Making Labor Visible: An Interview with Ramiro Gomez

The work of Ramiro Gomez draws attention to the domestic workers and day laborers upon whose ministrations luxury lifestyles depend …

The work of Ramiro Gomez draws attention to the domestic workers and day laborers upon whose ministrations luxury lifestyles depend. Born in San Bernardino to undocumented Mexican immigrants, Gomez worked as a live-in nanny for a family in the Hollywood Hills section of Los Angeles after attending the California Institute of the Arts for less than a single year. Gomez has been artist-in-residence at the Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana, California, and with the city of West Hollywood, as well as a guest lecturer at Stanford, UCLA, UC Santa Barbara, and at the AFL-CIO National Convention. Writer Lawrence Weschler spoke with the artist before a live audience earlier this year, on the occasion of the release of their book, Domestic Scenes: The Art of Ramiro Gomez.

Lawrence Weschler (LW): I thought maybe we could talk about your background.

Ramiro Gomez (RG): My parents came from Mexico and arrived in California in the late ’70s. I was born in 1986, when my parents were 26 years old and 19 years old, respectively. They met in San Bernardino. My mom’s been working as a janitor now for about 15 years and my father’s been a truck driver for 20 years. So all their jobs have been manual labor since they arrived in the country. I should perhaps add that they are both now American citizens, having benefitted from Reagan’s amnesty in the late ’80s.

LW: And as a kid you were a soccer star?

RG: Well, coming from Mexico, my family was very into sports. Soccer was the sport that I naturally gravitated towards.

LW: And you were a hemophiliac—very good at avoiding being tackled, but when you were tackled, it was disastrous.

RG: It was after the injuries that I turned to art. At 13 years old that experience of being injured and bedridden trained me to handle life experiences and be patient. I turned to art as a kind of release. I think many artists respond to struggles with health or with their environment and try to make something out of those struggles.

<i>Self-Portrait</i> (2013). 11 x 8½ inches. Acrylic on magazine

Self-Portrait (2013). 11 x 8½ inches. Acrylic on magazine

LW: And in elementary school, junior high, and high school, your artistic tendencies were noticed. You eventually went to community college and then got a scholarship to CalArts. And you were at CalArts for one year. But then you started working as a nanny?

RG: Yes. All of the schooling and education and all of my parents’ labor and sacrifices were never intended to end up with me as a nanny. It was in 2009 that I took that job and it was a very difficult period. I’d lasted at CalArts less than a year, and I thought, “Well, what next?” Survival mode kicked in and the universe said, “Here’s this nanny job. Take it.”

LW: And you were in the Hollywood Hills with an “industry family,” which is to say, people who worked in the entertainment industry. And you were caring for two twin toddlers?

RG: Yes. The twins were newborn. They fit in my arm. Somebody was trusting me to watch over their children who fit in my arm, feed them, take care of them, and raise them. I mean, I wasn’t just the nanny. I was invited to be a part of the family, essentially. That was when I started to think about my job as a nanny as not simply work. As a nanny there is a blurring of boundaries around what constitutes work.

And there is a strange, fragile level of intimacy with the family. I was told, “Here’s your room.” As a domestic worker you’re treated as an extra family member, until inevitably something happens and you’re not. This happened to many of the other people I was working with. The other housekeepers, the gardeners, that cast would change around me and that slowly started affecting how I saw my environment. The people that I thought were always going to be there were just suddenly gone, with no explanation. That’s not easy to sit with.

<i>Xenia Waiting for Her Check</i> (2013). 11 x 8½ inches. Acrylic on magazine

Xenia Waiting for Her Check (2013). 11 x 8½ inches. Acrylic on magazine

LW: One of the things I find remarkable about your work with magazines, into which you began painting your interventions already during that period, is the way in which it helps us understand the impact of their glossy, spic-and-span aesthetic. Because the magazines effectively enforce an aesthetic that it takes armies of low-paid and insecure workers to realize. By inserting those workers into such images, workers who are otherwise completely invisible, the viewer suddenly notices how the whole thing works. For instance, you have a whole series of people waiting for their check.

RG: Yeah. The “waiting for their paychecks” series actually came out of an attempt to investigate this phenomenon, without only showcasing someone in the moment of active labor, but rather at the period of their day when they are perhaps at their most vulnerable. When I focus on a figure just standing there holding or clutching a purse, at the behest of their employer who might not recognize, for example, their need to catch the bus to get home to feed their own kids, it gives you an insight into their private struggles which you wouldn’t necessarily catch just observing someone working.

LW: You have another series where we are invited to infer that the boss is not home.

RG: Yes. This is part of the magazine series where I do like to play and imagine. Again, my focus isn’t always on labor. It’s also on what happens when you’re doing something for someone else. These are imaginary scenarios. You will never actually see a person that is employed in this domestic environment taking a break because they’re expected to be working all the time. If they’re not working, they’re viewed as not doing their job. That expectation becomes part of the series.

<i>Marias Paycheck</i> (2013) 11 x 8½ inches. Acrylic on magazine

Marias Paycheck (2013) 11 x 8½ inches. Acrylic on magazine

LW: One of my favorite of your pieces is Maria’s Paycheck, in which the paltry check is inserted into an ad for a luxury watch.

RG: This image is very personal to me. You can go into a home in Beverly Hills and often you’ll find these little Post-it notes next to a paycheck. This, on one end, is the boss not wanting to force an employee into an uncomfortable moment. And on the other end, for the domestic worker, it’s easier just to have a paycheck ready, as I point out in the “waiting for a check” series.

