Culture as Art: Willie Herrón’s HerróthiCa

There was a mighty hard decision to be made on Saturday the 12th of February, for both Self-Help Graphics and Tropico de Nopal were featuring a combination of musical performance and visual art. Self Help Graphics & Art, which was incorporated in 1973, has been a leading venue for Latino/Chicano artists. But, like so many buildings after the pelting of heavy rains that LA received this winter, Self Help Graphics’ space was in dire need of repair. In fact, I clearly recall the many buckets and planters below leaks that visitors had to navigate during their annual Christmas sale.

Help came in the form of a benefit show by another phenomenal local institution: members of Ozomatli would be performing alongside a delightfully voyeuristic exhibition called “As Good As Naked” (where viewers bring their own flashlights into a darkened room to view artist’s work via individual spotlights of erotic interest). Great cause, great music and a really sexy show. Tempting? Definitely.

But . . . what to do about HerróthiCa? On the very same night Tropico de Nopal Gallery-Art Space, “created to inspire and involve, surprise and enhance new visions, in an intimate setting, exposing art of many forms to the constantly unfolding community of Los Angeles” (Tropico de Nopal), promised a special evening of music by members of East LA punk vanguard, Los Illegals, to accompany Will Herrón III’s aptly titled HerróthiCa: El Dolor Con Pan Fino. Because Ozo play all the time and Willie Herrón does not, and because Willie Herrón is Willie Herrón, HerróthiCa won out for how I’d spend this evening.

Herrón, whose work has appeared in major galleries and national exhibitions, is perhaps most famous for his murals. The Plumed Serpent, The Cracked Wall and Mercado Hidalgo, all of which were completed in the early 1970s, “remain among the most original and visually powerful murals in the city”. Other well known public works include the Moratorium: Black and White, which was executed with fellow artist Gronk at Estrada Courts, and depicts “police actions during the 1970 demonstrations in East Los Angeles when Los Angeles Times reporter Reuben Salazar was killed” (US 101 Freeway Murals). Salazar’s death is frequently cited as a catalyst for the era’s Chicano movement. More recent projects include a mural for the Olympics called Las Luchas del Mundo (Struggles/Wrestlers of the World,1984) as well as several commercial art projects in the city of Newport Beach.

During the early part of his career, Herrón was a founding member of ASCO (meaning “nausea” in Spanish), “a conceptual art collective born out of the Chicano Civil rights movement that specialized in guerilla public performance . . . [such as] ‘walking murals’ (ASCO-speak for bringing murals to life through performance) down Whittier Boulevard or tagging their names on the exterior walls of LACMA” (Los Angeles County Museum of Art), (Josh Kun, Vex Populi, Los Angeles Magazine, March 2003). Lastly and, in some ways, an extension of the community-building art practices that characterize his muralism and performance art, there is music: the music created with Los Illegals specifically and in conjunction with the Eastside punk scene in general. Because he has pursued multiple creative avenues of expression, one might be inclined to label Herrón a “Renaissance man,” but his oeuvre leads to another conclusion; namely, that the term is inadequate. Will Herrón’s significance-perhaps the significance of any compelling artist-rests not on the fact that he has been gifted with multiple talents or that he has worked to develop them, but that he makes culture itself his art.

Thus today there is HerróthiCa. At once organic and architectural, commanding and refined, HerróthiCa surrounds Herrón’s paintings and drawings with objects created of repurposed everyday metals such as wrought iron and corrugated tin, wood, glass, living foliage, and the stuff of the city to create an installation that “incorporates decades of re-definition and re-birthing of his ‘perspective as a Chicano artist'” (Tropico de Nopal). The entire space of the gallery is given over to images framed by and positioned with respect to columns, rusted shields, ornate stained glass lanterns, and a variety of screens such that it appears filled with the artist’s vision, which is to say the view from City Terrace, the neighborhood in East LA where Herrón is from and from whence his art issues.

As Founder and Director of Tropico Reyes Rodriguez reported in his opening remarks to the evening’s performance, Herrón understands himself to represent the micro. Let other artists purport to represent the world, a nation, or a people. Should the world come to share knowledge of City Terrace on account of Herrón’s art, well, that would be another matter. The view from City Terrace looks something like this: elements reminiscent of the Catholic Baroque combine with visual cues from Chicano aesthetics such as skulls and wrestling masks to evoke sense of presence that is as lovely as it is tough. And the view has a sound. And that sound has a history.

With influences that range from British Invasion bands of the 1960s like the The Animals, The Kinks and The Beatles and Latin music of all sorts to the Glam sensibility of Bowie or the playful melancholy of New Wave, Los Illegals have devised a series of neologisms to describe their sound. Pachuco punk, mariachi punk, heavy mambo, psycho cha cha, techno-flamenco, and flamenco metal have all been contenders. Mark Guerrero, who played with Los Illegals in a 1985 show called “Piecemeal Too” (a collaboration with The Alienz, a Chicano performance art group), describes the band as “an ongoing concept that continues to evolve and have a social and cultural impact” (Los Illegals: Pachuco Punk of the 80s). To illustrate, the band recorded an album with Concrete Blonde on Miles Copeland’s Ark 21 label in 1997 and was featured on a CD and documentary entitled “Searching for Jimi Hendrix” in 1999. The band’s music is also finding its way onto a variety of compilations, and this trend is likely to continue as increased visibility of Latin alternative generates more demand for the range of sounds that have driven its evolution.

On the evening that I attended HerróthiCa, meticulously coiffed lead vocalist Willie Herrón performed an acoustic set with bassist Jesus Velo, lead guitarist Manuel Valdez, and guests, to an eager crowd that included the band’s families, other artists, and fans. Mirroring Los Illegals’s extensive network of influences to deliver a microcosmic twist on music from Echo & The Bunnymen, The Cure, The Beatles, Queensryche, and the Gypsy Kings as well as the harmonious simplicity of 1950s pop ballads and mainstays of the Mexican folk tradition, the performance brought me to the realization that there is as much to learn about the evolution of East LA punk as the broader cultural movements of which it is a largely uncelebrated component.

Cultural critic Josh Kun encapsulates this sentiment while recounting the ways that the scene has failed to be portrayed: “‘East L.A. punk is an untold story.’ The proclamation belongs to Velo, but it’s something that every band from the Eastside-the Brat, Thee Undertakers, the Warriors, the Stains, the Odd Squad, the Violent Children-agrees with. The story of L.A. punk has long been the story of punk west of the L.A. River. Penelope Spheeris’s documentary The Decline of Western Civilization…ignored the Chicano contingent completely. More recent histories of the scene, like Marc Spitz and Brendan Mullen’s We Got the Neutron Bomb, treat it like it was treated back in the day, as one of punk’s unincorporated ghettos, marginal barrio music with permanent residence in history’s footnotes” (Vex Populi). How obscured this mutual germination of cultures has become. How elided it has been since its inception. In whose memory does it register that Los Illegals played the Westside with the likes of Oingo Boingo, Bauhaus and the Go Gos and drew bands like X, The Blasters and Bad Religion to the Eastside; for whom does knowledge of such memories matter?

In considering the lost connections and the shared reference points that become so clear through the combination of visual, spatial and aural media at HerróthiCa, it hit me. Culture, the raw material of Herrón’s art, is by definition shared. That perhaps more than anything is what the relationships at the core of the installation communicate with respect to dimensions of world culture be they punk, Baroque, or folklorica. The shared, the intimate, is the repository that counteracts loss: Herrón, erotic, California-HerróthiCa. It was an evening well spent.