It’s easy to forget that Diego Velazquez’s 1656 painting Las Meninas is, first and foremost, a painting of nannies at work.
Velazquez puts it right in the title: “Las Meninas” refers to the young women outfitting the toddler princess in the center.
But most interpretations of Las Meninas—and this painting is one of those rabbit holes writers love jumping down—exclude the literal action of the nannies as if it weren't even there. We writers talk about how this is a painting about looking, and reflection and projection, and all of the visual tricks Velazquez inserted in this composition that has a window, mirror, doorway, and backward-turned easel, plus a full cast of characters of various ranks and functions. Fact is, we often forget that Las Meninas is also and importantly a painting about how laborers, typically dropped out of sight, can be returned to view. Velazquez painted it right there in the studio King Philip IV gave him inside the palace, and presumably these characters aren't the ones the regent particularly wanted to see raised to canvas.
It took Ramiro Gomez to remind me of that. He points it out—"the most revered artist in the country...chose to paint that, chose to portray them: the help"—in a new book out about his own paintings, which first drew attention in Seattle when the young LA artist's pieces kept selling to collectors and museums in the Charlie James Gallery booth at last summer's Seattle Art Fair.
Gomez paints the help.
Into magazine advertisements of upscale living, he inserts brushy Latina women dusting and mopping. After painting cardboard cutouts of nannies pushing baby strollers or gardeners weeding, Gomez installs them, usually when no one's looking, right into the landscapes of upscale LA neighborhoods. He privately hopes one of the nannies or gardeners will just pick up one of the cutouts and take it home to keep.
Gomez's co-conspirator in the production of the book is Lawrence Weschler, a writer who's made several other artists the subjects of his expansive imagination, too (and when he does, they often, uncannily, win MacArthur genius grants soon thereafter). Weschler has a way of knowing what he loves, knowing what to love, and finding out everything, or as much as is humanly possible, about those things that he loves. You can't help but want to read a writer like that.
But the story of Weschler and Gomez might be a little more complicated, and in a good way. Weschler would probably be the first to admit that he's one of those writers who as recently as July 2014 in The Believer wrote an entire piece unraveling Las Meninas without lingering at all on the figures of Las Meninas themselves.
Weschler's essay in the book is not just an art-historical gloss the way so many catalog essays are, it's a vivid travelogue of their emotional and geographical journey together.
The writing ventures from the booths of a Chicago art fair in 2014, when Weschler first saw Gomez's work, to a very different art fair they attended later, a high-flying event in Mexico City, an event much closer and yet equally far from the Mexican countryside where his parents grew up before they immigrated to the United States and landed jobs cooking, gardening, cleaning, and working in factories in San Bernardino.
One scene stands out. Weschler is driving the young artist up into the Hollywood Hills to meet one of his heroes, David Hockney. Hockney is the British/LA painter Weschler has written about extensively—and whose domestic scenes are often the ones Gomez re-paints anew, with laborers included (see above).
In one of my favorite examples, Gomez took Hockney's iconic 1967 painting of a California backyard pool with a diving board, A Bigger Splash, and replaced the splash at the end of the diving board with a man quietly cleaning the pool and a woman washing the window. The woman is based on an actual woman named Laticia. She was the housecleaner who came on Thursdays at the home where Gomez nannied. The pool cleaner also came on Thursdays.
Early in their time together, Gomez admits to Weschler that he is nervous about what Hockney would think of his work if he ever saw it, "that he might think I was making fun of him or putting him down or something. And it's not like that at all," Gomez explains. "Hockney has long been a hero of mine, ever since I began to hear about him in high school and later in community college: the paintings, of course, which I loved, but especially the completely natural and forthright and uncomplicated way with which he dealt with his sexuality... The example of that authenticity had meant the world to me, a lonely lost kid out there in San Bernardino. My later pieces were never intended as send-ups of him; they're homages, and I just hope he would know that."
"Well, I suggested, why don't we just go up to his place and see?" Weschler responds, and makes it happen, of course. Convergences are his specialty.
As they ride up the twisty roads, "coursing past one swell manse after another," Weschler writes, Gomez occasionally takes a picture with his iPhone, but not of the finery. Weschler notes that Gomez takes his pictures "when, for example, we passed a group of gardeners taking a lunch break on the back of a parked pickup, workers I was frankly embarrassed hardly to have noticed at all."
What makes this convergence unusual in the world of Weschleriana is that it is a convergence that's full of right-on-the-surface tension about race, class, sexuality, generational difference, and art's role in all of these. Weschler registers a touch of guilt here or there; Gomez expresses his own worry and his worship. Weschler takes Gomez high into Hockney territory, Gomez takes Weschler into a gilded version of contemporary Mexico—with a stop in a museum of ancient artifacts—that's familiar and unfamiliar in presumably different, and various, ways to both of them.
I'll let you read for yourself what happens at Hockney's house, on the bench Gomez's parents keep in the backyard, and with the important woman who keeps eluding Gomez's reach, who seems a metaphor in more ways than one.
And I'll let you also, in the book, dive for yourself into the generous collection of reproductions of Gomez's collages, studies, paintings, cut-out installations, and even that iPhone picture Gomez snaps while he's a passenger in Weschler's car that day—and the painting he makes from it.
Sandwiched at the end of the book slightly awkwardly there is a small essay by Cris Scorza that begins the process of placing Gomez in the context of Mexican, Mexican American, and Chicano art. It points necessarily to the fact that the main writer in the book, Weschler, is not an expert in these areas, and that writers who are, and who live these cultures, will need to begin filling in their many voices to the conversation on Gomez's work. Domestic Scenes, then, is not a comprehensive monograph (it would be too early for that, anyway), it's a story about one artist, one writer, and the process of beginning to see something you'll never unsee. And while that is central to Gomez's project, he continually persists in reminding Weschler—and Weschler, in reminding us—that if unseen workers themselves are not an audience for this work, then it is meaningless.