Ramiro Gomez’s show at Charlie James Gallery has been gaining a lot of attention for his topical use of visual politics to introduce labor and immigration issues into the art discourse. Most notably, Gomez appropriates the image of David Hockney’s iconic painting A Bigger Splash (1967) and a group of smaller Hockneys from the same period in his own paintings. The jubilant splash of Hockney’s homage to revelers in carefree 1960s California is absent in Gomez’s version. Instead, a Latino employee gently rakes the pool’s placid surface.
Gomez foregrounds what Mierle Laderman Ukeles referred to as “maintenance labor” in her foundational performance action Hartford Wash (1973). Ukeles performed and foregrounded the invisible labor of the maintenance class in the museum, using her position as a featured artist to introduce these issues. Gomez’s interventions have so far been more anonymous. He has inserted the silhouettes of house cleaners, gardeners, nannies, and pool attendants into public spaces as a form of political protest. Like Ukeles, he tends to limit the laborer’s presence to that of a simulacrum, more symbolic than substantive. At Charlie James Gallery, Gomez moves beyond politicized representations into identification with his subjects as individuals. By giving his caregivers and landscapers names and fragments of backstory, he attempts to differentiate them from others who share their experiences.
The paintings in the gallery are a different sort of intervention, in that they are potential objects of subterfuge within the traditional narratives of an institutional collection. Gomez’s public interventions have addressed political ends such as passage of the Dream Act directly, but his appropriations of Hockney’s popular images of Los Angeles belong in museum collections because they are directly in dialogue with modernism as a style associated with invisible labor and visible affluence. Though named, Gomez’s figures are interchangeable in a way reminiscent of mid-century figuration after abstraction. Latin American artists’ limited role within the official history of modernism does not extend to Pop Art or New Realism, 1960s styles associated with Hockney that continue to resonate today. By claiming these deceptively artless styles, Gomez reinvigorates them with some of the charge they inspired in earlier decades. These paintings are informed by the reality of casual labor, which Gomez’s casual style reinforces. At the same time, Domestic Scenes comments on our “post-racial” tendency to conflate very different communities when accounting for representation at the institutional level. When Gomez substitutes a Mexican matron with a squeegee for the gay white man at the heart of Hockney’s Man in Shower in Beverly Hills (1964), he renders the absurdity of utopian “diversity thinking” starkly apparent.
A collection of works on magazine paper introduce domestic help into scenes of luxury, fashion, and entertainment. In these, the painted figures don’t blend in, and the works read in a more binary and symbolic way as a result. Here the deliberate artlessness of the paintings feels less intentional. Paintings in the rear gallery are detailed enlargements of notes to nannies and housekeepers. Gomez’s own experience as a nanny in Los Angeles prompts him to give each of his archetypal laborers their own names and stories. Even so, because their narratives are entirely related to their labor status, we learn little of their individuality.
It’s easy to critique devalued labor within the aspirational excesses of design and fashion photography, as many of the works’ viewers won’t recognize themselves in the environs of the 1% either. It’s more provocative to level that critique at the history of contemporary painting in museum collections, and at the figure of the artist as one elevated by social capital rather than labor conditions. It may be a matter of time before Gomez can reconcile his social-realist stripes with his casualist leanings to create art that is as progressive as his politics. His first solo gallery show is a promising indicator of his future direction as a painter.
Domestic Scenes is on view at Charlie James Gallery through March 8, 2014.