Putting art in a museum—especially art with an anti-social, anti-establishment bent—is a tricky business. And when that art comes out of LA’s fabled punk scene of the ’70s and ’80s, it’s all the trickier. Punk’s emphasis on aesthetics as a “fuck off!” to popular culture almost begs to be documented as the historical moment that shifted the American ideal forever. At the same time, the fuck off aesthetic defies attempts to neatly catalogue its aesthetic by the perimeters of established artistic community. Placed in academic light of the museum space, it’s tough to tell whether punk kicked and screamed its complacent antagonist to death . . . or if the attitude, aesthetics and music have been co-opted by the mainstream, thereby pushing the scene into areas formerly held by department store hippies and post-Maynard G. Krebs beatniks.
But it doesn’t matter. The same ingredients that make up every powerful social revolution fueled the punk explosion. The movement’s indignation, attitude, DIY ethic, as well as its blurring of documentation, actions, and style is preserved in the Claremont Museum of Art’s show, Vexing: Female Voices In East L.A. Punk.
The documentary-style exhibit explores these cultural phenomena that burgeoned from the East LA punk scene, circa the late 1970’s. This wasn’t the over-hyped Hollywood punkscape of Los Angeles lore, but a more marginal one bent on self-expression through punk’s DIY ethos.
“What was happening at the time,” explains Colin Gunckel, co-curator of Vexing, “was that these people were being shut out of the Hollywood scene. People and bands from East LA could show up in ’77 and get their voices heard. It was really creative and experimental. But by ’79, the Hollywood scene started to develop cliques and a lot of the bands from East LA were playing back yards and places like that.”
The groundwork was laid much earlier, however, as the turbulent ’60s gave rise to the protest movements of the ’70s, by local artists ostracized from the established art world, and, of course, the Catholic Church.
In 1970, a small group of artists, also on the fringes of the mainstream LA culture, got together to address a glaring problem in the art scene there. Reflective of the social zeitgeist of the late ’70s—especially the Chicano empowerment movement that saw activists emphasizing their Mesoamerican roots, as opposed to their European-Spanish heritage—they were frustrated with the lack of support for young Chicano artists in the community. Private art schools were generally beyond the reach of East LA denizens, and the community had yet to accept a distinct Chicano voice in the arts. It was against this backdrop that the group set out to provide an artistic voice, artistic training to the East LA community as well as gallery space for local artists shut out of the city’s conventional spots.
They enlisted the help of Sister Karen Boccalero—a Franciscan nun and university-trained master artist—and managed to obtain a decent space through funding from various Catholic community organizations and later the National Endowment for the Arts and the California Art Council. The art center opened their doors in 1972. In 1979, the project, by now called Self-Help, had been so successful that they needed more space and moved into a building on the corner of Cesar Chavez Ave. and Gage St. that was owned by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. The art collective leased the building for a buck—$1—a year.
The timing of Self-Help’s move to a larger building coincided perfectly with the increasingly closed-off nature of the established punk scene in downtown and West Los Angeles. It would make sense, then, that a patchwork community of maligned artists and creative types who were relegated to the margins of the of the art world would help others who were similarly relegated to the outer-precincts of their scene. Self-Help offered The Vex, an all-ages venue that adjoined their gallery and studio space, for bands who had been alienated from the mushrooming Hollywood Punk and New Wave scenes, or that had eschewed the larger Westside scene all together. The venue, together with Self-Help, became a focal point for creative expression and counterculture in East LA.
Most of the artwork in Vexing comes from the early punk days, when The Vex (hence the name) was hosting shows and Self-Help Graphics was empowering the East LA communities through art.
“It’s really serendipitous that we’re doing this,” says William Moreno, executive director of the Claremont Museum of Art, against a backdrop of chaotic collages clipped and pasted by Exene Cervenka. Notebooks in which she’s penned the original lyrics to classic X songs like “White Girl” and “Los Angeles” are in a glass case to his right. Moreno is alluding to the fact that exhibits focusing on LA’s punk scene are cropping up in museums throughout LA County. But this exhibit is a doing a little more than igniting youthful interest in the arts by presenting it as cool and revolutionary. “This is part of a regional effort to focus on different expressions. We’re exploring some [previously] unexplored LA history, and that’s really important for us to do. It really speaks to our direction as a museum.”
The exhibit also features huge tapestries painted by Diane Gamboa, Alice Bag of The Bags and Las Tres, Teresa Covarrubias of The Brat, along with other notables from Self-Help and The Vex. Concert posters, album covers and other early punk artifacts are also on display, along with work that was created by later generations of women who owe it all to the trailblazing regulars of the Vex.
Clips from the forthcoming documentary on The Vex as well as concert footage and scenes from Eastside Punks will also be played. The museum is hosting workshops on zine making, stenciled t-shirts and buttons. Young malcontents are encouraged to bring note pads. Even though these aren’t the activist tools of the Internet age, the same basic ingredients are there.
The glory days of punk may be over and the movement may be passé, but revolutionary social sentiment is never anachronistsic.
Vexing: Female Voices of East LA Punk at The Claremont Museum of Art, 536 W. 1st St., Claremont, (909) 621-3200; www.claremontmuseum.org. Opening reception Sat. 7PM