Artist Ramiro Gomez worked as a live-in nanny in West Hollywood, Beverly Hills, and the Laurel Canyon area of the Hollywood Hills from 2009-2011. During this time, he began his series of works “Happy Hills,” which was inspired by his daily observations of life and his complex relationship with the family for whom he worked.
In his art, Gomez, a child of Mexican immigrants, features the workers who are an integral but invisible part of wealthy society in Los Angeles. His images interrupt the mainstream commercial narrative by introducing a critical human element.
PolicyMic interviewed Gomez about his art, its intentions, and its audience. This interview has been edited for length.
“Lightness and Heaviness”
Ramiro Gomez (RG): Those images are important because they create a reaction within me. That reaction is the first step in my artistic process. I re-appropriate the advertisements with an intention to interrupt the underlying sales pitch. In the case of these luxury magazines, they consciously present an ideal environment unconsciously devoid of the people tasked with maintaining those environments.
There is no fundamental difference between royal servants working in palaces and the domestic workers employed in mansions.
While I worked as a nanny, I realized the luxurious image of the Hollywood Hills was far different from the reality. I want to respond to these advertisements to bring a consciousness based on my experience. By painting directly on the surface, I feel empowered to bring out a truth I feel. The modifications I make with acrylic paint change the original strategy of the magazine advertisement … My motive is to create empathy with the figure’s labor and intervene in the bourgeois spaces that shape the seemingly endless desire for material interests at their expense.
“Celia Waiting For Her Check”
RG: David Hockney’s iconic work, “A Bigger Splash,” has helped shape the popular, sunlit image of a luxurious Los Angeles-area home … However, my experience as a nanny allowed me to see Hockney’s painting in a different way. The family I worked for had a pool that was similar to the one Hockney painted, with sliding glass doors that allowed me to look out from the living room into the shimmering pool while I worked with the children inside the home. On Thursdays, the housekeepers and pool cleaner would arrive in the morning to complete their duties, and their image is something I wanted to introduce into Hockney’s famous work.
The title “No Splash” came about from my desire to shift the focus from the splash to the worker. Unlike the splash in the original work, the image of the workers don’t create a splashy scene, and the only trace they leave behind could be seen in the spotless windows and radiant pools they are tasked to maintain.
“Miriam’s Reflection (The New Gilded Age)”
KS: Could you explain why your paintings and installations focus on the transience of domestic workers, even though historically, this class is both common and constant?
RG: The class struggle I am painting about is nothing new. There is no fundamental difference between royal servants working in palaces and the domestic workers employed in mansions. They are in service of the wealthy. I wanted to make that connection visually.
“Delia’s Daily Dance”
If seen closely, the paint on the magazine interruptions is applied lightly,and can be scratched off easily, referencing the instability of the worker. Their transience comes from the uncertainty of the job, and the artistic decision to focus on their transience comes from the realization that these workers will eventually disappear without a trace in the history books.
Their silhouettes starkly juxtaposed with the magazine image implies that the environment they are in does not belong to them. They do not belong in the advertisement.
In reality, the workers move between the homes they are maintaining and the homes where they live; they exist for a moment in time, and I paint them in this manner for that reason.
KS: Fine art is not typically accessible to the working, lower, and lower-middle classes (as defined by income). Is it important to you that your artwork be accessible financially to the people that your paintings depict?
RG: One of the housekeepers I worked with once told me she loved art and would be interested in stopping into galleries and museums but felt out of place … Sometimes, she said, she wished she had the time to go see art but her schedule didn’t allow her much free time, the artwork in the homes she cleaned would have to do. The room I had with the family in the home where we worked was filled with my artwork, and she would mention to me how she liked cleaning my room and seeing what I was creating. When she saw my magazine work, she mentioned how much she loved them and how she had never thought about herself as an art subject. One of my early magazine paintings, called “Leticia,” was inspired by her.
Photo by David Feldman.
That information she gave me inspired my reason to evolve from small magazines to larger work that I could install in those neighborhoods. In 2011, shortly after I stopped my job as a full-time live-in nanny, I had the idea to create a cardboard portrait of a gardener and place it against the hedge of a home. I created more and placed them along the famous stretch of Sunset Boulevard through Beverly Hills for a creative group art show called the “Los Angeles Road Concerts.
