Asco bring graffiti, gang war, civil unrest and film stills to Nottingham Contemporary

By Mark Sheerin | 15 October 2013

Exhibition review: Asco, No Movies, Nottingham Contemporary, until January 5 2013

Colour photo of three latino artists in flamboyant make up and costumes
Asco, Birds Waving Goodbye, 1972© 1972, Harry Gamboa Jr
It is said that from any rooftop in LA you can see the Hollywood Hills. But go in any movie theatre during the 70s and you would not see a leading actor from the city’s large Mexican population.

Things are a little better today, and you can at least walk into a progressive white cube gallery in the East Midlands, UK, and see an inspiring and mythmaking show by Chicano art collective Asco.

Taking as their name the Spanish word for disgust, Asco were repelled on all sides. In Vietnam, their community were dying in disproportionate numbers. Police began a riot at a 1970s anti-war march. And there was the LA County Museum of art, in which not a single Chicano artist could be found.

After challenging a curator, Harry Gamboa Jr was told that his ethnic group were gang members not artists. So true to reputed form, this art gang of sorts came back under cover of night and tagged up a footbridge leading to the museum.

The graffiti was painted over in a matter of hours. But a documentary photo with glamorous Patssi Valdez enjoying the new view is now a classic piece of Asco iconography. This was the Asco modus operandi: stage a confrontational scene, photograph it, move on.

Colour photo of a latino artist on a footbridge covered in graffiti
Asco, Spray Paint LACMA, 1972© 1972, Harry Gamboa Jr
Masked figures eat lunch at the site of the aforementioned riot, costumed figures walk the streets of East LA, a lone body lies dead in the middle of a city boulevard. In each case, the viewer could bring a narrative to the work and these filmic stills got dubbed No Movies by the group.

No Movies were sometimes packaged up and sent to the media as the real thing. Local TV reported on the crime scene above. And Asco got so caught up in the grime and the glitz of their own movie industry they staged the No Movies Awards, rewarding their efforts with dime-store plastic cobras sprayed gold.

Dressing up, making up, acting out, the other riot in East LA was in the fevered imaginations of the district’s first contemporary art movement. Asco could even dress up to visit a sewage outlet, as they do in a shot which opens the show. This became known as their Asshole Mural.

Murals, like gang warfare, were the other expectation of Latino artists. Asco members could paint, but preferred their work to be off-the-wall. They make mural costumes from paper and, thus attired, parade the streets. Or else they tape each other to local walls, putting their bodies on the line time after time.

To say Asco were at ease in front of a camera is an understatement. In this show they make a bid for most photogenic artists of all time. Their charisma, fervour and youth call us back to the 1970s and it is important to remind oneself that times have changed.

This marginalised art movement, for example, were finally given a retrospective at LACMA in 2011, a jewel in the crown of the Pacific Standard Time festival of contemporary art from LA. In an interview also on display here, Willie Herrón, wonders aloud if they got their on merit, but of course they did.

And besides, despite Asco’s dissolution in the 80s, this show is not all about the past. In a major new piece Valdez has worked with Nottingham artist Nadim Chaudry on a paper fashion show. This offers a breathtaking proscenium arch, in which white floor to ceiling curtains held in place with black bows look for all the world like silk.

Paper dresses bejewelled by Primark or accessorised with cheap shades attest to the fact that glam is a headspace rather than a comment on your finances. “Asco is really a concept,” Valdez has said, and like Dada, “Asco will never die”.

  • Admission free. Open 10am-7pm Tuesday to Friday (until 6pm Saturdays; 11am-5pm Sundays).

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