Daniel Duque |The Poly Post

Skewing the White Gaze: Learning about Latino and Chicano culture at CPP

By Daniel Duque, May 9, 2023

Cal Poly Pomona featured three artists prominent in the Latino and Chicano art scene with a panel discussion, “Skewing the White Gaze: Acclaimed Artists Reflect on their Work” May 2. 

Urban & Region Planning and Ethnic & Women’s Studies Associate Professor Alvaro Huerta wanted to expose students and faculty to “three accomplished artists.” 

The purpose of the event was to represent the Latino community and to teach students about the culture through the work of the three artists. 

“A lot of us, in general, love art, photographs and creative exercises,” said Alvaro Huerta. “I wanted to show three people that are part of that community, that are representing images from the communities where they come from instead of an outsider coming in and thinking that they can capture images of brown people, for example, when in reality they are doing more harm than good.” 

The panel opened with muralist and pastel artist John Valadez, an important artist from the Chicano arts movement. His work highlights the Mexican American experience in Los Angeles through paintings, pastel, murals and photography which reflect on the Chicano identity.   

With his gallery of more than 10 of his pieces including portraits, landscapes and depictions of the daily lives of people, Valadez showcased the Chicano identity through a realistic art style. 

Valadez gave an insight on what Chicano art means for him and explained his relationship with realistic art and his painting style. 

“That was a strategy in the beginning of my concepts of what Chicano art was, it was subversive in nature,” said Valadez. “We don’t even realize it as you are doing it in the beginning, we realize it later, how people are reacting to your work. My thing in the subversive nature was to learn Western European realistic techniques and do imagery of people that I want to look at.” 

One of Valadez’ paintings titled “Pool Party” showcases two Chicano teenage girls hanging out by a backyard pool, however, viewers overlook the fact there is a fire taking place behind them.  

“This is a good example of the early work in Los Angeles, a very interesting idea where as long as I’m not being affected by the elements even next door, I’m safe, because there is a fire going on, but we have a pool,” said Valadez. “If the worst things happen you just jump in the pool.” 

Mexican painter and printmaker Salomón Huerta continued with the panel. Salomón Huerta, who was born in Tijuana and raised in the Los Angeles neighborhood Ramona Gardens, introduced his presentation relating about his past experiences going to school at the Art Center College of Design. 

“Many times, I would leave my house and I had to deal with the drug dealers just to get to my car to get to school,” said Salomón Huerta. “On the way to school many times I would almost hit a deer because there was a lot of deer coming from the mountains into the campus.” 

Salomón Huerta explained that at school people were not aware that he came from the neighborhood he called “The Hazard Projects” and that he did not have the financial status his classmates had. 

“Everyone thought I was like them,” said Salomón Huerta. “I literally did it (the work) in the first year and a half before I got a scholarship, I did it on a dollar a day.” 

Daniel Duque |The Poly Post

Salomón Huerta presented portraits made by oil on canvas inspired by the people he knew and the happiness those photographs brought to him. He presented a gallery of portraits inspired by photographs he took at a cemetery during a funeral in which he removed the plaques and left the trees to make it look like the subject was posing at a park and not a cemetery. 

“Growing up in ‘The Projects’ was like a hyper reality based on violence,” said Salomón Huerta. 

He narrated that one night when he was at the parking lot of where he lived, he was approached by a gangster who pointed a gun at his head but after realizing Salomón Huerta was not his target, the gangster ran off.  

“That was the kind of constant bulls— I had to deal with on a daily basis while trying to go to school and do the best that I can do,” said Salomón Huerta. 

Salomón Huerta reflected on the real purpose of his work and the meaning behind it. 

“When I’m making these paintings, I’m not trying to glorify gangs or anything like that,” he said. “For me, it’s about making peace from that period of time in my life, and I choose the best moments from that time and I make paintings from that.” 

Mixed media artist Shizu Saldamando showcased her gallery to conclude the panel. She opened with the struggles she faced in the California Institute of Art and the making her work because of the lack of diversity there was. 

“I was getting accused of creating this weird binary of a brown Latinx representation on the walls of people and this disconnect between a white audience of my classmates at CalArts,” said Saldamando. “My work was being problematic, and I needed to cater, I needed to be more conceptual with my work to be more accessible towards white audiences.” 

Saldamando’s style focuses on ball pen portraits. She introduced her gallery with a ball pen portrait of her friend Arturo during an art gallery. She explained she went to different Chicano art shows and asked people to pose by looking at her to “create a reflexive relationship between the gallery goer and the subject in the piece.” 

Something to highlight about Saldamando’s work was her “Embrace” series of portraits. Saldamando stated when she visited goth and queer clubs, she drew portraits of people embracing. Instead of making these portraits on canvas she did them on bed sheets. 

“I’d always really like to do portraits in celebration and in honor of people, so instead of working on canvas which had this weight of art history and the fine art kind of Western Art school, I decided to draw ballpoint pen on bed sheets,” Saldamando said. 

Skewing the White Gaze was a creative way of teaching students about the Latino and Chicano culture and diversity through the struggles and experiences of the three acclaimed artists. Students at CPP come from different backgrounds and may face obstacles at any point when pursuing theirValadez, Salomón Huerta and Saldamando are examples of people that faced multiple challenges and difficulties but did not stop them from becoming successful artists. 

“It doesn’t really matter where you come from or where you started, it matters where you are going,” said Alvaro Huerta. 

Feature image courtesy of Daniel Duque

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