Memories of the Skin: Shizu Saldamando’s Portraits




ONE APRIL WEEKEND, as the first sign for East Los Angeles heralded my homecoming, I decided to text the artist Shizu Saldamando. She lived near the Atlantic Avenue exit, where I pulled off the 60 to pump gas at SoCal prices, a jolt given what I had been paying in Tucson. I was bound for a wedding in San Diego and needed a gift for the bride, an aging punk with a fondness for revolutionary histories. Shizu’s studio was an ideal alternative to the tyranny of wedding registries.

I met Shizu in her driveway. We hugged hello and sauntered over to her brightly lit home studio in the backyard. I was ready to pick out one of her paño prints — images rendered in ballpoint blue ink on a handkerchief, a style inspired by jailhouse pinta art of the Southwest. This paño was a portrait of Alice Bag, which seemed appropriate to fulfill the “something blue” mandate for a rebellious bride who knows all the words to “Babylonian Gorgon.”

As I handled the handkerchief delicately, I glanced around the studio. A new series of works on paper and pinewood canvases met my eye. The subjects of the portraits were familiar: there was the queer club promoter, the punk singer, the ranchera goth chanteuse. They were icons I’ve known for decades, as I’ve tried to make centers out of margins, hashtags out of undergrounds. Seeing Shizu’s paintings, I was excited to be back in my familiar East Los, watching the smog-streaked sunset over the downtown skyline.

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My parents were immigrants from Mexico and El Salvador who found each other one Valentine’s Day evening on the third floor of El Mercadito, on East 1st Street and Lorena. Every kid I knew, from kindergarten to junior high, had at least one parent that came to the US from some far-flung place in the world. We were the majority in Southeast Los Angeles, and no one felt as if their outsiderness outdid anyone else’s. We were all translating utility bills for our parents, asking permission to join the Brownies or try out for our Catholic school’s talent show. Our heroes were James Worthy and Fernando Valenzuela. We were lucky to grow up in a time and place where our heroes looked like us.

Seeing ourselves reflected in the culture was always important, and Shizu gets that. In my years as a chronicler of L.A.-based artists of color, their practices, creative ethos, and cultural contributions, I’ve known homegrown talents like Rudy (Bleu) Garcia, Martín Sorrondeguy (the singer for Los Crudos/Limp Wrist), and Lissette Gutiérrez (a.k.a. San Cha) as important members of what the late queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz called a brown commons — a potentially radical space inhabited by both working-class Latinx queer immigrants and queer-of-color punks and artists. Shizu has always had the ability to home in on her subjects’ individual modes of resistance — a faraway look, a defiant smirk, a swirling sea of baby blue tulle. Her work pushes against the dominant white heterosexual culture that stratifies much of a city to which these subjects find themselves adjacent — and sometimes in opposition.

Shizu was gearing up for a new solo exhibition at Charlie James Gallery in Chinatown, entitled “To Return.” This was her first solo work since a survey exhibition in the fall of 2008 at the Vincent Price Art Museum (VPAM), located on the campus of East Los Angeles College. Back then, Shizu was still single and living in West L.A. off Sawtelle (and commuting by bus to her job at Self-Help Graphics in 1998), above an apartment where her Japanese grandmother lived until her death just a few years later.

The ethos that lives east of the river comes out unabashedly in Shizu’s new work. And coming out is important. “To Return” reflects the artist’s status as an east-of-the-river denizen (though she worked at a tattoo shop off Beverly and Atlantic for five years before moving to East LA). Every first Friday of the month, her husband, Len, takes care of their toddler, and Shizu heads to Chico’s in Montebello, to catch a bevy of nascent performance artists cutting their teeth on the dance floor of Club sCum, a monthly dance party for queer brown folk. Shizu is now part of an East L.A. marked by a history of Chicanx activism that goes back to the Vietnam War era. This area has long been home to young queers navigating homophobia in their own families, as well as racism in West Hollywood, the city’s perceived center of LGBT acceptance. Her location has compelled Shizu to contemplate her own vexed gender identity.

