My profile of Kent Twitchell, dean of Los Angeles mural art, whose work asks: Can the visual language of photorealism communicate the truth of God? In the arts journal Image.
Forty years ago four kids from East L.A. forever changed the course of Chicano art. I tell the story of the 1970s Chicano art collective Asco in the latest Los Angeles Review of Books. Glam rock movie stills, fake crime scenes, portable murals, dancing tanks–Asco’s art was avant-garde before there was a Chicano avant-garde. At last the group is getting its due with recent museum retrospectives (LACMA) and magazine covers (ArtForum). Asco’s legacy is complicated. The group invigorated an ethnic art movement at risk of creative inertia. But they were pied pipers, too, inspiring a new generation of young Chicano artists to pursue art world fame–not the political activism once considered Chicano art’s primary goal.
I write in the current issue of Image about El Teatro Campesino, America’s oldest and most revered Spanish-language theatre troupe. ETC is a beacon of integrity in an era of embattled arts institutions. Founded in 1965 during the United Farm Workers’ California grape boycott, the troupe remains headquartered in migrant farm worker country (San Juan Bautista, near the Salinas Valley) and stages a mix of avant-garde drama and traditional Mexican religious plays. Christmastime productions of La Virgin Del Tepeyac, the 500-year-old story of the Virgin of Guadalupe’s appearance to the Indian Juan Diego, are revelatory. ETC is a veteran organization but it represents an immigrant-rich America’s artistic future.
“A Spade is Not a Spade: The Art of Fabian Debora and the Mystery of Los Angeles” is, as the title implies, about roughly a baker’s dozen different things at once. Principally, it is about the Los Angeles artist Fabian Debora’s spiritual evolution from hardened street gang member to (locally) celebrated painter. It is also, with a bit of a sideways slide, about a Jesuit priest named Father Greg Boyle who runs an initiative called Homeboy Industries that helps the Debora’s of the world escape the projects, the violence, the drugs, the normalization of murder, intrinsic to gang life.
Then it becomes something else again: a meditation on neighborhood, and on memories attached to the places where we grow up, even when those places feature children who must be taught to sleep in “bullet proof” postures to avoid being killed in their beds by random shootings in the hallway or the squalid apartment next door.
That would be enough for even the most voracious reader, but Hinch goes further yet by tying Debora’s redemption, “Father G’s” saving work, and sense of home that creates homeboys up to the underappreciated, if not unknown, truth that the Los Angeles of all our stereotypes is now among the most fertile spiritual soil in the world.
The immigration that meets the racism that feeds the poverty that fosters the eradication of community that begets the violence is, simultaneously, the source of a 21st Century version of the Great Awakening.
“Newcomers—almost four and a half million, a third from Asia, more than half from Mexico and Latin America—have created in Los Angeles a massive religious infrastructure similar to the network of Catholic parishes and Jewish synagogues that once anchored life in immigrant landing zones such as New York’s Lower East Side and South Boston,” Hinch writes.
“More Catholics pack more parishes and run more schools in southern California today than in any archdiocese in the nation. Mosques in Orange County operate mortuaries and schools, furnish reception rooms for weddings and other community activities. In Hacienda Heights . . . the largest Buddhist temple in the western hemisphere organizes summer camps, teaches Cantonese, produces radio and television broadcasts, raises money for disabled children, operates a printing press and runs and art gallery.”
This is not just interesting information. It is inherently newsworthy of its potential to make all of us new. As we all know, what starts in California, sooner or later starts everywhere else as well. Yet how much room is given to it in a so-called mainstream media obsessed with every burp and tickle in, say, American electoral primaries that will be meaningless in a matter of weeks? None, or next to it.
Only three days left to catch “Contested Visions in the Spanish Colonial World,” a stunning exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Four hundred years of art produced in the Spanish-speaking Americas. What fascinates me is how the exhibit highlights both the resilience of native artistic traditions in the face of overwhelming Christianization, and also the adaptability of Catholicism in new lands. A parallel to pressures and adaptations faced by many immigrants in America today. Excellent review by Daniela Bleichmar in the 2/9/12 New York Review of Books.
Two new publications this month, both about the work of Fabian Debora, a former East L.A. gang member turned painter and muralist. “Pay Me No Mind” appears in the latest issue of Boom: A Journal of California (an excellent and welcome addition to the literature of California). “A Spade is Not a Spade” appears in the latest issue of Image.