Now in its second year, FriezeLA has taken over the lot at Paramount Studios. The opening act spans from Feb. 14 through 16 and anchors Frieze Week, a series of events, discussions and gatherings at galleries and art institutions around the city. The fair itself takes place in a tent designed by go-to artworld architect Kulapat Yantrasast, a short walk from the Special Projects section, where commissions went to a cadre of emerging artists who took over the New York-style backlot with installations and other large-scale works.
Curators of Special Projects for FriezeLA are LACMA’s Rita Gonzalez and the Vincent Price Museum’s Pilar Tompkins Rivas, tasked with a mandate embracing diversity. BlackLivesMatter founder Patrisse Cullors is featured on the program to lead a participatory dance performance, while a look inside the wallets of everyday Brazilians makes Jonathas de Andrade’s video work an intimate and surprising portrait of his homeland. Gary Simmons was tapped to restage his 1993 “Backdrop Project,” taking Polaroids of visitors and offering them a copy.
“We really wanted to focus on the lack of Latino visibility in media but also in the artworld. There are very few commercial art galleries that represent Latinx artists and that’s something we wanted there to be as a subtext to our selection,” Gonzalez tells Truthdig. “It was very strategic, the artists we were giving this platform to.”
Inside a faux-brownstone apartment, Vincent Ramos’ installation “Wolf Songs for the Dead” scrutinizes host Paramount Studios’ legacy of Latinx and Chicano representation in their movies. He mixes his own drawings, photos and personal family items with images scoured from the archives including actors Anthony Quinn, Katy Jurado, Zorro, Lupe Vélez and Ricardo Montalban.
“Whoever is in charge, they don’t think these stories are worthy of being told,” says Ramos, a native Angeleno who currently lives and works in Venice. “Ask any brown person on the street and they’ll tell you there are some pretty dynamic narratives from these cultures. Whether it’s the artworld or the film world those voices should be heard cause they are embedded in the history of this country. You can’t tell the history of the Southwest without Mexican-Americans.”
That sentiment is echoed by the National Hispanic Media Coalition and the National Latino Media Council who, in 2018, boycotted the studio and staged a protest to emphasize its lack of Latinx representation. Unfortunately, Paramount isn’t the only culprit. Discrimination is industry-wide, according to a recent USC Annenberg study, which found that Latinx representation has been cut in half over the last decade — dropping from six to three percent. This, when Latinx are one-fifth of the U.S. population and roughly 25 percent of moviegoers.
Unfortunately, the same problem persists in the art world. In a recent PLOS study, researchers looked at more than 40,000 artworks in the collections of 18 museums across the U.S. and found that roughly 85 percent of artists represented are white, while 87 percent are men. Nine percent are Asian, 2.8% Latinx, 1.2% African American and 1.5% are listed under the catch-all of “other.” As for art markets, the top 20 most expensive artworks ever purchased were painted by white men. And of the names on Artnet’s 2014 Most Expensive Artists list, all but one were white.
Institutions are trying to change this dynamic, in some cases actually selling off works by white men to acquire works by women and POC. In 2017, led by The Getty, museums across Southern California exhibited “PST LALA” highlighting Latinx art in roughly 60 art institutions. The show was a second iteration of the 2011 exhibition, “Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A., 1945-1980,” celebrating mid-century practitioners like Ed Ruscha, Billy Al Bengston and Larry Bell. In the months that followed, they saw prices for their work jump to new heights. According to Gonzalez, in the months following “PST LALA,” Latinx artists saw no such jump.
“It should have had a ripple effect that went everywhere. It’s not happening,” says Ramos. “A lot of us felt that would have told the narrative in a more substantial way. And it did for that moment, but then what’s next?”
Value is driven by the market, which generally consists of white people buying white artists. That means that while art lovers (most of them white), are milling around the Special Projects section taking selfies and admiring installations by POC, when it comes time to make a purchase they will go inside the main tent and by works by blue-chip artists like Cindy Sherman, Robert Longo and Doug Aitken.
“When black, brown, POC faces are allowed into the spaces, it has to be figuration, it has to be narrative about some trauma. In fact, there’s much more of a demand to justify things that aren’t that,” notes Jibade-Khalil Huffman, whose large-scale “May Day” honors Grace Jones in the role of May Day, the villainous enforcer in the 1985 James Bond film, “A View to A Kill.” Hoisting a white man over her head, she is emblematic of a powerful black woman subverting a symbol of the white patriarchy. It’s an image that doesn’t jibe with mainstream expectations of narratives having to do with slavery and economic subjugation. Such pigeonholing shuts abstract artists of color out of the conversation entirely.
“My most immediate audience is people who look like me. But there are collectors who really do care about the work on its own terms, not enough, though. In some way we still need to burn the whole thing down and give out capital in different ways,” says Huffman, who currently has a show across town at Anat Ebgi. “But short of giving people access to museums, scholarships for people who can’t afford to go to art school, nothing’s going to change. Because of racism, we’re only going to allow the most obvious figurative art about slavery or some kind of traumatic thing in the door. That for me is a big part of it, the racism in that.”
Ramos wonders if the museums could lead the markets in the direction of greater equity, especially in cities like Los Angeles where Latinx far outnumber white people. “MOCA, hell man it’s a stone’s throw from East L.A. and a lot of those people are not represented in that museum,” he says, referring to downtown’s Museum of Contemporary Art. “To break free of this tokenism at some point would be fantastic, especially in this era of divisiveness. In a perfect world these larger avenues of culture, film or the artworld, they would make an effort to be more inclusive because of everything that’s going on. But that doesn’t seem to be happening or it’s happening at a snail’s pace.”
Gabriella Sanchez has work both inside the main tent, at Charlie James Gallery’s booth, and on the backlot. Her triptych of vinyl banners, “Hommes, Homes, Homes,” is a play on the homonym using thematically connected imagery. “There are structural issues in the art world that haven’t been reworked or addressed as we become more diverse,” she says. “The art world is a microcosm of the larger world with all the same issues. There are people who are genuinely interested in embracing diversity. But then I have also seen moments where there are institutions or people who are embracing it because of the moment. Obviously, I wish it was all genuine but any movement is better than none.”