Axis Mundo at WCMA rediscovers an artistic community in Los Angeles in the 1970s

A woman is dancing in a swirl of crimson-orange skirt. The room around her glows in abstract light, like a Toulouse-Lautrec cabaret.

She is a vivid, backlit painting by Edmundo (Mundo) Meza, and this is Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s. The Freedom movements are rising across the country. In the boutique windows in West Hollywood, the mannequins wear hand-painted platform shoes. Palm trees cast shadows in the bright light.

Someone walking by might see a lean young man in riveted jeans and a brightly colored shirt in one of the windows. He is setting up an abstract painting as a backdrop with elaborate props. He wears his dark hair long and vigorous.

Later that night, he might be hanging out with actors in absurdist masks, while student artist and photographers stage scenes from a film that never happened.

A group of artists were growing together in Southern California. They were young and galvanized with a shared energy. They were kept out of galleries and museums and mainstream media. So they were creating their own spaces.

And they are gathered together again now in a new art exhibit of more than 50 artists. After traveling across the country and gathering national notice — more than 80 news stories and three in the New York Times — Axis Mundo has come this fall to the Williams College Museum of Art, where in a way it began.

Tracing the roots of an artistic movement

C. Ondine Chavoya, professor of art at Williams College, has been working on this exhibit for five years with his co-curator, David Evans Frantz, associate curator at the Palm Springs Art Museum in Palm Springs, Calif.

For Professor Chavoya, the work began much farther back. He began that research 20 years ago, he said on a quiet fall morning at WCMA. In his graduate research at the University of Rochester, he discovered and began to explore a network of gay, lesbian and queer Chicanx and Latinx artists in Southern California.

The 1960s and 1970s was a crucial time, he said. It was a time of potential and collaboration. Los Angeles was active in the Freedom Movements. It was a center for Chicanx Civil Rights, gay liberation and women’s liberation (as they were called then.)

“It’s also a rich and dynamic period for experimentation in the arts,” Chavoya said. “This show tries to tap into an ebullient energy between young people — most of these artists were very young when they began making the work in this show. Many were students.”

Many of them met through university art exhibitions and student art shows, he said. Artists held group shows in their own studios. They met each other at bars and night clubs and performances on street corners.

After their student days, the artists kept on in this freeform DIY culture, developing their own group shows.

“That is partly because they were excluded from mainstream institutions,” Chavoya said. “Doors were closed to Chicanx and Latinx artists.”

Axis Mundo shows examples of invitations to shows and performances at artists studios with challenging and playful names like Hazard Gallery and Butch Gardens. Artists often collaborated and helped to promote each other’s work.

Artists create in community

This collaboration and communion has informed the show from the beginning and comes through at its core, and in its name.

Chavoya and Frantz have named the show for Edmundo (Mundo) Meza, an artist at the center of this group. Many artists Chavoya spoke with in curating the show have talked about Meza’s influence and his skill, he said.

He and Frantz have brought together a section on Meza’s works, including the painting of The Flying Women (the dancers above), which Mundo’s sister, Pat Meza, is now donating to the WCMA collection.

Many of these works have not been shown in more than 30 years, Chavoya said. Some appeared together in a memorial exhibit organized by friends, after Meza died of the effects of AIDS and HIV in 1985. Some have never been shown.

Here Chavoya has gathered a collection of Meza’s paintings and fiber art, and photographs with masks and costumes, and around his works are photographs and records of film, theater and music by artists he knew and men he loved.

“He explored in many directions in a short time,” Chavoya said. “He made these amazing window displays. They were wild, eccentric, funky and sometimes controversial.”

Meza set up Avant Garde fashions from the boutique Maxwell Bleu with his large-scale paintings as a backdrop. People would encounter them, walking or driving by, Chavoya said. They were like murals — but ephemeral, constantly changing.

In this medium, he takes part in a distinctly queer art history, Chavoya explained. Andy Warhol, who spent time in L.A. in the 1960s, had a breakout exhibit of his artwork in window display at Bonwit Teller on Fifth Avenue in New York, alongside mannequins in spring cocktail dresses. Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns had displays there too

and created windows for Tiffany.

From L.A. outward

Mundo and his companions grew beyond their own network, Chavoya said, until they tapped into an international network of artists.

Decades before the world wide web, artists in the ’60s and ’70s created and sent mail art and ’zines, informal magazines, some beautifully printed and some informally mimeographed on in a kitchen or studio. They sent postcards, prints and photographs to each other the way artists today create portraits on Instagram and digital art on Tumblr, Chavoya said.

It was a fertile interplay and exchange, he said. Art blended with social, cultural and political life, and he wanted to document and play with that energy in this show.

In mail art, as in Tumblr or Instagram, People developed intimate relationships, often with people they had never met.

“There’s something powerful for me about that,” Chavoya said.

And they met people far beyond the city. The Chicanx and Latinx Los Angeles artists in this show reached out to an an international fellowship of artists, and some were internationally known. Andy Warhol, William Burrows … Susan Sontag, Lucy Lippard — artists would send them work, and some they kept or responded to.

“The networks through mail art and zines informed the (whole) show,” Chavoya said.

Archiving the ephemeral

Mail art also defines one of Chavoya’s challenges in bringing the show together. How many people hold on to an artist’s postcard sent 60 years ago?

