After a few tocks with a hammer, the stroller and nanny with child are planted into the grass. Artist Ramiro Gomez has just installed another one of his cardboard cutouts—painted sculptures of domestic workers that he displays in public spaces across well-heeled regions of Los Angeles, regions where the split between the rich and the exploited are complicated by relationships such as this one: a dark-skinned caretaker and the white child in her arms.
Except for the salvaged materials he uses, Gomez’s compositions are nearly classical. For example, this piece (a triangularly composed Madonna and child), which he’s nailed into West Hollywood Park’s green lawn, consists of acrylic paint on a flat-screen television box he found in a Best Buy dumpster. The contrast between image and material reflects how Gomez embraces duality in his work, which he describes as “silent visual screams” despite how innocuous these soft-toned, obsequious figures might seem.
But beyond the surface, Gomez, a 27-year-old from San Bernardino, aims to light a fire under the immigration debate by scattering portraits of nannies, landscapers, and housekeepers along roads, parks, and other highly visible parts of high-income neighborhoods such as Bel Air and West Hollywood. He has installed roughly 50 of these sculptures on privately owned residential lawns—a subversive move that has generated few responses from the homeowners, Gomez says, likely because the works tends to be subtle enough to be overlooked. Those who do notice them have been savvy enough to recognize them as art, as in the case of one neighbor who had read an L.A. Times article about his work and offered to watch over the sculpture, which stayed in place for over a month.
Though Gomez’s cutouts of domestic workers haven’t riled up the rich residents he aimed to provoke, there’s still a need to amplify the image [of migrants] in these spaces, he says, and call attention to their working conditions. Gomez dropped out of school to “migrate between classes” from poorer San Bernardino to affluent West Hollywood, where he works as a part-time nanny, a profession almost exclusive to migrant women. Though the work spaces tend to be safe, the financial conditions are more precarious: Nannies are underpaid and also paid under the table. Traditionally, they lack union representation, and their employment hasn’t been regulated by wage protections or labor laws. However, California lawmakers, pushed by labor activists, recently passed a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, the third of its kind in the nation that will provide overtime pay to housekeepers, child care providers, and other caregivers when they work more than nine hours a day or 45 hours a week. Through his art, Gomez hopes to bring nannies even closer to the foreground, frame workers’ rights as a civil rights issue, and possibly help break through the current impasse in Congress around immigration reform.
Last year, Ramiro traveled to Rio Rico, a sparsely populated town close to Arizona’s southern border, and walked across migrant trails that cut through the desert. While he didn’t actually see anyone attempting to cross, he did see the evidence: worn shoes, torn backpacks, and thorn-shredded clothes. He created a cutout of a group of migrants returning to the site of one of their deceased family members, a fictional scene inspired by those who die alone in the desert. Another painting he created during this trip depicts a man hiding under the desert bush, a sign of the many paradoxes that arise as part of the migrant experience—from pride and embarrassment to confidence and deference. “In the desert,” Gomez says, “we are vulnerable, and we are small.”
On a smaller scale, Gomez’s fragile portraits of urban domestic help and day laborers, which are painted directly onto 8.5” x 11” magazine pages that have been ripped out, explore different, yet equally rocky terrain. Pieces such as Arturo in the Afternoon, Jaoquin in the Lawn, and Margarita in the Kitchen all feature a migrant, in the midst of some household duty, spliced into a magazine photograph or advertisement. With these “interruptions,” as Gomez refers to them, he demonstrates that the drama, persecution, and cowering occurs not just in the borderlands, but also on manicured lawns, urban street corners, spotless kitchens, and nurseries. By focusing on these seemingly mundane images, re-visualizing the presence of the worker into luxurious settings, Gomez asks us to shift our attention from the border to the lives of migrants living closest to home, those tasked with caring for, arguably, our dearest resources.
Last March, Gomez exhibited his installation Luxury, Interrupted at the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Library, a portrait series of those same figures painted directly onto glossy magazine pages. In these works, he literally paints back in the domestic help—cleaning ladies, painters, and landscapers (he gives all of them names) who create, beautify, and maintain those spaces, but ultimately remain invisible. Yet, the works aren’t meant to agitate viewers; his subjects aren’t raising their fists in these images or mobilizing masses. After all, “it’s deeply ingrained into our culture to rely on somebody else for our luxuries,” he says. Rather, he catches them in quotidian acts: cutting rows of grass, mid-snip at the bushes, dusting the blinds, or standing on a ladder wiping streaks from a window. They are transient, like ghosts, he adds, seemingly deferential in posture, yet undeniably strong at the same time.
In his studies for his interruptions, he sometimes paints broad, violent X’s on the magazine pages. “I am denying this,” Gomez says, referring to the lack of people in these whitewashed images of perfection. His still-lifes embody a similar world-weary sadness: the traditional memento mori of tenuously ripe fruit or spreads of meat are replaced by, for example, three bottles of cleaning products (Pine-Sol, CLR, and Pledge) that still impart the same feeling of fleeting beauty—ripeness going to rot—as when you can somehow see, or feel on your teeth, the wine turning to vinegar in the bottle behind Cezanne’s daubed apples.
In “Caridad Waits for Her Check,” a timid woman stands at a Scandinavian style kitchen island waiting for her employer to give her a check. He describes her posture—arms crossed, head slightly down—as one he himself affects when he’s nervous. “A nanny waiting to receive a check from her or his employer is an embarrassing and almost shameful moment,” he says. You’ve cared for and loved a child, and now that love needs to be translated into market value, which adds to the unequal, awkward dynamic between wealthy employer and under-the-table worker. In the painting, Caridad appears slightly larger than life, breaking the clean lines of the white-and-bamboo minimalist kitchen. Even the imperfect tear at the edge of the page seems to lend defiance to the overall effect: Caridad may be humbled before her employer for the moment, but her arms are strong, her presence is very real, and she is breaking out of the over-manicured shadow.
After a blitz of media attention in the past year, Gomez has recently finished a new mural in West Hollywood Park and continues to dot “WeHo” landscapes with his cardboard cutouts. Though his work may indeed have an overtly political ring to it, his new mural is nothing like the loud agitprop pieces you might catch sight of in East L.A. In fact, it’s probably the most inconspicuous (nearly camouflaged) large mural in the region.
The painting consists of four trompe l’oeil portraits, including three nannies with strollers in tow and one landscaper with a rake, all painted life-size on a hunter green wall between West Hollywood Park and the iconic gay bar, The Abbey. Strollers are a steady presence in his paintings. So are full trash bags and bins, hand-carts, buckets, laundry baskets, and ladders—anything that can bear symbolic or real weight. Seen from a distance, the mural blends in perfectly with the rest of the park; the portraits could easily be confused for live people. He rejects the term graffiti when talking about his wall pieces. Rather, they are quiet pleas, demanding that we pay more attention to those our hard-lined politics and perfect-lawn culture have largely defined as second-class citizens.