Photo: Janette Beckman, Hoyo Maravilla, East LA 1983, 1983. Courtesy of the artist.
“One thing is certain: the arts keep you alive. They stimulate, encourage, challenge, and, most of all, guarantee a future free from boredom,” American actor Vincent Price (1911-1993). Best known for his distinctive voice, a somber and thrilling timber, and his performances in horror films, Price was also an aficionado of the arts, a collector and historian who donated 90 pieces from his personal collection to establish the first “art teaching collection” housed at a community college—East Los Angeles College, to be exact—in 1957. In recognition of his gift, the college renamed the art gallery the Vincent Price Museum.
Over the past 50 years, the collection has grown to include 9,000 objects and showcased more than 100 exhibitions designed to serve the community of some 35,000 students who enroll each year. Five months ago, Pilar Tompkins Rivas took up the mantle as Director of the Museum, and decided to create an exhibition that would speak to the history of the community over the past eight decades.
Tastemakers & Earthshakers: Notes from Los Angeles Youth Culture, 1943-2016, now on view through February 25, 2017, is a tour-de-fore through the art, music, and style of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The intergenerational exhibition features the work of more than 40 upcoming and established artists who capture the kaleidoscopic subcultures across Southern California in a vast array of media including drawing, installation, painting, photography, printmaking and sculpture; elements of mass media such as television footage, print media, documentary photography, and social media; pachuco-era men and women’s fashion, and a digital music platform.
The exhibition takes the1943 Zoot Suit Riots as its starting point, highlighting the series of racial attacks by Anglo American servicemen and civilians on Mexican American youths decked out in fancy dress. The Zoot Suit, which featured a flamboyant long jacket with baggy pegged pants that could be accessorized with a long watch chain, Creeper shoes, and a pork pie hat, was seen as “unpatriotic” during a period of wartime rationing.
Self-identified as “pachucos” and “pachucas,” the Mexican American youth cut a distinguished silhouette, one that took pride in their style and heritage. For their love of self and refusal to assimilate, they were criminalized and openly associated with juvenile delinquency. Local newspapers used inflammatory propaganda designed to stoke racial fears.
At the same time, the United States had been stripping Japanese-American citizens of their rights and sending them to internment camps. The continuous stress placed by the government and the media on an already xenophobic population resulted in a mob mentality that gave rise to the Zoot Suit Riots, triggering similar attacks against Latinos in several other cities including New York, Oakland, and Chicago.
Tompkins Rivas uses this seminal moment in American history as the place where we begin, using the exhibition to explore the question, “What is it about youth culture as a social class that has given rise to this?”
Organized into thematic sections that explore issues occurs across generations, Tastemakers & Earthshakers looks at connections between Los Angeles and British youth cultures, pachuco and pachuca culture, the criminalization of youth, and the emergence of social spaces in works by Judy Baca, Janette Beckman, Chaz Bojorquez, Gregory Bojorquez, Juan Capistran, Rafael Cardenas, Carolyn Castaño, Oscar Castillo, Karla Diaz, Henry Gamboa Jr., Willie Herrón III, and Felix Quintana, among others.
By fusing fine art, pop culture, and mass media into a single show, Tastemakers & Earthshakers reveals the ways in which ideas travel across different platforms—for better or for worse. The exhibition explores the ways in which pride and self-expression is taken as a threat to the status quo for its abject refusal to assimilate to mainstream ideals espoused by an Anglo world. We can watch the fears of the Zoot Suit riots come alive as TV personality Leeza Gibbons vilifies cholas on her 1990s talk show and local Fox News segments present high school students as “rabid” for enjoying backyard parties that same decade.
On the flip side, Tompkins Rivas presents the power of resistance and the ways in which youth continuously push back against the abuses and corruptions of the state and its adherents. Whether focusing on student protests from the 1960s and ‘70s alongside those of the present day, it’s like Led Zeppelin said, “The song remains the same”—probably because they lifted the chords from blues musicians without credit or pay.
By bringing together a diverse array of works, styles, and themes, Tastemakers & Earthshakers reminds us that the issues we are dealing with today have been with us all along, passed from generation to generation to fight and to embrace, through triumph and tragedy, so that we may live free.
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.