Walk into the Charlie James Gallery in Chinatown and you’ll see a large painting of the Paul Smith store on Melrose Avenue.
The vivid pink box of a building fills the canvas, except that out front there’s an unexpected sight: a leaf blower. His face is not distinct but the figure appears to be a Latino gardener, one of thousands, who dot the landscapes of Los Angeles.
The painting is by the 29-year old artist Ramiro Gomez, whose work strives to bring to the foreground the laborers who make possible the comfortable, manicured lives of more affluent Angelenos.
“Paul Smith is an iconic building that really helps me appreciate the neighborhood,” Gomez told DnA. “It’s a nice building to look at when you’re driving around. In a way I’m approaching it in the best way I can which is focusing on this labor, which goes beyond me just appreciating it as a surface building.”
Another of Gomez’s paintings features the iconic pink building, this time with a painter in front of it. The canvas hangs off the frame like a drop cloth, with pink footprints surrounding the image of the store.
“Many people will come and take their selfies with that pink building,” Gomez added. “And those selfies get shared. And it’s all about the building that everybody focuses on. Whereas when I’ve seen people painting that building, it’s something that happens out of sight.So in that regard, by making this painting that is now getting seen, I’m hoping to inject that awareness. Just so that when you come in there you’re not just reducing this building as magically appearing and magically maintaining itself.”
This project started a few years back when Gomez created ten paintings that riffed on the early Los Angeles works of the famed artist David Hockney — except in place of the “splash” in “A Bigger Splash” he substituted a pool cleaner and a housekeeper and called it “No Splash.”
In a play on Hockney’s “Man Taking Shower in Beverly Hills,” Gomez replaces the nude man with a woman cleaning the tile walls.
One person who was really intrigued when he first saw these paintings was the New Yorker writer and art critic Lawrence Weschler, longtime friend and writer about David Hockney. Now he has published a new book, “Domestic Scenes: The Art of Ramiro Gomez.” Weschler will be in conversation with Ramiro Gomez on May 5th at the Hammer Museum.
Two years ago, while in Chicago he happened to see Hockney’s iconic painting of the art collectors Frederick and Marcia Weisman standing in front of their Modern home. Then, he says, about 45 minutes later, he went to Expo Chicago and saw what he thought was the same painting.
“But then as I got closer I realized that, no, it wasn’t the same painting at all. This painter had painted a copy of the Hockney except that he replaced the collectors with their gardeners,” Weschler said.
“One of the things that’s so interesting about David Hockney is that, for many of us he taught us to see Los Angeles. I grew up in LA. And for an awful lot of people all over the world but especially in LA he taught us how to look at things in LA — apartment buildings, street signs, swimming pools — that have become absolutely emblematic, iconic of LA, but he was the one who saw them and saw them clear for us, things that had been invisible to us beforehand. And in exactly the same way this person, whoever it was who had painted this, was doing the same thing. He was taking people who are all around us, if you’re of a certain class in Los Angeles, and who are largely invisible.”
Gomez’s own family were undocumented immigrants from Mexico who carved out a life in San Bernardino. His father worked as a truck driver, his mother as a school janitor. He briefly attended the California Institute for the Arts, but left after a year. He got his first taste of the laborers’ side of the LA good life when he took a job as a live-in nanny in West Hollywood.
Gomez, like Hockney, is gay, and viewed the elder painter with admiration. Weschler organized a meeting between the two artists. At the opening of “On Melrose,” DnA asked Ramiro Gomez what that meeting was like.
“I was full of emotion because as we drove up Laurel Canyon Boulevard from West Hollywood, I recognized this area because it’s where I worked myself as a live-in nanny,” Gomez recalled. “So to now be in the position where I’m driving up the same roads to meet Hockney… started giving me sort of a sense of the reason for all of my artwork. I had to go through that life experience, away from everybody’s viewpoint, working as a live-in nanny in order to get to a point where I’m making artwork about the labor.”
When they arrived at David Hockney’s studio, they were met by Hockney’s housekeepers, that were setting up a lunch.
“And so that even more pointed to my work,” Gomez said. “Those are very specific moments that just gave me a sense of comfort in the context of my history and my journey, knowing that I went through all this experience in order for something like this to happen.”
DnA got the chance to visit with David Hockney, and asked what he thought of Gomez’ work.
I thought it was rather interesting,” Hockney said. “I knew he hadn’t done many faces. They were types. And I think I’ve always just drawn individuals. It’s a social comment, isn’t it? Which is is perfectly ok. I mean, I was a bit surprised that the young were looking at my art actually. I was surprised. I like it that the young look at my art. That means it will perhaps live longer than me.”
DnA asked Gomez if he might focus more on individuals in future.
“When I’m doing artwork about the gardener and the janitor, I’m playing with the interpretation of what that title is. The referring of a person as a janitor is implicit in the painting of a janitor. You don’t get a sense of the character, the individuality of the person, as you would do with a portrait, such as what David Hockney tends to do. And the universality of that makes it even more important because someone in Los Angeles can point to my figures as representative of the Los Angeles janitor and at the same time someone in Bangladesh, which has occurred, or someone in Hong Kong, which has occurred, points to my work looking like what they’re seeing in their own environments. The universality is key and so portraiture in some future will definitely be my angle. I’m looking at my own family members, my own friends, the housekeepers that I’ve worked with. I’d love to capture that.”
A show of Ramiro Gomez works, “On Melrose,” is at Charlie James Gallery in Chinatown through May 28, 2016.