“(Many of) these artists are not in collections or abundantly researched,” he said.

Some, like Meza, have passed away.

So Chavoya and Frantz have gone on a quest for them.

“We have had to reach out to artists and institutions who supported them,” Chavoya said, “art centers and Latinx and Chicanx art spaces.”

He volunteered in internships at many of these places, and he has looked through more than 50 archives in the U.S., Mexico, Canada, Spain and the United Kingdom.

He visited libraries — and sometimes he has found unexpected troves.

At the New York Public Library he uncovered a collection of thousands of negatives

from the photographer Tosh Carillo that had lain unknown there because the artist’s name had been mis-spelled.

Chavoya reached out to people he had heard of in his early research 20 years before, and some of them led him to others he had not known before.

He talked with artists, and sometimes he talked with their families and surviving partners

band members, and they took him through their attics and garages.

He and Frantz have mapped out collections and archives and places where this work still lives, he said.

Some of it has deep local ties. One collection Chavoya has consulted for years, now at the Getty, used to be here in the Berkshires. It belonged to Jean Brown, he said, a local woman who lived in the Shaker Seed House in Tyringham.

Artists would send her work for years, Chavoya said, because they knew she would care for it carefully and preserve it, and her collection became widely known.

“Artists would make pilgrimages there,” he said.

Over many years when museums and galleries were not collecting the work, artists would come to the Berkshires to see their own earlier work and their friends’.

As a result of Chavoya and Frantz’ recent research, the work they have uncovered is now often collected and cared for. Some family and loved ones of artists have donated work to the One Archives, the world’s largest archive of LGBTQ materials in the world, who have helped to organize this exhibit.

Carrying the work forward

It feels deeply relevant to Chavoya today to talk about a group of artists who stood up for themselves in a world that could often be hostile to them.

Walking into the museum, visitors will see a large color photograph of young men wearing t-shirts with Maracon on the front, and young women wearing t-shirts saying mal flora. They all say role model on the back. These young men and women were marching in an early Pride Parade in Los Angeles, Chavoya said. The slogans are insulting terms in Spanish for gay men and lesbians.

And they are reclaiming those words.

“I think about it,” Chavoya said. “I’m a child of the 1970s and 1980s, and growing up in the ’80s.”

Parents would say ‘pareces maracon,’ he said – using the word to humiliate young people. They were policing the boundaries of gendered expectations around Chicano masculinity. They were saying — you look like, rather than you are. How different it would have been, he said, if they could have said, ‘You are gay.’ This T-shirt is defiant. It’s not ‘you look like’ — it’s ‘I am.’

These young artists, some with work in this show, were creating a space where Chicanx and Latinx people could raise their voices, he said. The idea of a gay public space, where people could express themselves freely, was new in Southern California in the 1960s, and these artists were claiming their own place in it as it was forming — because even at the height of the Freedom movements, that space was largely white.

“There Chicanx clubs and bars,” he said, “and working class mixed bars, but in terms of the political leadership and early public presentations like Pride Parades, it was mostly Euro-American.”

But it was growing in ways that would have national reach. Axis Mundo shows elements of that activist history a cartoon from the Great Wall of Los Angeles — one of the longest murals in the world, and still growing. Judith Baca has designed and created the mural with 35 artists and 400 young muralists in the San Fernando Valley. It shows a sweep of California history, from the centuries of the Chumash people in these hills to the building of freeways in the 1950s that divided Latino communities in the city.

In its course, she honors two of the earliest gay and lesbian organizations in the country, Chavoya says. The Mattachine Society formed in L.A. in 1950 and the Daughters of Bilitis in San Fransisco in 1955, helping to lay the groundwork for the artistic upwelling in the next 20 years.

In the 1980s, that history seems to take a turn, Chavoya said.

“The dynamic seems to end,” he said. “It seems like something will take hold and expand to other parts of the state and the country.”

But in the Reagan years, artists lost government funding that had supported their work and their exhibitions, and more, they lost their lives in the AIDS epidemic. For many reasons, Chavoya said, the artist networks from the 1960s and 1970s shifted. Artists moved, and some moved on to other work.

But Axis Mundo moves forward to recognize later artists who take hold of a similar spirit, like filmmaker and Chicanx activist Ray Navarro and photographer Laura Aguilar.

In her images, she celebrated the strength and compassion of a world that is queer, Latina and often working-class. And she has become widely known and recognized, Chavoya said. By the time Axis Mundo first opened at the One Archives in 2017, Aguilar also had a solo show at the Vincent Price Museum of Art in Los Angeles, and she now has work at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, though she herself passed away in 2018.

Walking up the stairs at WCMA, under the photograph of the young men and women in the parade, you’ll see a second photograph in black and white.

It is called Plush Pony #15, Chavoya said, named for the Southern California bar where Aguilar would come with a camera and take informal portraits of couples who were there to relax for the evening.

Two women are leaning together. They are holding each other and looking outward together, and they are facing you with humor and unshakeable resilience.

By the Way Berkshires is a digital magazine exploring creative life and community — art and performance, food and the outdoors — and I’m writing it for you, with local voices, because I’ve gotten to know this rich part of the world as a writer and journalist, and I want to share it with you.

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