Linda Vallejo turns the tables on cultural appropriation for The Getty’s citywide tribute to Latin American influence on Los Angeles
By Christina Campodonico
You could call bG Gallery’s current exhibition a star-studded affair. It includes artistic appearances by Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, Oscar winner Audrey Hepburn and even the storied burger-hoisting mascot for Bob’s Big Boy … but with one noticeable change to their iconic complexions: They’ve all been painted a dark shade of brown.
“Not much is really transformed about the original image per se — other than absolutely everything,” writes art critic Shana Nys Dambrot in the catalog for “Keepin’ It Brown.” The exhibition is one of dozens throughout Southern California participating in The Getty’s Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, a series of programming that explores the deep cultural connections between Latin America and Los Angeles.
“Visually, it’s quite subtle,” writes Dambrot. “Conceptually, it’s a game-changing deconstruction of prevailing stereotypes of beauty, grace, power and other systemic race-based cultural assumptions. It makes its point and, once absorbed, is impossible to forget.”
This indelible artwork is the brainchild of Los Angeles artist Linda Vallejo — a third-generation Californian, Angeleno and player in the Chicanx arts community — whose artistic practice has attracted attention recently for its challenging treatment of race and ethnicity.
In the wake of the #OscarsSoWhite scandal of 2016 that shutout several promising minority actors, directors and writers from Academy Award nominations, the Los Angeles Times profiled Vallejo’s work, writing about images that the artist repurposed in response to #OscarsSoWhite — including a photograph of an Oscar-toting Cate Blanchett recast as a chocolate brown “Catarina Blancarte.”
There’s also her “Make ‘Em All Mexican” series. The mixed-media collection features figurines and kitsch objects that Vallejo picked up from antique markets, painted brown and renamed with Latinx monikers. In that series, a brown bust of Elvis becomes “El Vis.” A bronzed statuette of Monroe becomes “Marielena Viva.” And Big Boy gets a new nickname — “Muchachote” — along with his darkened skin.
“I’ve had people say, ‘Why do you make them so dark?” says Vallejo during our conversation. “I always try to come back with a joke because it bursts the bubble. … I say, ‘I like them short and dark.’”
Another comeback she uses: “I don’t want them to look like white people that just came back from the Bahamas.”
Yet the inspiration for all of these pieces came when Vallejo uncovered a vintage copy from the illustrated grammar school primer series “Dick and Jane.”
“When I looked at the images, of course they’re blonde and have red hair and blue eyes and very fair skin. It just dawned on me, ‘Oh my God, I could paint them brown, I can make them brown’ and the slogan became I just want to ‘Make ‘Em All Mexican,’ like me,” says Vallejo. “Let’s just turn history on its head. From there I just went insane and bought $3,000 worth of antiques.”
When asked how she selects the images or objects she wants to repurpose, Vallejo says that the pieces have already been chosen for her.
“I didn’t choose them — somebody else did. I just found them,” says Vallejo. “If you walk around antique malls, you’re really getting a historical snapshot of the inside of peoples’ homes and how they lived, and the icons that were important to them in their lives. I’m not really choosing these images as much as those images have been chosen by other people, and I’m hoping I’m making them contemporary.”
Vallejo’s latest body of work, “The Brown Dot Project,” on view concurrently with pieces from the “Make ‘Em All Mexican” and “Brown Oscars” series, seeks to show a modern snapshot of the United States’ Latinx population.
Using 2010 census data, Vallejo has painstakingly applied hundreds of thousands of brown dots (each representing Latinxs in various segments of society) to architectural graph paper, creating intricate abstract and formal images, among them a lattice of amoebic forms illustrating the percentage of Latinx construction workers nationally, a ladder showing the percentage of Latinx firefighters nationally, and an easel illustrating the percentage of Latinx artists nationally.
“It’s an elegant solution to interesting questions about Latino data,” says Vallejo. “The brown dots correlate directly to the data that’s being presented.”
In the end, Vallejo hopes that her work does not just offer insights into the Latinx experience, but also invites viewers to ask questions, explore and build bridges between cultures.
“I hope that they enter into this world with a laugh, that they feel welcomed into this world of difficult questions by my sense of humor and the beauty of the image,” says Vallejo. “But I hope the questions and answers begin to change people’s perceptions and attitudes towards Latino culture, towards Chicano culture, towards Latinos in a city where many of us were born.”
She believes Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA offers an ideal platform for just that.
“Latinos get to learn about Chicanos, Chicanos get to learn about Latinos and the whole community gets to see the breadth, the type of work, the statements that are being made by Latinos in Los Angeles,” she says. “I think it’s really a wonderful time to be able to see how complex and how very beautiful and how meaningful Latino statements can be, and I’m hoping that Los Angeles will learn to love its Latino population in a new way.”
“Keepin’ it Brown” is on view through Oct. 8 at bG Gallery, Bergamot Station G8A, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica. Join Vallejo and art critic Shana Nys Dambrot for an artist walkthrough at 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 1, at the gallery. Call (310) 906-4211 or visit santamonica.bgartdealings.com.