Hasler R. Gomez’s art occupied the Serva Pool gallery from June 12th until June 22nd in an installation called “In The Land of Milk and Honey.” A poet and sculptor, Gomez has a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Nevada, Reno. The work in this exhibition explores themes of gender, labor, and the immigrant experience through a lens that is as serious as it is hopeful, informed by Gomez’s experience as a Latino man and an undocumented person. Gomez’s work in construction during the lapse in his DACA status heavily influenced the materials used in the exhibition, many of which were stolen from construction sites. The title “In The Land of Milk and Honey” is a biblical reference, and how his mother referred to the country before the family immigrated from Guatemala.
Hear Gomez talk about his background and process, candidly discuss his experience as a “minority artist,” and walk through the installation, discussing the inspiration for many of the pieces in the show, from his father’s social role to his mother’s deportation to the history of aristocratic death masks. Listen here (or transcript below).
Ana McKay: This is Ana bringing you another artist spotlight for KWNK. This month, in the Holland Project Serva Pool gallery space, there’s been an exhibition by local artist Hasler Gomez. The installation is called: “In The Land Of Milk And Honey”, and it explores themes of gender and of the immigrant experience. I was lucky enough to be able to talk to Hasler before the closing reception. The exhibit is powerful and calls into question our definitions of labor and of language and our views on belonging in a country that doesn’t want us.
Hasler R. Gomez: Okay, so my name is Hasler R. Gomez. I am dominantly a sculptor, I studied at UNR, where I got my B of A in studio, with an emphasis in sculpture and also a bachelor’s in psychology. I’m also a writer, poet, mostly. I was born in Guatemala, but I’ve lived in Nevada since I was 4, so a little bit over like 20 years. So, I always loved art as a kid but it’s not really a field that your parents push you into. So I always really good at school, I would graduate at like the top of my class, so I was always pushed toward the medical field, which is a really kind of stereotype for the Latino community. It’s like, you either become a lawyer, or you become a doctor. So when i started at UNR, I was a neuroscience major, and I was going through that and the classes were fine and everything, but then around my second year, my mom got pulled over by the cops and back in the early 2000s, when I was doing a bunch of raids, they had originally picked her up, so her name was in the system. So for whichever the reason was, the sheriff decided to run her name. It showed up, and they put her into prison and she was deported. So, in that time, I was really trying to find a way to understand, my life was falling apart, you know. I have a younger brother who’s about 17 years younger than me, and also he had to go to Guatemala to be with her because me and my dad couldn’t really take care of him. So in this whole time I was trying to grasp, like what can I do? How can i get through this? You know, faith is really helpful internally, but I needed a way, I guess, vocalize it. So that’s when I took my first drawing class at UNR, as my first ever art class, and it was this crazy thing that art allowed me not only to, I guess, think about the things that were going on, but also allowed me to heal. So when I went through that process, I was like “okay, if art can do this for me, then maybe it can do it for someone else.” So that’s really when I got into art and wanting to pursue that and then I was gonna take drawing again but the class was full, but there was one spot in sculpture. So I took it and, literally, I fell in love with objects and the process of creating something that exists within our space and that’s how I ended up being a sculptor.
AM: I had Hasler explain the exhibition to me and contextualize the work.
HRG: So the exhibition is called “In The Land Of Milk And Honey”, which is taken from the bible so it’s what the promised land was called for the Israelites, but it’s also what my parents always called America. I’ve grown up in a very religious family, my grandpa’s a pastor and my parents are preachers, so they’ve always instilled in me that idealic, eutopic, kind of, idea of America. So the title is a little bit presenting that eutopia, but also the work is speaking about the underlying hardships that are behind that facade. So a lot of the objects in the exhibition are made from materials and objects that I stole from construction work sites, when I was working in construction, because my DACA had run out, so I had to find some way to pay my bills after I graduated. So the work really started in me noticing how it is that these workers were living, the things they were going through, but coming from a place of privilege, you know, having an education, really being able to apply philosophy and theory the the hardships that one goes through in the workfield, and then also just applying my aesthetic eye. So a lot of the objects are being used the way they would be used in the construction site, it’s just me applying conceptual thinking and an aesthetic eye. For me, I kind of make my installations like how I would make a poem. They’re all individual objects, but I want you to experience it as an entire space. So that’s why there isn’t really any gallery information, like there are no title cards, none of that. If you want the information, you can text the number and the information will be texted to you by a text bot. Because I really want you to enter here and to experience the work, I don’t want you to get distracted b the gallery stuff. But, to me, each piece of work is kind of like a line to a poem. So each one gives you a little bit but my intention is for you to experience the thing as a whole. So one of the pieces is an audio piece, so at the end of the exhibition, the phone bot will call you, and it will play the audio of me reciting the poem that kind of contextualizes everything. So, for me, poetry is really important because it uses language in a way that I think captures emotion in a way that I think regular language can. I think it plays with it, you know, metaphor allows us to access the capabilities of language much more than just normal language can. So, for me, the poems go hand in hand with the sculptures, you know, I’m writing while making these or I’m making them and I’ll write.
