In seeing the mansions lining the streets of some neighborhoods in Los Angeles, most people focus on the grandeur represented in these structures. But artist Ramiro Gomez seeks to highlight the hidden labor and hierarchies that go into making these luxuries possible.
His career as an artist began after he dropped out of the California Institution of the Arts. Working as a nanny for twins in an affluent West Hollywood home, he took pages from luxury magazines and painted figures of domestic workers during the children’s nap time. He garnered fame as an emerging artist when he took out the paintings that he hid in a folder in his bedroom and shared them with more people. Gomez shared stories about his growth as an artist and his inspirations at the Rubenstein Arts Center Feb. 7.
Gomez started his presentation with a picture of him holding two children, which the mother of the children took in 2009 right before he went out to a park with them. Although he is smiling in the photograph, he was having several personal struggles at that time – he had decided not to finish his art degree, making his future unclear. His grandmother, who took care of him throughout his childhood as both of his parents worked as a janitor and a truck driver, also passed away in the same year.
“I was smiling on the surface here, but I was definitely concerned with what I was going through on daily basis,” Gomez said.
However, observing other domestic laborers who worked in the same household with him, Gomez became inspired to make artwork about them. When one of his female co-workers “disappeared” one day, Gomez’s employers did not explain to him why she was gone and quickly replaced her with two new workers. The event was a difficult lesson for Gomez, through which he discovered the ephemerality of his labor.
“It made me realize my own impermanence in the space,” Gomez said. “I was brought in to care for the family and be a part of the family, but at any point, I [could be] subjected to abrupt dissolution.”
During his midday break, the artist began to paint his coworkers, who could be replaced at any time, on magazine covers and pages to leave diary-like records about his perceptions of them. Acrylic paint on glossy magazine covers, which could be easily scratched off, reminded him of the temporary positions of the laborers working for the household. Gomez also contradicted the implications of “ideal” lives presented in the pages filled with images of well-decorated homes represented by introducing to those spaces faceless immigrant laborers earning low wages while working for long hours. One of his early paintings shows a domestic worker, with an unidentifiable face, cleaning a room in the background while a child lies on a couch, watching television.
Although he initially concealed his paintings in his bedroom, Gomez began to present his works at galleries, while he was still working as a nanny. After he finally quit his job, he became particularly attracted to cardboard as an artistic medium. Making worker figures with cardboard pieces and installing them in wealthy neighborhoods of Southern California, he considers those works as a reminder of death and the temporariness of the laborers’ presence in those spaces.
“When I put a piece of cardboard up, it is almost a comment on that ephemerality,” Gomez said. “If this woman was not portrayed at this point, is she going to return? Will she be there tomorrow?”
Gomez also creates works on canvases, especially those that are meant to be displayed in museums.
“It is important for some pieces to be permanent, or else everything will disappear,” Gomez said.
However, the artist has had complicated relationships with museums that want to include his works in their exhibitions, because they have been unwilling to let him reveal the conditions of the laborers who work there. Gomez recalled the time when he was invited to a museum in Denver to exhibit his works. He managed to get the museum’s permission to follow one of its janitors around and made a bronze cast of her, based on a picture that he took as she walked with a trash can under the museum’s logo during her regular day at work. But it took a long time for him to convince the museum to display the bronze cast at the exact place where the janitor was in the photograph. Ironically, by the time the artwork was presented, the janitor was replaced.
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“At one point I thought about the museums role as cultural institutions, and on surface they present themselves at liberal,” Gomez said. “But how ironic is it that this person that is so important to the museums’ day to day is so easy to let go?”
Although he does shed light on the forgotten presences of temporary laborers like the museum janitor, Gomez is also interested in their stories, especially those about personal loss and struggles. Near the end of the event, he presented a short documentary called “Los Olvidados,” which showed his journey to install cardboard figures in the Arizona desert. In the work, the figures gather around a cross, with a shirt draped on it, as they mourn for the death of their family member who died while trying to cross the border from Mexico to the United States.
In presenting his works at public events, including those at universities, the artist said that he often feels supported by people who listen to him and share with him the experiences of having immigrant laborer parents who endeavored to settle down in a new country, despite hardships.
“The willingness of the community that is constantly threatened and pushed down … to still rise to the surface and be resilient is a thing that I find connections to,” he said.