Two artists. One city. A gathering of intellectuals in open discussion. This was the beginning of a significant dialogue about art, cultural identity, and the spaces we live in. Big City Forum and Evil Monito hosted a very special night at EM’s Echo Park studios, featuring the work of Shizu Saldamando and Gary Garay with USC’s Josh Kun facilitating the evening discourse.
Welcome to Los Angeles, home to nearly four million people who eat, sleep, work, and play on a five hundred square-mile plot of land packed with the culture of one hundred forty different countries speaking two hundred twenty four distinct languages. What truly sets LA apart? Is it the palm trees, utopian weather, or celebrities who live alongside us mild-mannered citizens like gods among men? Or is it the ramen houses, the bustling carnicerias, unashamed mandarin billboards, or Persian bookstores? Everywhere you look different cultures confront their environments in very authentic ways. It’s impossible sometimes not to feel like you’ve moved from one world to the next in a mere span of three blocks. That’s LA. And perhaps that’s what makes Los Angeles one of the greatest cities in the United States. What does it mean to be American? Los Angeles might turn that question on its head: what does it mean to have the freedom to celebrate all the things that make up your world? That, my friend, is the Angeleno way…
Tonight we were gathered in at Evil Monito’s headquarters, tucked away in a homey corner of Echo Park just north of Sunset Blvd. The evening air was cool and easy. People drifted in as friends chatted candidly on folding chairs and couches. Most were arriving considerably earlier than the event was slated to start, slipping into the back for an icy beverage and setting down with looks of satisfaction. The relaxing smells of the wood panel walls mixed with the summer breeze belied the anticipation that was building in the studio. In mere moments two of LA’s most talented young artists were about to sit down with some of the best minds in their field and present their work in a face to face workshop-style forum.
In celebration of the richness of our city, filled with different groups and ethnic enclaves that somehow share Los Angeles like a commons, the group was to be convened to discuss how we interact with public space and how cultural identity affects that interaction. How better to address the subject by zeroing in on the work of LA-based artists Shizu Saldamando and Gary Garay, individuals who create intensely personal work inspired by the cultures and environments that fill their lives.
A lone turntable set lay in one corner of the space, silent and mysterious. Curious onlookers could only guess at its purpose as it sat untouched in solitude.
[Aside: Super-Bouncer and writer extraordinaire Abe Ahn comes correct with a sharp pair of Cesarios.]
By the time the event kicked off, it was standing room only with many watching from the back or in the overflow section on the upstairs loft. Leonardo Bravo of Music Center and Rickey Kim, founder and creative director of Evil Monito, opened the night with an intro on the Big City Forum and Evil Monito’s involvement, along with short prefaces to each of the artists. ”I originally had a symposium of sorts in mind,” Leonardo attested, “A wine & cheese evening where the community could gather and talk about what people were doing.” Somehow the Big City Forum was born through this desire and tonight we would experience the firstfruits of its collaboration with Evil Monito.
If you’ve ever seen the work of Shizu Saldamando there are two words that come to mind. The first is “beautiful.” Her illustrations and paintings are intricate and emotional, with textures and colors that speak quickly to the viewer’s eyes. Where abstract artists communicate through unconventional color expression or seemingly misguided strokes, Shizu carried most of her meaning through choice of subjects and the mediums through which they were created. This is where the second word gets involved: “fascinating.” Beyond the obvious talent found in her pen/brush, Shizu’s work became more and more fascinating as she moved further through her presentation. It felt more like sitting in someone’s bedroom and exploring their memories as chronicled through photos, journals, and scrapbooks than attending an art forum. Her voice itself seemed measured and quick, ringing with a tone that revealed honesty and maybe even a bit of vulnerability. She paused a moment to apologize and confess she wasn’t used to public speaking, but no one was bothered. Once the slides started everyone was astounded by her talent, and the commentary she provided for each portion was captivating. The audience knew they weren’t spectating a dilettante spitting empty theories and rhetoric. They were hearing a very gifted individual speak from the heart. And so they listened.
If you were from LA, the scenes Saldamando captured in her work were astoundingly familiar. Quinces, backyard kickbacks, and rock concerts abounded. It might be tempting to simply view Shizu’s art as an expression of youthful Latin American culture but each piece unwittingly revealed a deeper theme. Mexico City teenagers in full gothic garb. A girlfriend with Siouxsie Sioux tattooed on her arm. Within those communities there was a mixing or integration, where predominantly Latin American youths were taking the inspirations from things like British rock music and making it part of their identity and expression. What we were witnessing was not simply a representation of her friends but a storied example of worlds colliding when different cultures meet in a diverse environment like Los Angeles. These amalgams had taken root in Shizu’s work to the point where she barely seemed aware of them. Rather, it was not that she was ignorant of them, but they became part of the bigger picture in normal human interaction.
Take for example her Paño Arte, which features a piece called “The Holy Cuatro” (The Holy Four). The name itself evokes Latino themes, but the subjects are none other than Morrissey, Siouxsie, Robert Smith, and Dave Gahan, all British musicians that have a strong presence in contemporary Latin American communities. But what was more “fascinating” about “The Holy Cuatro” was the style in which they were drawn and the handkerchief they were emblazoned upon. The style and medium celebrated the prison art which proliferated Saldamando’s San Francisco community where she grew up. Moreover, the handkerchiefs represented objects of intimacy and significance, as they were commonly passed back and forth between families and their loved ones behind bars. These intricate drawings, therefore, more than cultural expressions, are precious representations of a very personal subjects in Shizu’s own life.
