The word “asco” was strange and unknown to me the first time I encountered it.
Upon further investigation, I found that “asco” is actually a Spanish word meaning “disgust” or “nausea.” Asco: Elite of the Obscure, A Retrospective, 1972-1987, is the title of the featured exhibition at the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) that opened Saturday. So the question then arises: Why would an exhibition of art title itself with such a word? C. Ondine Chavoya, associate professor of art and Latina/o studies at the College, eloquently answered, “Repulsion was part of what they felt. Disgusted by segregation, racism and brutality, they wanted to generate that response.” After seeing the exhibition, it is clear that, while the message of the art certainly elicits that response, the pieces themselves are quite beautiful.
Asco was a group of artists based in Chicago who worked together through the ’70s and mid-’80s to create art that responded to and highlighted social issues. The collective began with a core of four artists from East Los Angeles: Harry Gamboa, Jr., Gronk, Willie F. Herrón III and Patssi Valdez. These artists collaborated on a wide range of works, employing every form from performance to graffiti to multimedia. Over time, they expanded their repertoire and attracted new members, resulting in an artistic process that was consistently changing and evolving. Chavoya fittingly used the words “constant interchange” to describe the way the artists cooperated together while simultaneously producing their own individual work. The many disparate types of artwork in the exhibition are very refreshing and extremely enjoyable, but it is the subject matter of the pieces that make the collection truly fascinating. At a time when the Chicano Civil Rights movement had just swept over the United States, Chicano artwork was under (read: never) represented in museums, and Asco had plenty of social and political issues to comment on in its work.
Walking into WCMA, you are greeted by two large pieces: one over the front door depicting two bound and bleeding figures and another on the bridge connecting the galleries on the second floor. The latter, according to Chavoya, depicts the four Asco artists occupying the East Los Angeles Bridge which, at the time, served as a very symbolic passageway from one side of the city to the other. The photo is placed on the footbridge of the museum, creating several literal connections to the work. “We are activating [the atrium] as a kind of passageway,” Chavoya said. The use of the museum space to draw connections to the work is one of the most interesting aspects of the exhibition, particularly because the collection was originally exhibited at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which has about three times the space available at WCMA. In making the physical structure a macrocosm of the art’s central themes, WCMA is able to deliver an exhibit which – while significantly smaller than the original – still communicates the concepts effectively.
Activation of space is a major theme of Asco’s work as well. The group often put on public performances, creating art that would utilize the specific time and space of the area around them. Many of these temporary public displays were caught on camera, and those pictures are now a large part of the exhibition. One example of this was a staged protest of the Vietnam War. The protest, which took place on Christmas, took the form of a procession; protestors trailed a Jesus figure bearing a cross all the way to the Marine recruitment center to blockade the door.
The students in Chavoya’s Winter Study class, titled “Art and Exhibition,” did research on Asco in preparation for the exhibition. Annie Lynch ’14 was part of the class and explained that discussing the pieces in reference to the period in which they were made was really helpful in connecting to them. “I think Asco is incredibly important for the Williams campus and surrounding community. The exhibit introduces themes, issues and tensions that I think the community will respond to, and that will generate a lot of interesting discussion,” she said.
Those themes include queerness, homosexuality, racism and poverty, all of which are issues that come up on campus on a nearly daily basis. This exhibition presents the opportunity to not only observe Asco’s approach to important social issues, but also to reflect on the way we deal with social issues in this community.
One of Asco’s most famous and socially significant works is a photo titled “Spray Paint” (1972) that depicts a seemingly nondescript woman standing against the outer railing of a building that is tagged with three spray painted names. The woman is Patssi Valdez and the names are those of the other three Asco members. Chavoya explained that when the members of Asco found no Chicano work within the museum, they, “in Duchampian style,” claimed the entire museum as their own work, signing off on it as if on a painting. “They are making their absence visible by claiming it,” Chavoya said.
After this week, there is a particular word with which we have become acquainted: claiming. Asco saw a gap in its society and claimed responsibility for filling it. In the spaces that society and art left unfilled, Asco created critical and playful art that was unbounded by traditional constraints. Young, untrained and full of passion, the artists of Asco itroduced an entirely new mode of expression to comprehend and change the problems in the world around them.