“Eight hours equals $80” is literally based on a check I myself have received and in the image I’ve placed the note there next to the paycheck. I think that truth is where the impact lies. I just slightly altered the context using the name Maria, which is my mother’s name.

LW: You’ve talked about the way that some of the people that you worked alongside of clearly loved art, but didn’t feel they had the right to go to museums or galleries, let alone be the subject of art.

RG: Yeah. It’s fascinating. When I was working in this home, one of the housekeepers shared with me that she loved art. But she didn’t feel she could go to museums or galleries. She’d be cleaning in homes with beautiful collections, and she would often pause and just stare and look. Other times, she’d drive down a street like Rodeo Drive and see a big gallery opening and she would want to stop in, but did not feel she would be welcome in that scenario. My work is also about inviting such people into the art world, encouraging them to feel as entitled as anyone else.

LW: I understand that after you quit your nanny job, you first tried to be a graffiti artist?

RG: It was not my role to be a graffiti artist, spray painting. Definitely, you can ask my husband, my first and only attempt at trying to be like Banksy was a major failure. I simply didn’t feel comfortable defacing private property. I’m definitely glad it didn’t work out because I wouldn’t have found my unique tactic of using cardboard. I think cardboard is perfect for what I’m trying to say. And cardboard is very practical; it’s everywhere. And some of the images I’ve done using this medium have influenced people doing graffiti and street art.

LW: You were working during the time of Arizona’s crazy war on immigrants.

RG: Yes. One cardboard cutout piece, Los Olvidados, is very special to me because it’s about who these people are and where they’re coming from. We did this in the Arizona desert. One of my family members’ husband works as a Border Patrol agent in the very area where we were setting up this piece. At first he didn’t want us there because it created issues for him. But we sat down together for a very specific dinner. I asked him why he had moved to Tucson from Maine for a job. I said, imagine if there was a border keeping you from doing that. But the people he patrols are like him, moving where the jobs are.

LW: You set up another installation in front of George Clooney’s house, when Obama was doing a fundraiser there, with some cardboard cutouts portraying Latino immigrants proclaiming, “We are all American.” But the Secret Service would not allow them there, ordering that the cutouts be removed to the sequestered “free speech area.”

RG: Yes. That just points to the ludicrousness of the rules that are in place. I can’t do a cardboard cutout somewhere because it has to be in the “free speech area.” It’s like, where is the “free speech area”?

LW: Presumably somewhere where Obama won’t see it. It’s worth noting that the Obama Administration has deported more people than any other administration, with incredible zeal. So, after you had been doing cardboard cutouts, the next thing you did were your pastiches of famous David Hockney paintings, in which once again you inserted the otherwise invisible people who made such vistas possible.

<i>No Splash</i> (2013). Acrylic on canvas. 96 x 96 inches

No Splash (2013). Acrylic on canvas. 96 x 96 inches

RG: Yes. You can see that my work with cardboard influenced this work. For example, in my piece No Splash, the famous pool splash in Hockney’s A Bigger Splash has been removed and replaced with figures cleaning the pool and washing the sliding glass door.

LW: You were originally going to call it “Thursday Afternoon”?

RG: Yes. I would work every day with this family and Thursday afternoon happened to be when the housekeeper and the pool cleaner came in. Before the nanny job, I looked at David’s painting one way, and afterwards, I thought: if I’m working in a home that looks just like that home, and if I’m seeing this man clean a pool just like that pool, where is he in Hockney’s version?

LW: One of the things that’s fascinating about David Hockney is the way that, newly arrived in LA in his late 20s, he taught us to see things in LA that we never looked at before, these crazy apartments and so on. He really created the LA look. In much the same way, and at much the same age, you are now taking people who we never notice and doing exactly the same thing, making them visible. But this is not simply a critique of Hockney. Indeed, you’ve talked about how important his example was to you as a young man coming to terms with your own sexuality.

RG: Yes, as an artist, I admire him and I respect him a lot. And as a gay male in a machismo-centric world, I looked at his work as very refreshing because he dealt with the LGBT community at a period when it wasn’t very easy to do so. Non-judgmentally, as if it was no big deal, completely natural. And he just said, “Here, look at this.”

Charlie James Gallery, <i>On Melrose</i> installation view

Charlie James Gallery, On Melrose installation view

LW: You tell a great story about when Proposition 8 [to eliminate rights of same-sex couples to marry in California] was passed and there were huge demonstrations in West Hollywood where you live. On the one hand, there were huge LGBT protest demonstrations and you wanted to be part of them, but you also thought—where were these people six months earlier, when immigration was the issue?

RG: There are friends of mine in the undocumented community that are great artists out there working at trying to expand what that gay community can do. I think that that’s important. So when you bring up Proposition 8 and marriage equality, I love to single out that these intersectional identities are important as well.

LW: Two days ago you opened a show of your own work.

RG: Yes. Currently at the Charlie James Gallery in Los Angeles, I have a show called On Melrose. I’m living in West Hollywood, and Melrose Avenue, an iconic stretch of road, has many iconic buildings. The show just opened on Saturday and it’s immediately caused a lot of positive reaction because I’m applying the same aesthetic tactics I have in the past, this time in full-fledged paintings of my own and not “riffs.” I’m working into new ways of creating aesthetically pleasing objects that aren’t didactic, that invite people in, but at the same time challenge them to think in broader ways. icon

Featured image: Los Olvidados (2012). Cardboard cutouts, Sonoran Desert, Tuscon