Most of her pieces come from experiences in areas of Los Angeles county like Downey and Whittier or reaches out to locations like San Francisco and Mexico City. ”What’s special about these places,” said Shizu, “is that you don’t even think about subculture because there’s so much there.” She stopped as if to think for a moment. ”You can “not be a minority” because there are so many subcultures.” Shizu’s own ethnic background is a classic example of a cultural collaboration. Her mother was a Japanese American, her father a Mexican American. When asked which side she found herself associating with more her answer came quickly. ”This is Los Angeles. It’s not as simple as Japanese or Mexican; it’s hanging out and the things that happen.” And that, she claimed, was the inspiration for her art. Was she aware of the influence that came from either culture? Surely, but they were influences that were celebrated–not separated.
Gary Garay is a man who greets with an open hand and quick grin. It was clear from the outset that he was comfortable with the spotlight, not in a conceited way, but with a confidence that effuses from an individual who understands his own identity and how far he’s come. His work seems like a reflection of his demeanor: diverse and quirky yet startlingly honest and profoundly meaningful. Perhaps his most distinctive piece are his Nike Cortez reproductions. What started as inspirations sparked from the corrugated bottoms of cardboard soon became a project who’s symbolic importance in Garay’s own life and the city of Los Angeles was astonishing.
Garay chose to construct the shoe entirely from cardboard and glue, a proletarian material that is easily available to everyone. This was a reflection of the accessible nature of the Cortez, which originated as a functional running sneaker but quickly became a lifestyle shoe worn by people everywhere. To one person, the Cortez may be a comfortable shoe that looks good, but to another it is an expression of identity and strength. What especially interested Garay was how the shoe had gradually been adopted by gangsters and Mexican youths in Los Angeles. The name, he pointed out, references the Spanish conquistador who invaded and conquered Mexico. The fact that Mexicans were embracing this shoe and even using it as an expression of power signaled a continuum of that colonization that took place nearly five hundred years ago. And yet the Cortez has become a perfect representation of Los Angeles gang culture. ”The Cortez,” Garay marveled, “has become a representation of the struggle of people who are wearing it. I’ve always been drawn to the Cortez because the wearers seemed to have so much strength and swagger.” How interesting that a tragedy of the cultural past could become a symbol of dominance for the present. All it takes is a subtle change in perception for a vastly different interpretation.
But shoes aren’t the only thing in Garay’s life that holds multiple meanings. Another one of his artistic outlets comes in the form of music. He is a regular listener of LA’s 92.3, a radio station the intrigues him because it features a playlist truly curated by the community. Listeners can regularly request songs, make shout outs, etc. over the airwaves which are heard throughout the city. It was later at a social gathering that Garay discovered that the station, which had increasingly shifted its focus to Hispanic communities, served different functions in different public spaces. Normally the station was a conduit for the community, playing their songs and featuring their shout outs. But a friend who worked at a prison revealed to Garay that 92.3 had become popular in the pen for another reason: hits for people in the prison would actually be called out through the station in the form of song requests or shout outs. How disturbing it was to know that the 92.3 was actually unknowingly facilitating prison violence. It made Garay wonder sometimes when he was listening to 92.3 whether he was witnessing an innocent shout out or a death sentence. One small shift; a completely different interpretation.
Understanding that music carries so much implicit meaning, Garay started Mas Exitos every 2nd and 4th Tuesdays at the Verdugo Bar in east Los Angeles, dj’ing latino music he discovers digging through old vinyls. The process, he describes, has become like finding artifacts, like archaeology. ”When I was a kid, I always wanted to be an archaeologist. Now I feel like I actually am, except I’m finding pieces of myself every time I discover a new record.” Garay confesses the music nights have not only become his new love but a very important process in understanding how different cultures interact in public space. Many of the songs he would dig up would be popular American songs reinterpreted through the Latino culture and language. ”In Mas Exitos,” Garay explained, “I want to document migration patterns between North and South America through sound.” We were treated to a portion of this study as the evening ended with Garay behind the previously lonely turntables to spin some Mas Exito music.
Josh Kun summed the night up in a very interesting statement: “[There is] a different kind of urban planning that’s taking place in your imagination and in your mind through these pieces they create.” Indeed the work of Shizu Saldamando and Gary Garay themselves were evidence and catalysts of cultural identity’s influence on our interaction with public space. As the music began to fill the air and the room became abuzz with miscellaneous post-forum conversation, one had the sense we had barely breached the night’s intentioned focus. And yet watching the excited faces as the distinct sound of latino trumpets blared through the room, you couldn’t help but wonder if we were continuing to learn more about the process on the very ground where we stood.
Leonardo Bravo, director of Music Center, Performing Arts Center of Los Angeles.
Gary Garay listens to adoring attendees.
The illustrious Josh Kun of The Popular Music Project (www.usc.edu/pmp) at Annenberg’s Norman Lear Center trying desperately to remain as non-awkward as possible in the bathroom hallway.
Every 2nd & 4th Tuesday
3408 Verdugo Road
Los Angeles, CA
**RIP DJ AM.**