In the 1960s, a young David Hockney, infatuated with the sun and sensuality of the west coast, introduced the world of high art to the markers of Los Angeles domestic bliss. He was dazzled by an array of immaculate modernist houses with backyard swimming pools and lawns equipped with sprinklers, a total novelty to an artist who had grown up with English rain. His paintings crystallized a quintessential image of Los Angeles in popular culture, despite failing to capture the entire picture.
Enter the work of Ramiro Gomez, a young LA painter born in California to two undocumented Mexican immigrants (who have since obtained legal citizenship). In 2014, he reproduced Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, a painting of an LA backyard seen beyond the tip of a diving board, noted for the implied subject, presumably under the splashing water. For his version No Splash, Gomez added the implied characters; not the diver, but a pair of faceless, dark-skinned workers raking the water for impurities and squeegee-cleaning the house’s floor-to-ceiling windows. Employing the same technique, he subsequently turned Hockney’s American Collectors into American Gardeners, and Beverly Hills Housewife into Beverly Hills Housekeeper. Diverting from Hockney’s focus on southern Californiasplendor, Gomez’s painting calls attention to those whose labor is required to maintain it, both as homage and soft-spoken rebuke.
“I’ve been asked if I’m filling in the gap that David Hockney omitted, or that art history itself is omitting,” Gomez says in his sunny-hot LA studio, reclining in a plush armchair as streaks of paint dry on his arms and jeans. “It’s both. It’s a way of expanding on David’s work and increasing that awareness of its limitations; I’m talking about representation in art history and inclusion,” he adds, noting the work of artists of color such as Kerry James Marshall, or the Chicano LA activist collectives Los Four and Asco, as his predecessors.
Gomez knew these limitations intimately well. His parents work as a custodian and a truck driver, while he himself worked as a live-in nanny in West Hollywood in his early twenties. The family’s backyard pool and sliding glass doors were a vision of Hockney’s Los Angeles, although not at all hours of the day. Gomez witnessed a twice-daily shift exchange: in the morning, the predominantly white population would exit the Hollywood hills just as the predominantly brown hired help would arrive. Latino men and women who resembled his uncles and aunts adhered strictly to an unwritten hierarchy: unlike Gomez, the men who came to the house regularly to clean the pool and manicure the lawn would never set foot inside. The women who cleaned the interiors would never use the kitchen for something as simple as getting a glass of water; one had to be offered. And at 5pm, they would exit the hills as the second shift exchange took place.
Noting the conspicuous absence of any paintings devoted to these figures, Gomez set to creating them himself. (Before becoming a full-time nanny, he had attended the California Institute of the Arts for a year, leaving after his struggles with financing and the death of his grandmother became insurmountable.)
“His technique is quite specific: loose, gestural, intentionally an almost low-tech way of painting,” says Pilar Tompkins Rivas, co-curator of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Lacma) exhibition Home – So Different, So Appealing, one of two concurrent shows where Gomez’s work is now on view. Both shows are a participant in Pacific Standard Time’s LA/LA, a Getty initiative that this year focuses on Latin American and Latino art.
“The initiative is a tremendous opportunity for US Latino and Latin American art to achieve a much greater level of exposure and visibility,” Tompkins Rivas adds. “Historically, we have seen intermittent major exhibitions that focus on US Latino or Latin American art, but then years would go by without another significant project taking place, especially at the city’s largest, mainstream institutions.”