Striking Distance: Harry Gamboa Jr. Captures Pandemic-Era Portraits

School of Art faculty Harry Gamboa Jr. provides a snapshot of life in the age of coronavirus with Striking Distance, his second series of pandemic-inspired portraits, hosted virtually by The Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles. The portraits have also been compiled in a photo book, independently published under the same title.

“Portraits in pandemic, featuring many of my favorite Los Angeles-based artists, writers, thinkers, and makers. COVID-19 vs. Leica D-Lux 7,” reads Gamboa’s description.

The 19 images in Striking Distance explore the wearing of masks in the age of coronavirus, and “speak[s] to our desire for physical closeness and emotional intimacy during a time when that is both dangerous and difficult.” The intimate portraits include a diverse range of subjects. Taken in July 2020, they feature the artist’s colleagues, friends, students, and collaborators. The mask’s partial obscuration of the subjects’ faces allows the viewer to pay attention to other features, like hair, makeup, clothing, jewelry, or tattoos:

And then there are the eyes: looking back directly or out of the frame, between furrowed brows and crinkled lines, shaded by dark glasses or filled with what might be anxiety, anger, hope.

Gamboa Jr. was also featured in an August episode of KCRW’s arts and culture podcast Press Play with Madeleine Brand. The episode explored the art and activism ignited by the 1970 Chicano Moratorium Against the Vietnam War, a march of 20,000 demonstrators in East Los Angeles. Gamboa Jr. was 18 when the moratorium occurred, and already personally impacted by the war—many of his friends who had been drafted either died or returned home injured. 

“When the tens of thousands of people coalesced at the end of the march at a park, they were attacked by the police, which was the LAPD, LA County Sheriff’s Highway Patrol, and undercover agents using various forms of weaponry and gases,” Gamboa Jr. was quoted in the article. “It was a concerted effort to break up all civil rights demonstrations.”

During this time, Gamboa Jr. became a founding member of the Chicano art collective Asco, which is Spanish for “nausea” or “disgust.” Asco’s work, much of which were initially dismissed by prominent arts institutions, served as a reaction to the effects of the Vietnam era, as well as a counter to the prevailing narratives of Mexican Americans.

Listen to the episode here.

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