When You Sleep: A Survey of Shizu Saldamando

Review by Nikki Darling


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Love and Rockers


These are paintings of greasers, rock-a-billies, punks, queers and cross dressers; resistance advocates fighting back with Manic Panic, appropriation and reclamation of their chosen American icons. Their influence on the youth culture in Los Angeles is without parallel, especially as we make our way into an increasingly mixed-race world of open, proud and fearless warriors. These pages are a testament to those for whom cultural ownership is a source of power and yield their influence with style and humor. An ethos of community, coupled with a propensity to make mischief and push cultural boundaries. These are the children of Jamie Escalante and ASCO. These are babies teethed on Morrissey, 1980s radio Flash Back Lunch and a growing rejection and redefinition of machismo. These young people write their own poems, tell their own stories, create their own art galleries and act as one of the last remaining non-digitally created communities in Los Angeles.


When You Sleep, of course has double meaning. The hetero-normative Los Angeles portrayed in film and television, the blonde actress who works at Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, the young screenwriter holed away in the hills surrounding the Cahuenga Pass, the tony surfer’s sucking down weed, vegan nachos and kale smoothies, are not present here. While that world of cultural stereotypes is often served as what defines the golden, green, asphalt jungle, Saldamando’s subjects prove otherwise, creating their own community and language, unseen and unrecognized by surrounding enclaves.


However to say that these are simply portraits of the “disenfranchised” is to abduct the subjects own transcendence and unrest.


In this world loyalty comes easily and protecting what is yours is of most importance. By contrast, in the world of the struggling Hollywood actor, the idea of coming out is still an issue of contention, but in Saldamando’s paintings, being queer is not only a shot of spit in the normative eye, but a weapon against criticism. As writer and theorist, Raquel Gutierrez, points out in the book’s introduction, in regards to the painting Carm’s Crew (2009):


“The hoodie in Shizu’s hands becomes a feminist project, a tool against the patriarchy, as it already creates a sense of gendered ambiguity. In relation to the triad of friends or sisters from other misters, the hoodie creates the playful middle in the spectrum that disrupts the relation between and opposition with femininity and masculinity. Everyone in Carm’s Crew doesn’t trip on who’s sexually oriented to whom, making loyalty a currency as valuable as gold.”


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Of course in this paragraph one can also find subtle echoes to the recent Trayvon Martin murder. A reality in which the clothes you wear as a person of color are still political and most of all, dangerous. In this respect Saldamando’s subjects occupy another realm of the outsider, that of the hunted. Whether it’s in the literal sense or that of the politically ignored and maligned, these are portraits of people taking up space and not apologizing for it. A radical notion for a community that seventy years ago was illegally persecuted in the Sleepy Lagoon murder and the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943 a year later, of which much stemmed from fierce sartorial entitlement, exhibited by the pachuco.


In Juan, I heart LA (2010) and in Between Sets (2010) both plates placed next to one another in the book, the subjects are viewed from the perspective of the possible “outsider” someone not familiar with their community or garb. In Juan the subject looks away, an almost defiant interest in what’s happening out of frame, rather than focusing on what is focusing on him. What the viewer is left with is the image on his shirt, an I heart LA graphic in the style of the famous I LOVE NY shirt, except this ‘heart’ has been impaled by two swords.


The shirt isn’t just a play on an iconic tee, but when viewed by a native Angeleno, the symbol of a deeper insider language of symbols. This is a shirt bought at one of the many mom-and-pop faux-Hot Topic’s that populate East LA and western San Gabriel Valley. This is an image informed by the homegrown Morrissey appropriation started in the 80s in the bedrooms of new wave Chicanos that spread like wildfire to Mexico proper and has since become a cultural phenomenon. The history of the city is on his chest and it’s an emblem not only of belonging but also, creating.


In Between Sets (2010) a group of friends reacts to either being watched or addressed. The girl in the forefront, her long brown hair and bangs pushed to the side in the 1960s style of either her mother or grandmother, looks down shyly; the second girl, hot pink manic panic bangs up front, black for business behind, wears a Ramones shirt, eyes closed, head tilted back, exposing her smile. She isn’t hiding, allowing herself to be seen, but isn’t reciprocating the look.  Her style is again a combination of local ephemera passed between older sisters, tías and old photos. She draws her inspirations from within her community. She also wears the 1960s black Cleopatra eyeliner of her elders. The third girl, a Misfits shirt on, leans forward and bares her teeth as if to speak, her hands protectively covering her backpack. A gesture of privacy in public, you can look, but not touch. This belongs to us, she seems to say, we’ve created it, own it and don’t want what you aren’t offering. It is its own rejection of a larger social paradigm that has long ensnared these teens with double standards, lower expectations and persecution. Get up, get on, she seems to say; nothing here is for you, about you or inspired by you. These defiant statements both claim ownership and the right to look back challengingly.


The theme of intimacy and the personal become defining social structures and maps on which to model liberation and in this case, the act of being seen as one defines oneself. Saldamando’s paintings embrace the language of the intimate, much the way second-wave feminist artists of the CalArts, Woman House project, used the world of the “feminine:” yarn, furniture or confrontation either in person or rendered in the artistic, of the vagina.


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Here flowered bed-sheets act as a canvas not only for Saldamando’s painting of two young men kissing, but also a metaphor for where real change takes place. In the bedroom is where we explore the different ways in which we fit. Love, is a universal language, even if and despite not being recognized or validated by the patriarchy. Again from Gutierrez:


“These moments on the bedsheet, softly intimate that we adjust our way of seeing so that we can locate hope that the public space be not only merciful but kind towards the lovers we observe, who, not so incidentally, happen to inhabit vulnerable subjectivities in the social schema.”


In Backyard Hardcore (2012) this image of the intimate is again evoked through the sleeping figure of a hardcore party attendee, passed out in the dewy, early hours of a late night rager. His hat askew and resting at his side, curled softly in on himself, protectively in sleep assuming the shape of the womb. The waffled souls of his Converse exposing their tattered underbellies, the soft crescent of a moon, peeking from the top of home made, summer denim shorts.


Everywhere in these works the mark of the intimate interacts with public spaces. Just as the subject’s items of clothing refer to a history of Los Angeles familiar to it’s inhabitants, so does the subjects mixed-race identities open the book to a third dimensionality. Los Angeles has historically been a place of racial tension, a city built upon another city, one already pre-existing with it’s own colonialist order and function. Miscegenation, that dirty old man of progress, has both ripped apart and unified its people. The faces of Saldamando’s subjects bear the city’s changes, their exact racial identity not always apparent. In the future, this of course will make it harder for those on the wrong side of history, to identify targets of oppression. Los Angeles is built on community, access, race and class. Like the solo, white pachuco in Edward James Olmos adaptation of Zoot Suit, where you align yourself is what cements you to a truth. These paintings are the future, now.


Herself half-Japanese, half-Latina, Saldamando’s work was recently included in the Smithsonian’s travelling exhibition Portraiture Now: Asian American Portraits of Encounter (just recently closed at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles), solidifying her place in the historical narrative. Saldamando’s paintings, their rich histories, aesthetic skill and playfulness, offer a glimpse of radical consciousness and opportunity to question cultural blind spots. That there is another way, that just because something is, isn’t because it’s supposed to be.



Introduction’s by Karen Rapp and Raquel Gutierrez, When You Sleep, A Survey of Shizu Saldamando, (Vincent Price Museum of Art, 2013)
Images: Cover and interior of When You Sleep, A Survey of Shizu Saldamando