On the Outskirts: Marginalized Artists in the 1970s and 1980s

At the start of the 1970s two major groups were setting in motion the beginnings of their respective grand entrances to the art scene, both beginning in Southern California. Women artists and Chicano artists alike had been marginalized by the mainstream art world – but that was about to change. The 1970s brought about social upheavals for many different groups, and these two were no different.

Women had long been pushed into the domestic sphere of the arts, their work discounted as mere handcrafts. At this point in California, the Ferus Gallery artists were focusing on the perfect surfaces of finish fetish art, and Judy Chicago was, at this point, just “one of the boys.” When critics reviewed her work exhibited at the Pasadena Art Museum in 1969, they analyzed it solely for its technical aesthetic, completely missing the subtle feminist statements she was making, and after that Chicago began working to make a name for feminist art. In 1970, Chicago and many other women artists began working collaboratively, a concept almost unheard of in the mainstream art world, founding women-centered programs for educating women artists, like those begun at Cal State Fullerton and Fresno State University.

Women’s art work had previously been characterized primarily as domestic craft and given a status below the “high art” of men. Their work was emotionally charged and dealt with issues of human struggle, a concept that was taboo in the male-centered art world since society said men weren’t supposed to be emotional. Instead, mainstream art focused on a cool visual and technical aesthetic, leaving subject matter by the wayside. These new women’s art programs emphasized an integration of “high art” and “low art,” of finish fetish with tradition handcrafts, bringing women already skilled in the latter and with statements to make, into exhibition spaces that had long been missing them, and into spaces created solely for them.

These women collaborated on huge projects such as the Womanhouse installation at CalArts in 1972, an abandoned house transformed into a life-size diorama of women’s issues and concerns. The CalArts program, along with the feminist arts program at Fresno State, gave birth to many moving performance, installation, and “traditional” art media pieces in the years following the programs’ geneses. Possibly the most famous and controversial of these was Chicago’s own Dinner Party.

Dinner Party was a collaboration of over four hundred women in the construction of an installation that took from 1974 to 1979 to complete. It was a fusion of the male finish fetish aesthetic with the female crafts of china painting and embroidery, resulting in a mammoth three-sided table honoring thirty-nine historical women with place settings resembling nothing so much as thirty-nine individual vaginas. Since its completion, Dinner Party has not always been well received. Some critics have written this colossal effort off as kitsch rather than art. Some contemporary feminists now protest that the piece only serves to reinforce the body-based sexual stereotypes against women. Either way, the piece serves as an example of the sort of monumental effort women were making to finally be heard as artists and as people in the 1970s and 1980s.

Women weren’t the only group struggling against the mainstream at that time, however. Chicano culture in Southern California was emerging with a vengeance in the wake of the movements against the war in Vietnam, for the United Farm Workers, and for the students across the country. Much as socially conscience women at the time were realizing they had a cause of their own to champion, Chicanos were becoming more aware of their indigenous culture being swept under the collective rugs of the countries to either side of the border. But the indigenous culture of those living in that border region would not go quietly.

At the end of the 1960s and into the 1970s and 1980s, Chicanos in San Diego especially began focusing on educating their communities about the origins of their cultural identity, working on collaborative art works that integrated traditional themes and techniques with more mainstream ones. The establishment of groups such El Centro Cultural de la Raza and others “fostered an ongoing dialogue about the native cultures of the border region,” according to Philip Brookman in El Centro Cultural de la Raza: Fifteen Years. The muralists, sculptors, dancers, musicians, and poets of the Chicano Art movement were integrating their traditional culture into their work, but the galleries weren’t showing Chicano Art, so the artists had to find new exhibition venues and studio spaces.

Local storefronts, warehouses, and community and commercial spaces in and around the barrios of Logan Heights and Sherman Heights became makeshift galleries for these artists. One artist, painter Salvador Torres, got permission from the city of San Diego to temporarily use the abandoned Ford building in Balboa Park while working on large scale pieces, and soon after the building was the unofficial home of a large group of Chicano community activities. Eventually, the group did get permanent possession of a comparable space elsewhere in the park, but not without a struggle similar to that over the construction of Chicano Park.

The city seemed to consider this group as a cultural threat, and made several efforts to disrupt the communities in which they lived and worked. Chicano Park evolved out of a protest against the city’s placement of major freeways through the middle of the barrio, and the Ford building was reclaimed by the city with plans for an aerospace museum. The city eventually ceded a comparable building and funding for Chicanos in Balboa Park and Chicano Park was spared from becoming a California Highway Patrol parking lot, but not without occupations lasting several days for each site.

Artists such as Torres, the poet Alurista, Guillermo Aranda and Ruben de Anda, as well as scores of others, were integral in the organization of the community groups, but also in the realization of several large artistic projects. The interior mural on the “official” Centro Cultural de la Raza building, titled La Dualidad, was designed and organized by Aranda and de Anda and worked on periodically from 1971 through 1983. This was the first permanently displayed Chicano mural in San Diego. Once Chicano Park was established in the Fall of 1970, the community began claiming the space as their own by planting the area under the freeways, and in 1973, by beginning their murals on the many concrete pillars throughout the park. These murals were begun by Los Toltecas en Aztlan and Congreso Artistas en Aztlan, making the community truly theirs once again.

Several new gallery spaces were opened throughout California at this time as well. In San Fransisco one of the first Chicano cultural organizations opened the Galeria de la Raza for Chicano Art. Also, in 1973 UCLA hosted one of the first major Chicano exhibitions, entitled Yolteotl, and in 1974 the Galeria Poxteca opened here in Logan Heights. Though there was some heated controversy surrounding the emergence of the Chicano community in Southern California, this indigenous border culture has managed to establish itself alongside, though generally not in line with, the mainstream art community.

For both women and Chicanos alike, marginalization by the mainstream culture and art community was rebelled against during this tumultuous period only a few decades ago. Both groups had the task of asserting their cultural identities in an art world that had not yet shed its conservative and homogenizing skin. For women, it was an issue of breaking free of patriarchal definitions of what was worthy of being deemed “art,” as though men held a monopoly on the creative processes. For the Chicano community, they faced the task of reclaiming their indigenous border culture from being “whitewashed” or swallowed up altogether by the surrounding cultures of the US and Mexico. Finally, both groups managed to force the mainstream to recognize a redefinition of the nature of art outside of the cold analytical space of the traditional gallery.

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