AM: We made our way through the Serva Pool space, winding our way between paint, construction string and unrecognizably warped everyday objects lying on the floor. Hasler described each piece to me and its meaning and motivation. They all came from different places but, like he said, fit together like a poem.
HRG: So the first piece, when you walk in, it’s a little bit confrontational because it makes it a little bit awkward when you walk in, because it’s really right at the door. This piece is called ‘Adam’, and then in parentheses ‘(not applicable)’. So I was thinking about this idea that before you come to this country, you’re presented with ‘the grass is always greener, the white picket fence, the America’. But the thing that I was also thinking is, the minute I set foot onto American soil, my life became a life of not applicable. I can’t do this, not applicable. So much of that, when I’m filling out forms, so much of it is not applicable. So in this piece, I took a piece of fence and it’s put on sawed, that throughout the progression of the exhibition, I’ve allowed it to die, so the facade’s slowly dying, and it’s a pair of my converse shoes, you know, converse are very American, but I went through the process of, they were super dirty, I went through the process of encasing them in enamel, to where their history is erased. So it was really just an idea of, you know, a simulation, yet, it’s not applicable. You come to the US and become American, but you’ll never fully be American. So, then as you walk through, it’s kind of almost meant to be a maze that leads you through, there is this big quote-on-quote drawing that’s on the wall. This piece is called ‘Unspoken’ and then in parentheses, ‘(papa)’. So it’s kind of drawing series that I’ve been doing for a little bit over a year and a half now, where I blindfold myself, put earplugs in, and I put a writing utensil in my mouth and I just try and write. I’m really interested in the breakdown of language and how language can’t always capture our experiences, like it can get close, but it can never really transmit them that well. I was also interested in my studies in gender, how men are socialized to not have as great a grasp on language as women are, so young boys are scored lower on vocalization tests than women do. And then just looking at my own family, my relationship with my father, which is very much based on silence, his relationship with his father, and how in the Latino community, for the male, you don’t talk about your feelings, you don’t talk about what’s going on, so, kind of, wanting to do that. So it’s on roofing paper, which I really like because the lines of it remind me of like a chalkboard. So the idea of when you’re punished and you have to write ‘I promise I won’t do this, I won’t do this’ or that stuff that’s passed down to us. Silence was kind of a genetically inherited thing for me, and I guess wanting to hide that because you can’t really read what it says. What’s dividing the space is, they’re kind of two pieces, there are these cinder blocks that are made from drywall, 2x4s, tar, and pieces of my shoes from when I was working in construction. That piece is called ‘Undone Self Portrait’, so it’s really the only self portrait piece of work in this exhibition. With that I was really interested in the process of becoming a labor worker. You kind of have to start thinking of yourself as an object, because your boss doesn’t care if you’re tired, they don’t really care if it hurts, you have to get the job done. So I was working in cement, which is a really tough construction job. So in the whole process of that you really have to almost dehumanize yourself and objectify yourself to just get through the day. So in this piece I wanted to reconstruct all of these broken parts that, in theory, could make a home, and remake them, and then unify them with plastic bandages, almost trying to heal the wounds that that causes. Then so those objects in there are being used by this pink construction line, which I used to kind of map out these theoretical walls. So construction line, when we’re working in construction, is literally what we use to mark out where the construction will be. So where there is a line, there will either be a beam or concrete, so I’m pretty much using them just like we would. And it’s pink one because I was really interested in how these macho men were using this fluorescent pink string, but it’s mostly so that they see it and don’t trip. But I was really interested in this idea like: okay, you’re presenting this machismo, this super masculinity, but you’re using this ultra fluorescent pink, so I really wanted to use that. So for me they’re, I guess, imagined walls, but I would hope that there are projected architecture. This idea of when you’re a minority person, when you’re an immigrant, you don’t really have space, so it is about creating this imagined space that hopefully could become a real space. So then, as you enter this through those, you go to this- it’s one of my favorite pieces I think is also one of the ‘dumbest’, because it’s a bucket that I stole from one of the job sites, and then the pavers, I stole two sizes of pavers and then I made molds of then and started casting them. So this piece, it started when one of my coworkers showed me the images of all of the dismembered Mexican bodies and how shocked I was because I had never seen something like that and it didn’t feel real. Like to think that someone could do that to a body, my mind just couldn’t really comprehend it. But, i mean, that’s what we constantly do when we objectify people, when we dehumanize