L'Officiel Art

A Slice of L.A.’s Historic Queer Chicanx Arts Community Reaches New York

A group exhibition at Hunter College Art Galleries presents a network of creative types who built a queer community in Los Angeles between the late 1960s and the early 90s.
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If the name Edmundo “Mundo” Meza does not ring a bell unlike his luminary peers Andy Warhol, Jack Smith, or Mario Montez, visit Axis Mundo: Queer Networks in Chicano L.A., a touring exhibition currently installed at The Hunter College Art Galleries after first unveiling at ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives Gallery. There, you will be struck with the vision of a “Renaissance Man” upon seeing the transgressive and gender-bending art Meza created in painting, performance, theatre, and fashion during two tumultuous decades defined by the Civil Rights Movement and the devastating impacts of AIDS.

Stemming from its two curators’ five-year research, Axis Mundo portrays queer Chicanx arts communities in Los Angeles between 1960s and the early 90s, placing Mexican-born and L.A.-raised Meza in its epicenter. Organized by Independent Curators International (ICI), the exhibition weaves various artistic threads into a comprehensive tapestry of celebration and activism, benefitting from the artists’ versatile practices in many paths of creative endeavor.

“For many reasons Axis Mundo is a show that would have been difficult, if not impossible, to organize within a traditional museum and at a moment when audiences are hungry to see art institutions be more inclusive and show artists that have long been neglected, it's worth thinking about where we go to look for these histories and how they are constructed,” says David Evans Frantz, who co-organized the exhibition with C. Ondine Chavoya.

In such an unabashed celebration of self-expression, photography righteously takes center stage, either sneaking into eccentric performances of L.A.’s avant-garde theatre and film circles or illustrating fierce misfits posing for the camera. Steven Arnold captures Meza under dramatic make-up in a black and white photograph of a staged and propped moment from 1983; Laura Aguilar’s Plush Pony portrait series from the early 90s chronicles lesbian life through a bunch of regulars frequenting the namesake bar in the Eastside of Los Angeles; or Tosh Carrillo’s intimate never-before-seen images of his friends and lovers manifest the queer life outside stage glamour in domestic settings.

For a little more funk, stop by the stills from Judith F. Baca’s 1976 performance Vanity Table, in which Baca subverts Chicana stereotypes in her hyperbolic gestures. Snaps of L.A.’s underground music scene of four decades ago prove the inherent alliance of queer and punk, affixing the Latinx influence on the era’s grungy figures, such as the Bags and Nervous Gender.

Not to be overlooked are Meza’s large-scale paintings ranging from a homoerotic merman to a bundle of abstract curves, rendered not quite differently from another with equal emphasis on the unexpected vibrancy of black and grey as well as the sensuality attributed to form. The absence of vibrant colors in these paintings refers to his diagnosis as HIV positive in the early 80s.   

Fashion undoubtedly served a resourceful channel for self-expression, as most glamorously manifested in works by Les Petites Bonbons, a gloriously campy mail art collective, sensational enough at the time to attract Warhol and David Bowie’s first wife Angela, who gifted the group a pair of glitter-covered Bowie gloves—exhibited here alongside the collective’s other postal memorabilia.

Appropriation of fashion for activism shines in T-shirts Joey Terrill adorned with Spanish words malflora and maricón (respectively referring to lesbians and gays) to sport along the 1976 Christopher Street West Pride march.     

Despite more than fifty artists in its roster, the exhibition manages to build a succinct narrative, spanning artistic, social, and personal pivots that concerned queer Chicanx community in L.A. as well as their allies during the heydays of sexual liberation and the AIDS crisis.

The checklist promises surprising appearances from New York downtown figures, such as fashion icon Simon Doonan, who collaborated with his then-lover Mezaon provocative and stage-like window displays for West Hollywood boutique Maxfield Bleu. Proving Meza’s genre-spanning talents for painting, theatre, and fashion, these mischievous vitrine designs encapsulate the dynamism that permeated the community.     

Axis Mundo: Queer Networks in Chicano L.A. will remain on view at Hunter College’s 205 Hudson Gallery in TriBeCa and Bertha and Karl Leubsdorf Gallery in Upper East Side through August 18, 2018.

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