“Five years ago I was still having an extended adolescence. I went out and partied and I still do,” Shizu told me recently, a few days before her show opened at Charlie James. “But now that I’m married and in a positive, supportive partnership, and I have a kid, all of that has allowed me to free a lot of internalized misogyny, this baggage that I didn’t know I carried as far as what it means to have a voice.”

The moment we’re in is new. A movement is emerging that disrupts the norms and mores that produce toxic gender performances. Seeing Harvey Weinstein do the perp walk allows all of us assigned female at birth to take inventory of the varying degrees of trauma we carry. But how do our most beloved L.A. artists arrive at such reckonings?

“Before, I wondered: How does a single woman communicate, have her own voice, and still be attractive to whoever she wants?” Shizu says, before her smartphone short-circuits and the call is dropped. “I look back and realize there was all this formative gender performing that we all do. You wake up and realize you were raised a certain way and then you get to the point where you’re just, like, I don’t care.”

The last time I saw Shizu was back in early December, at Chico’s. We had been invited to celebrate Martín Sorrondeguy’s 50th birthday bash — a cinquentañera, he called it, with queer tongue firmly in cheek. I wasn’t surprised to see Shizu still snapping photographs on her banged-up, nearly obsolete digital camera, a relic hanging off of her tattooed wrist, clinking between our vodka sodas. We had seen Martín wail and stomp for Limp Wrist numerous times at The Smell in downtown L.A., had fought our way through mosh pits for Murder City Devils, even played it cool meeting TV On The Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe and his bubbly Nigerian mother at the Trader Joe’s in Silver Lake. Martín made a big birthday entrance in black leather suspenders and buoyant blue-tulle ballerina skirt, bobbing curtsies to his gathered friends and admirers.

A cornerstone of Shizu’s work is making youth cultures she has been a part of for the last 20 years visible. Her work expresses what might be called an ontology of the ordinary — a soft whisper that reveals our complicated public identities and the scary abysses within our very private selves. Why do we like the music we do? Or dress the way we do? Why do we still feel weird enough to hold up the walls at most parties or rock shows? Her photographs capture a person’s essence and form the blueprints for her portraits.

In a piece in her Charlie James show entitled “Martin’s Cinquentañera,” Shizu portrays his blue-tulle skirt as a swirling wave, suggesting a queer metaphysical take on the goddess Yemaya, a Venus-like deity known as the mother of the ocean in the Santería faith. A reassuring figure who protects her children, Yemaya is ultimately a beacon of solace for her believers. Martín’s sexy defiance offers a similarly significant spiritual shelter, a refuge for queer children of all ages seeking recognition and belonging as so many of their families are torn apart by ICE. In a visual language made raw by the aesthetics of queer punk rock, Martín’s unapologetic selfhood emerges in his tough, flamboyant stance and his gaze of knowing protectiveness — an ironic look animated by the knowledge that, just 20 years ago, not every gay man of color was guaranteed to enter middle age on his own terms.

For Shizu, it is important to be of service in making such images possible, not just as an ally to and for the community but also as an accomplice. Being an ally means aiding and abetting queer spaces like Chico’s, a bar that’s been in her neighborhood since the late 1990s. But what about the members of the queer community whose spatial options, including housing, are diminishing with each new threat of gentrification? Can a hetero defector like Shizu really appreciate their struggle? Straight women go to gay bars because of the promise of safety in a material space where they can let it all hang out, and this freedom outweighs the gay misogyny that sometimes confirms their presence is not welcome. Gay misogyny can be easier to absorb, to deflect with a verbal joust, than can the physically menacing kind emanating from hetero masculinity.

For Shizu, it may be time to take up new mantles. “I’ve always depicted a lot of queer people in my work just because that’s who’s always been in my weird musical underground,” she tells me during a Skype chat. “There’s a certain level of comfort in seeing an acceptance of fluidity in these spaces, our spaces, that a lot of other communities don’t have.”

