L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley
A mile and a half from where I live, close to downtown, there’s a strange treasure: a traditional white church with a tall steeple and prayer garden complete with a Jesus sculpture right next door. It looks like a place Anne of Green Gables might have gone to pray, except that the protestant Avonlea-worthy quaintness is turned upside down by a whole lot of neon. There’s a pink and purple neon sign above the church itself and a shooting neon rainbow above the Jesus in the garden. It would be gaudy it weren’t so grippingly uncanny, especially at night.
The Mother Trust Superet Church was founded in 1926 and purportedly combines a scientific study of light with Bible study. “Jesus’ Words were shining with and in a brilliancy of golden and purple Light,” reads the church’s website, which also alludes to the church’s belief in auras and reincarnation.
I thought of Mother Trust and its weird spiritual whimsy Wednesday, when strolling through ASCO, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s soon-to-open exhibition of work by an under-exposed Chicano collective consisting of Gronk, Willie Herron, Harry Gamboa and Patssi Valdez. Active in L.A. in the 1970s and ‘80s and named after the Spanish word for nausea – as the story goes, one member of the group said “This gives me ASCO” after seeing a grating exhibition, and an idea for a new kind of art was born – the group had a lot to be nauseous about, including the war in Vietnam, which had killed a seemingly disproportionate number of young Chicano men.
The show largely includes video and photographic documentations of performances, one of which was the Stations of the Cross, performed in 1971 along Whittier Boulevard in L.A. A procession and a protest, the artists wore outlandish costumes (Gamboa was Pontius Pilate in a clown suit) and headed, with a large cross and skeleton in tow, toward the Marine Recruiting Station, where they would deliver the skeleton. Later, they interrupted a mass in Evergreen Cemetery and staged First Supper (After a Riot), dining on an island in the middle of a street during rush hour. In these performances, they wore make-up and outlandish costumes—platform boots, or home-made masks.
Always, ASCO looked reverently serious, no matter how riotous or disruptive they were being. Like the Superet church with its kitschy and over-the-top neon, their disruptions and eccentricities, even when motivated by disgust at the world around them, were full of conviction.