Towards the end of the main gallery in the Irvine Fine Arts Center (IFAC), a collection of eighteen original cassette cases, from decades ago, are stacked into an incomplete square. The work is titled, “¿Listo Para El Baile? / Ready For The Dance?” by William Camargo, a 30 year-old, first-generation MFA student from Claremont Graduate University. The album covers are meticulously placed on a white ledge, and they showcase various music bands, including Mexican and Mexican-American musicians Los Bukis, Selena, Los Tigres del Norte, and one American boy band, NSYNC.
Some might misinterpret this piece as a Latinx mapping experience through music. Or rasquachismo taking over an art center in a predominantly white landscape. In recent years, rasquachismo is often used to describe and uplift Chicanx art. Yet, it also originated from the concept that certain aesthetics are often seen as “less than” by standards set in the arts industry via a white canon.
But in this particular case, the exhibition actually began a year prior with a series of “coffee conversations” between curator Virginia Arce and established artist Alberto López, Jr. Arce didn’t know López beforehand but after approaching him about exhibiting his work, one conversation led to another. With each discussion, they covered more shared concerns about the arts industry and reflected how López’s work could be included in an exhibition.
This courtship of ideas led Arce to prioritize emerging artists, like Camargo, by providing opportunities for artists to exhibit close to home. Through such direction, she is attempting to redefine “rasquachismo” to reiterate that as first-generation arts leaders, they are choosing to support local, provocative, and cultured emerging artists.
Camargo’s cassette collection is part of “A trace is not a map,” one of two current exhibitions at IFAC which utilize multimedia to explore the complexity of community, memory and cultural time. Combined, “A trace is not a map” and “From Here to There: A Time Machine” offer an entire show featuring people of color (POC) – Adriana Baltazar, Camargo, Daniela Delgadillo Garcia, López, Michael Chang and Susan Lin. Both exhibitions are free and open to the public through March 7, 2020.
Expanding Programming at the IFAC
Established in the 1980s, IFAC continues to be a focal point for the community to practice and appreciate fine arts. The center has specialized and fully equipped studios for ceramics, jewelry, photography, printmaking, and culinary arts that cater to adults and youth.
“The city of Irvine is continually looking for ways to advance the arts in our community,” says Cory Hilderbrand, community services superintendent of aquatics and arts for the city of Irvine. “Expanding our programming outreach and providing access to a variety of art mediums at both the Irvine Fine Arts Center and the Palm Court Arts Complex will continue to be our top priorities.”
Born in Mexico City and raised in Glendale, Arce feels she has unexpectedly stumbled onto an arts leadership position in Orange County. As a woman of color and first-generation MFA graduate in critical and curatorial studies from UC Irvine, national statistics prove she was at a disadvantage the moment she declared art as her major. Yet in contrast to most first-generation experiences, she was emotionally supported by her immigrant family to pursue an art career.
Like Arce, López is a first-generation artist who challenges the national predictions for his role in the arts industry. According to the 2018 Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey, Latinx men are least likely to be hired as art directors across the country.
As the eldest son of low-income Mexican immigrant parents, López struggled to articulate his ideas through language and gain acceptance not only from local art spaces, but also from his father. Since he was the first in his family to attend college, he dealt with what it meant to be a role-model for his siblings and younger artists, leading him to do more than just make art for art’s sake.
Over the last year at IFAC, Arce has focused on developing arts programming to support and enrich the local community. She also coupled her work with the goal of reaching out to local arts leaders like López.
She credits the unconditional support provided by her supervisor Laura Murphy as a source of her success in the position. “And I think that’s what the goal of the community center is as well. We are culturally contemporary and really locally drawn. We can support those that are emerging that don’t have the network or resources. And we can help build (on) that,” says Murphy, the community services supervisor at IFAC. “Virginia has even expanded upon our programming through artists’ panels to provide growth opportunities for emerging artists and the local community.”
Providing a Platform
Through “A trace is not a map,” both Arce and López feel it is imperative to provide a platform that wasn’t offered to them early in their careers. As first-generation college graduates and arts entrepreneurs, they lacked the resources and connections others with more affluent backgrounds or institutional prestige receive.
“I’m really interested in those artists who are complicating the narrative, where we might have similarities as first-generations or POC, but it is not a monolithic community and experience,” explains Arce. “Through my personal education and work experience, I saw how someone who’s had other people in their family with connections, or even just degrees, get a head start. When you see that, you realize that the art world is so much about connoisseurship and who you know. If you don’t already have those advantages, it’s tremendously difficult to establish yourself in any kind of professional way, much less get validation and support for your work. And that’s part of my motivation –to establish programming to reflect the changing demographics of Orange County.”
