Vincent Ramos, Here the Poets Chop Their Fingers Served Under Glass, performed by Christie Herring, LA Municipal Art Gallery, August 18, 2012
Vincent Ramos’ work is an evocation of personal and collective histories that manifests itself in archival installations of heavily researched artifacts and documents. His contribution to the Made in LA biennial takes up a good sized corner of the LA Municipal Art Gallery at Barnsdall Park. Walking behind a pair of thick black curtains, viewers are greeted with a cross between a pop culture museum and someone’s cherished attic filled with memories: glass cases and racks are everywhere, filled to the brim with old toys, souvenirs, records, magazines, posters, tchotchkes, etc.
Ramos’ projects have explored a variety of histories, but this one is particularly personal, being the result of a Hammer Museum residency in which the artist investigated 1950s Venice through family and city archives. As such, the installation has a particular focus on the Mexican American working class experience in the city of Venice—a much different place in the 1950s than it is now. The work encourages immersion, time travel, and sifting through the mixed cultural messages of mid-century California.
The sheer volume of data collected can be a bit overwhelming, and so it was a welcome touch to experience it with the light-handed assistance of a period-appropriate host, which Ramos provided in a performance held over the weekend. Following a script penned by the artist, actress Christie Herring was a spot-on Vampira, expertly conjuring the campy 1950s late-night horror movie hostess.
Entering the space as though entering a haunted mansion, “Vampira” opened with her trademark scream and classic graveyard humor shtick (“I sincerely hope that you all had a truly MISERABLE week and that your experience of this Made in LA fiasco, I mean exhibition, has been a real humdinger of true horror….”). What followed was a highly entertaining “experimental lecture” that led viewers through a slice of Ramos’ family history, with the artist himself even making a cameo audio appearance as a sly Mickey Mouse.
The story that stood out the most for me was the one about Ramos’ aunt who used to work as one of Jerry Lewis’ maids at his home in Bel Air. Apparently Lewis would always wear athletic tube socks, but he’d wear each one only once before throwing it away. Ramos’ aunt decided to recycle the socks and started giving them out to friends and family. Ramos imagined legions of people of every color walking around the city in Jerry Lewis’ socks. Vampira told this story with a prop severed leg wearing a tube sock lying in front of her; as the story came to an end, she painted the leg brown.
Disneyland also loomed large in the narrative, to the extent that the hostess even donned a Mickey Mouse hat that had been embroidered with the name “Vampira.” Ramos himself, as “Mickey,” told the story of how his grandfather and uncle had worked at a West LA nursery that had provided many of the plants that adorned the original Disneyland. Walt Disney himself gave free tickets to the nursery’s owner so that his employees and their families could attend the park’s opening day on July 17, 1955. Sadly, those tickets were given to the owner’s friends and business associates instead. As an addendum to this tale, Ramos mentioned that the 1956 Mickey Mouse Club Annual included a story titled “The Wetback Hound.”
Campy and funky, but with glimmers of genuine social horrors beneath the surface, the Vampira mythos provided a perfect framework for portions of Ramos’ LA history.