“You mean, like, straight spaces,” I ask, hearing my voice crack on the word “straight.”

“There’s a level of intelligence I value because it’s not just a level of safety but just a more intellectually gratifying [sociability],” Shizu answers. “I’m challenged more as someone who is queer-adjacent to think about my own subjectivity as well.”

For longtime Club sCum promoter and producer Rudy Garcia, who goes by the nom-de-party Rudy Bleu, Shizu’s work is reflective of a culture and scene he has been a part of his whole life. People appreciate the courtesy in Shizu asking to take a photograph at a party — her transparency is important to Rudy, who claims she is not producing exploitative portraiture but documenting a time and a space important to her — and his — community.

“Shizu captures the energy of this scene,” Rudy tells me in a voice message sent over Facebook. “Seeing myself and my friends in art on gallery walls gives me the same feeling I got seeing Joey Terrell’s work for the first time. I was seeing queer Chicanos in an art setting, which meant finally getting to see myself.”

Shizu’s artistic process becomes visible when she DJs Club sCum parties, providing a service to a community in need of conviviality. She understands the crowd, revels in having the same musical tastes, and trusts these tastes to provide some semblance of aural pleasure. Being a functionally aging participant in an underground scene requires that that underground provide ample opportunities for continuing education. A dance floor should be a site of ontological meditation, the 4/4 beat reminding you that there’s only now.

The essayist John Berger noted that Frida Kahlo’s inimitable portraits signaled that “there was no future, only an immensely modest present which claimed everything and to which the things painted momentarily return whilst we look, things which were already memories before they were painted, memories of the skin.” Memories of the skin — like the moment captured in Shizu’s portrait “Vicki and Audrey, Chicas Rockeras,” of two scowling punk-rock millennials from Huntington Park, a Southeast L.A. barrio. How does Berger’s idea of modest presence interact with or even counteract Muñoz’s notion of queer futurity, which posits that our queerness has not yet arrived? How might this presence feel its way through the darkness of the world Shizu has devoted her life to making?

“Wait, are you going by ‘they’ now?” Shizu asked me recently, over a 4th of July lunch at a Cuban eatery in Downey, where my parents live and where I’m staying for much of the summer. Our server has more than a passing resemblance to a goth Juan Gabriel, the Mexican pop icon who died suddenly two years ago.

“I actually like other peoples’ preferred gender pronouns,” I retort. “It’s more fun than choosing one myself. I get to see where people are at with their perceptions.”

We share the fried plantains and clink our wine glasses like the punk godmothers we have become.

A few days later, I receive a text from Shizu asking me to moderate an emerging artist panel based on an exhibition in the gallery downstairs from her show at Charlie James. The original moderator, Guadalupe Rosales — the digital archivist behind the Instagram sensation Veteranas & Rucas — has fallen ill from a bee sting. I arrive early, on the second hottest day of the year. Shizu introduces the artists, everyone adhering to some variation of gender non-conformity. I ask about the chronicling of underground publics, but we talk about process and Instagram. Floral prints and goth tank tops are as ubiquitous as the cans of LaCroix. Many of Shizu’s recent subjects are in the room.

“[Shizu] captures authentic moments, the personalities of peoples whose pictures she takes and transforms into sketches without being invasive,” says Audrey Silvestre, a UCLA doctoral student whose face, along with her girlfriend’s, hangs on the gallery wall. “Her presence doesn’t change the vibe, whether at punk spaces or queer spaces. It’s weird to think of her as an outsider.”

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This project was supported by the Creative Capital Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant Program.

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Raquel Gutiérrez is a poet, performer, and essayist pursuing her MFA degree in poetry and nonfiction at the University of Arizona. She was born and raised in Los Angeles.

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Feature image: La Maya, colored pencil on paper, 30 x 22 inches, 2018

Banner image: Claudia and Mari, graphite on wood panel, 23 x 36 inches, 2018


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