"For me, living on the border of Montebello and East L.A.," says artist Patssi Valdez, "this was the local school everybody went to. You first came here and then went on to other colleges." She is sitting on the corner of the campus she attended nearly 40 years ago, in front of the new Vincent Price Art Museum, where she's featured in "Round Trip: Eight East Los Angeles College Alumni Artists" (through Aug. 19). "I'd always wanted to be an artist."
Valdez later got a BFA from Otis College of Art and Design, but she vividly recalls the teachers, students and her roots in this part of the city. So does John Valadez, who has joined us.
"This is one group show I've worked on which everyone has been so enthusiastic to be a part of," says Karen Rapp, director of the museum and curator of the show. "Being here was an important part of their becoming artists. They all recognize it and want to give something back." "Round Trip" is the largest of five exhibitions that inaugurate the museum building, a starkly modern, trapezoidal structure designed by the firm Arquitectonica and housing 10,000 square feet of exhibition space and a lecture hall.
The museum's history can be traced to the early 1950s, when actor Vincent Price and his wife Mary formed a bond with ELAC after a visit and later began donating art to the school. Eventually, they gave 2,000 drawings, prints, paintings and sculpture in African, Oceanic, Native American and Modern art. (The permanent collection is featured in two other shows at the museum; on view is also a juried student show and a solo by emerging artist Sonia Romero.)
For the alumni show, Rapp wanted to present a range of work as well as the unfamiliar. Thus, Kent Twitchell, known for his gigantic outdoor murals, is showing a grouping of small pencil drawings as well as half-finished color paintings of Ronald Reagan and John Kennedy, hanging side by side. Gronk, known as a painter, has a sculpture made of three clear glass "brains" arranged around a low table. And Valdez, also known as a painter, especially of interior scenes evoking Magical Realism, has two early photo collages on display. She started as a photographer, she explains. The other artists in the show are Diane Gamboa, Clement Hanami, Will Herrón III and Judithe Hernández, working in drawing, painting, photography, sculpture, installation and video.
The artists have made their mark on the history of postwar art in Los Angeles, and Rapp sees this show as a preview of Pacific Standard Time, the big Getty-supported collection of shows about Southern California art coming this fall.
Indeed, part of the era's pull was its politics — specifically, the rising Chicano movement and the polarizing Vietnam War. For John Valadez, being a political activist and being an artist "were the same thing." After ELAC, he got his bachelors of arts at Cal State Long Beach, but as an artist he wanted to be downtown. So he moved downtown for 15 years, half of the time renting a room above the famous Victor Clothing Co. where he rendered colorful tableaux of street life. That's also when he started doing pastels, and his richly layered pastels are featured in "Round Trip." He enjoys exploring the psychology of character in portraits and in scenes of beauty pageants and car shows. "I'm interested in the community of rituals," he says. "I'm not trying to redo a photograph, I'm trying to get back to that person."