burgeoning Gay Liberation movement of the 1970s; and later, contextualizes them against the backdrop of AIDS activism of the 1980s and 1990s. It also explores the roles played by radical communities and by new venues, including punk music and alternative art spaces, and highlights genres considered new and experimental in the 1970s, such as mail art and video art, shedding light on the many spaces, forums, and networks within which these artists partied, collaborated, and created.
At the heart of the interconnected web of friends, lovers, bandmates, and pen-pals was Edmundo “Mundo” Meza, a central figure around whom many of the artists in the show revolved. Meza was a painter, but he was also known for his performances and innovative store window displays. On a literal level, the show addresses the spaces and scenes that circulated around Meza, and the frenetic activities they generated. On another level, Meza’s nickname of “mundo” (Spanish for “world”), used in the show’s title, gestures to what queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz has called “queer worldmaking”—how queer cultural production, performances, and everyday rituals establish ways of seeing and being in the world in opposition to oppressive and exclusionary hegemonies.
Meza’s large canvases are prominently featured in both the intimate Leubsdorf Gallery and the expansive spaces of 205 Hudson. However, Portrait Study (1983), the smallest black-and-white painting by the artist, located near the entrance at 205 Hudson, stands out for the delicacy of its scale and medium—acrylic on paper—providing a quiet meditation on identity and selfhood in the face of both physical obliteration and social marginalization, one theme addressed by the show. It depicts the head and shoulders of a man wearing a suit and tie, whose face is obscured by a jumble of textures, lines, shapes, scrolls, and columns. This concealed visage appears like a hodgepodge of historical avant-garde citations, from Picasso and Kandinsky to de Chirico and Magritte. As Joshua Javier Guzmán points out in the exhibition’s hefty catalogue, while Meza’s earlier 1970s style combined Chicano nationalist themes with a psychedelic aesthetic, after his terminal diagnosis of AIDS in the early 1980s, his colorful, figurative paintings turned to black and white and became increasingly abstract, which, Guzmán suggests, was Meza’s way of grappling with his illness and eventual demise.
As with so many queer histories of this time, the specter of the AIDS crisis hangs over the show, and is examined in a section at 205 Hudson titled “AIDS Activism(s).” In addition to Meza, twelve other artists in the show died of the disease, including Ray Navarro, who passed away at just twenty-six after graduating from CalArts and moving to New York. Navarro’s Equipped (1990) comprises three black-and-white photographs, each depicting signifiers of disability—an overturned wheelchair, a knocked-over walker, a cane leaning on wall—absent of the bodies they are intended to assist. Each photograph is mounted within a pink flesh-colored frame, evoking the “skin” tone of prosthetic devices, and labeled below with brown plaques that resemble office or hospital signage, yet contain sexually suggestive phrases to highlight the disjunctions between sexualized and sick bodies: “Hot Butt” under the wheelchair; “Stud Walk” under the walker; and “Third Leg” under the cane. Navarro executed the work with the help of his friend, artist Zoe Leonard, after losing his vision due to AIDS-related complications—a reflection on the failure of the health care system to adequately equip patients for their own disappearance.
Though Axis Mundo functions as a relational mapping of queer Chicanx L.A., Navarro and several other artists in the show spent formative periods in New York. In fact, the city was a key hub of activity among the many networks traced by the exhibition, underscoring the show’s relevance here. The exhibition’s emphasis on multiple flows and sites of exchange also epitomizes what curator Zanna Gilbert, in relation to Latin American mail art, has termed the “translocal”—types of collaboration that simultaneously enable the expression of local values as well as broader shared ideologies. Axis Mundo’s emphasis on mail art networks and widely-circulated self-published magazines—primarily on view in the archival sections in the Leubsdorf Gallery, but also in vitrines at 205 Hudson—reveals how queer Chicanx artists and their collaborators forged new identities and communities that extended beyond L.A.
It is apt that the show is organized by an art historian, C. Ondine Chavoya, and the curator at ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives, David Evans Frantz, because the centerpiece of this dynamic exhibition is such archival material and ephemera. These materials—including mail art and zines, and also prints, works on paper, band posters, poetry, audio recordings, fashions, and performance documentation—form “archives of feelings,” which feminist theorist Ann Cvetkovich describes as archives of queer histories that document intimacy, sexuality, activism, and queer trauma, and which cannot be chronicled through traditional archival materials.
The exhibition’s emphasis on ephemera also underscores these artists’ engagements with camp and excess, which take their form through glam and punk fashions and music, as well as self-presentations that satirize and exaggerate normative gender presentations. As a part of their worldmaking projects, these artists embraced exuberant bodies, fashions, and artforms; and in this way, the show reorients Chicanx art away from rigid categorizations of Mexican-American identity politics and cultural production (such as Muralism), that were often patriarchal and homophobic, toward new ones that exude other values and possibilities. One of the most radical examples of camp and excess is the art and music of the pioneering L.A.-based queer synth-punk band, Nervous Gender, formed in 1978 by Gerardo Velazquez, Edward Stapleton, Phranc [Susan Gottlieb], and Michael Ochoa, and highlighted in the show through recordings of their music, show posters, art, extreme fashions, and performance documentation. Their over-the-top music videos Cardinal Newman (1981) and Leather Poltergeist (1982), directed by videographer Michael Intriere, are played on a monitor at 205 Hudson, and contain imagery including a seductive leatherboy in Nazi garb and priests and nuns performing bloody S&M rituals.
Another section of 205 Hudson titled “Chicano Chic” similarly explores the ways artists used dress to experiment with the mutability of identity and gender presentation. This includes the photographic documentation of Judith F. Baca’s Vanity Table, a performance originally presented at the Woman’s Building in 1976. In Vanity Table, Baca takes on the persona of a Pachuca, the female counterpart of the Pachuco, a Chicano subcultural type popular in the 1940s and 1950s, often associated with zoot suits and stereotyped by Anglos as flamboyant or tacky. Here, Baca performs a Pachuca through her makeup and costuming—eyes lined, lips luscious, hair big, nails long and red, and a scarf tied jauntily around her neck. The photographs frame her head and shoulders as she faces the camera—as if facing a mirror—as she primps, puts on makeup, and fluffs her hair, before menacingly pointing a knife at the viewer. The result is both gaudy and aggressive; the implied message is that you better not mess with this femme.
Axis Mundo positions the artists and practices that have until recently occupied the margins at its center, valorizing them in order to honor them. Further, it demonstrates how they transformed their marginalization into a position of resistance. Teddy Sandoval’s jumbo-sized black-and-white photograph, plastered at the entrance of 205 Hudson, shows artist Joey Terrill wearing a handmade yellow t-shirt with the word maricón [Spanish for “faggot”], epitomizing how these queer artists and activists embraced derogatory terms to resist their power to oppress. Terrill created these shirts, and similar ones with a slang term for lesbian, malflora, to be worn by Chicanx friends at the 1976 Christopher Street West parade as a symbol of not just gay and lesbian pride, but specifically queer Chicanx pride. Like these shirts, the deft presentations in Axis Mundo manage to avoid essentialist readings of genders, sexualities, ethnicities, and scenes, allowing for nuances and complexities that celebrate the featured artists’ identities without putting them into boxes.
Axis Mundo was developed as a traveling exhibition by Independent Curators International (ICI), and ICI organized the current exhibition tour.
GILLIAN SNEED is an art historian and writer, whose work centers on gender studies, and modern and contemporary art of the Americas.