Camargo’s work, an array of photography and multimedia pieces, extends throughout the main gallery. Every IFAC guest is greeted with repetitive photographs of his parents and the words “If you must pass in front of someone say ‘pardon me.’”
Cumulatively, they are excerpts from three on-going projects: “Check out My Tats Tho!,” “The State of Home,” and “Latinx Diaspora Archives.” As one of four artists, Camargo can easily be described as “taking a lot of space” in the Irvine art center. But then again, that was exactly what Arce and López intended when they conceptualized the exhibition over extended conversations in the previous year.
“For me, staying in this community my whole life and thinking about how I came to this point, the idea of families migrating to a new place and figuring it all out is similar to my own journey in the art world,” says López. “For this exhibition, it was important that it all made sense, deconstructing why it is important to have a presence in these communities as artists, in education, and the art world. Sometimes our work is like trying to carry a giant cross. It can be complicated to carry that, to take on those battles and it can also destroy someone’s desire to continue to create or even exist in such environments. And it can also be triumphant when you see emerging artists like Camargo challenging people to see life differently.”
Finding a Voice as a Local Artist
Both López and Camargo have shown their work in various cities outside of Orange County. López has exhibited work in Mexico and France, as well as Los Angeles, Texas, and New York, like Camargo. Neither of them have mounted a solo show or featured work in established art centers based in their home cities of Santa Ana and Anaheim.
“In a county that is now sixty percent people of color, ‘A trace is not a map,’ is a pivotal moment for artists of color and first-gen artists from Orange County,” says Camargo, “giving ode to established O.C. artists that haven’t been recognized, like Albert López Jr. I believe it’s important to fill up white space with brown people. The work in the show is both a conversation with community and family. As an art educator and art advocate in Anaheim, it would be great to introduce youth to art spaces and have them see someone like them in the galleries.”
Close to Camargo’s stacked cassettes, “Jale: Class C” shows a film of a 33-year-old López pulling a commercial cargo van while onlookers make their way toward church bells and Sunday mass in 2007. The recorded performance took place in front of Our Lady Of Guadalupe Delhi Church in Santa Ana, and included Ruben Ochoa’s CLASS: C, a mobile artist gallery which featured over 75 artists, curators, and collaborators throughout southern California as a way to build community and space for underrepresented artists.
Recently, López overheard people describing his work as social commentary on the U.S. labor force. Such interpretations speak to a current trend that typecast Latinx artists as portrayers of cultural struggles and traumas, rather than inciting conversations about aesthetics and art history.
López, 48, feels a major barrier in his development as an artist has been his geographic distance from the major art scenes in Los Angeles and New York. Being from Orange County has pushed him to explore other venues for his work. He had to navigate spaces that were often foreign, not just geographically but culturally. Early in his career, society, academia, and institutions steered him to create a type of art that felt inorganic or conforming, often leading him to drop the paintbrush and create sculpture, installations or performance-based works.
Through years of trials and frustrations, López eventually gained the confidence to add his own style to the canvas. In 2005, López exhibited several pieces from a group of paintings that he refers to as the “Donkey Series.” One work, titled “Half Ass Donkey,” caught the eye of actor and art collector Cheech Marín. Marín acquired the piece from the gallery and it is now in his personal collection.
“Half Ass Donkey” has since toured around the world as part of Marín’s “Chicano Dreams” exhibition. In 2014, the piece traveled to Bordeaux, France and was featured in The New York Times. It will be part of the The Cheech Marín Center for Chicano Art, Culture and Industry of the Riverside Art Museum scheduled to open in 2021.
Challenging the Local Arts Landscape to Support Emerging Artists
One question that still lingers in this conversation: how do spaces who benefit from the city’s support claim social practice through diversity when they rarely include the growing diverse artists in the immediate region?
The Irvine Fine Arts Center, through supportive leadership and the collaborative efforts initiated by Arce, is at the forefront of challenging the local arts landscape. Irvine is a city with a population that is less than ten percent Latino and nearly equal parts white and Asian American. Being just miles away from the more ethnically diverse populations of Santa Ana and Anaheim, IFAC is initiating a much needed dialogue. But that’s not a focal point for Arce or López. They are more determined to establish innovative practices to support emerging artists.
With such focus, Arce has scheduled an artist panel for “A trace is not a map” on Saturday, February 22, 3 p.m. at IFAC. The free panel discussion will be led by artist and scholar Tamara Cedré in conversation with artists Camargo, Delgadillo Garcia and López.
A cultural producer and advocate of the arts, Cheech Marín established the concept that Chicano art is American art. This subtle shift in the art world has been inviting more arts leaders from diverse backgrounds, like Arce and López, to critically rethink terms such as “rasquachismo” that are often applied to artists of color.
Sarah Rafael García is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.