them. So for this, it literally is a bucket, and inside of i is a stranger’s sweater, I don’t know whose sweater, but this stranger’s sweater, there’s paint in there, there’s enamel, there’s human hair, and on top, this bucket had this little cross cut out of it, which one of the symbols that I use a lot is the cross, so that’s one of the things that drew me to it. Because I was kind of thinking, when you’re driving you see the markers of where people died because of car crashes, so for me, it’s a marker. This piece is called ‘Unnamed Elegy’. So it is kind of an everyday memorial to the people who are forgotten, the people who are overlooked, you know, the ones that disappear but we never know their names, and one of my friends said that’s kind of like I’m carrying my loved one in a bucket. So it’s both this really pathetic thing, but I think there is a kind of poetry in that patheticness, that this is just what I have. So then as you keep walking on the wall is, actually, the first piece I made for this exhibition. This piece is called ‘Unnamed Death Masks’, it’s made by casting the inside of gas masks, which a lot of workers use to ‘protect them’ but, in theory, they don’t really do anything. So in the history of death masks, they would either be cast out of plaster or wax and they’re usually for people who are aristocratic, or even if you look at sarcophagus, those were considered death masks. So in this piece I wanted to make death masks for the people who would never have one, you know, for the overlooked worker. So the death masks, which are then cast in plaster then put onto a wall stud. So I wanted to reduce the human body so it didn’t have any agency, has no limbs, it just is this face, and they’re smaller than human scale because, often, we don’t think of these people as human, we objectify them, they’re just a means to an end, and it’s placed on top of a piece of stolen carpet because I wanted to elevate most of the works so that they kind of felt sacred, so they weren’t just on the ground. So you can get close to them but there’s also this physical separation from your space and their space.
AM: At last, we reached the final piece, which hangs on the back corner. It’s almost unnoticeable, you could almost forget to go and look at it.
HRG: As you walk through the last wall, you approach the piece that is a piece that I started probably a year and a half ago, but had given up on. So it’s made of a Polo Ralph Lauren shirt, which is blue, like the flag, and I had cut it up to make my own version of the flag, but then I didn’t like it because it read too much as the flag. But then, when I was moving my archive to get rid of old work and make room for new work, I went through this performative aspect. So a lot of my work has a preformative aspect to it, so the making of it isn’t just this whatever making of it, it is important. So for this one, I bleached it and then I washed it and then I hung it up to dry, and then I ironed it. So these very domestic, ritualistic things, and a piece that really started out of anger, really became a piece about hope. So I’ve bleached clothes to the point of where they’re disintegrated before, because I’m interested in erasing the stains, this kind of white washing. But this piece turned into this peachy color that I really loved, so then once it was that, I taped it together, the kind of most pathetic way of putting it together. So a lot of this work is like: what did I have? What did I have access to without going too far away from the home or the construction space, and then I welded four nails that hold it up, right where the buttons originally would go. So this piece is called ‘Dreams Mama’ and on the back of it is a poem written to my mom. So for me, this piece, I wanted you to end with this because I wanted you to end with hope. You know, it starts with the facade, the kind of fakeness, but i wanted you to end in hope. This is the tallest piece in the exhibition because the drawing and then this piece, the drawing was very much about my dad and kind of the stereotype of the male, this one, I really wanted it to be about the atypical female, thinking a lot about my mom. She was very much an unknowing feminist. So even when she was in prison, detained, all of that, she was still very strong willed. She still even sent me a birthday card and all of that from there. So for me this is, it is a flag for hope. I want you to end in hope, and yeah, there is all of this hardship, but if, I guess, my journey in the United States has helped me, it’s that there is always hope, and there’s always light even within the abyss.
AM: The care and enthusiasm that Hasler has in discussing his work really shows how much it means to him. In fact..
HRG: This is very much a labor of love, and it took me a long time to get to this work, to kind of give myself permission to speak about these things. I feel like often, minority artists are ‘bullied’ into speaking about minority issues. So for a long time I wasn’t speaking directly about those, there was a lot of lying through my materials. But I think that it’s important that we have these discussions and I understand how privileged I am and the responsibility that I have. Being an undocumented immigrant who is also an artist, is something that’s really rare, I haven’t encountered that much. So I hope that people come, and I hope that they give the work the time that it needs to affect them and I really hope that the work can touch them in some way.
AM: This has been Ana McKay with KWNK giving you another artist spotlight with Hasler Gomez.
Thanks to Noah Linker for providing this transcript.