Photo by David Feldman.
With all of that said, unfortunately I cannot control the economic forces at play that dictate the value of my work… I routinely give my work away through the cardboard cutout project but am also operating within an art gallery now that charges for my magazines. It’s a tricky situation to be in … It’s a challenge for my generation I think, to construct an alternative to capitalism, and collectively move beyond the constant pursuit of profits over people. Until that happens, I will continue painting.
“Los Olvidados” (part of the Arizona Cardboard Cutouts series). Photo by David Feldman.
“I know how to draw faces!” Ramiro Gomez insists with a grin, dabbing brown paint onto a glossy white magazine page with a slender brush. Shoulders and arms appear in a coppery sheen, then a head topped with thick black hair. But no face, at least not this time.
“I’m not trying to focus on the real person,” Gomez says, peering at the portrait in his Glassell Park studio. The 27-year-old artist instead wants to emphasize “the things that your eye can’t see.”
The original magazine photo showed a white-walled museum, and he’s painted a janitor mopping its floor. The man’s shoulders, stooped into a back-crunching curve, suggest decades of manual labor.
Los Angeles’ legions of custodians, nannies and gardeners deserve recognition, Gomez says – for their contributions to the city, and for their tireless efforts to raise children destined for better lives.
“I’m trying to get you to sympathize, connect, understand, question … just engage,” he says of his work.
Gomez grew up in San Bernardino County, the son of Mexican immigrants. His father, a Costco truck driver, made it to sixth grade before dropping out to work on the family ranch. His mother, a school janitor, completed some high school.
Their son, who painted with his mother’s lipsticks as a toddler, loved school and enrolled at the California Institute of the Arts for college. But he left halfway through, feeling out of place. Desperate for a job and ready to abandon the art world, Gomez took the same step as countless Latinos before him: He became a nanny.
At his job caring for two children in an affluent West Hollywood home, Gomez would flip through old magazines showcasing flashy dining rooms, tidy children’s bedrooms and lush gardens. He would wonder: Where were the maids and nannies and gardeners? Where were the people like him?
He began to paint them onto the magazine pages – scrubbing floors, cooking dinner and caring for toddlers, always with stooped shoulders and blank faces.
Gomez eventually decided to put his characters into the real world – on tall pieces of cardboard so that they could stand up, nearly life-size, on West Hollywood lawns and at Beverly Hills tourist spots. He would lean the cardboard cutouts against a hedge and leave, knowing that he might never see them again.
This project, begun so quietly in 2011, has since drawn the attention of academics, activists and art dealers, blossoming into new opportunities for Gomez.
The artist no longer works as a nanny. Instead he spends his days painting at his new studio. His canvases, cardboard, magazines and paints had outgrown his bedroom in the West Hollywood apartment he shares with his partner of eight years – especially since he has needed to keep up with growing demand. A couple months ago, Gomez sold paintings at his first solo gallery show at Charlie James Gallery in Chinatown, and two museums have bought his work. His works are at Long Beach’s Museum of Latin American Art through July 9, in an exhibition with other emerging L.A. artists.
But Gomez wants to continue bringing his art to public spaces beyond gallery and museum walls. He wants the faceless people of his paintings to see his work, and to recognize the dignity of their labor expressed in the strokes of a paintbrush.
“It’s sad to think how many generations of immigrants struggling with surviving here in this country get lost to time,” Gomez says. “But all that isn’t in vain.”
One of the fascinating Angelenos featured in L.A. Weekly’s People 2014 issue. Check out our entire People 2014 issue.
Inside his West Hollywood apartment, artist Ramiro Gomez paints freestyle on a large scrap of cardboard.
“I do like the fact that I’m not planning it out,” Gomez, 27, said. “I’m just literally going with it.”
A life-sized image quickly emerges of a brown-skinned man with a mustache and shadows for eyes.
This figure of a domestic worker is one of many Gomez has painted over the last several years — pool cleaners, nannies, the people who make many an affluent L.A. household hum.
“We look at them as just a worker but beyond that they have so much more to offer,” Gomez said. “They’re much more than a gardener. They have friends, families and loved ones.”
He added: “I’m trying to ask you look into them a little more.”
Gomez knows the subject. His parents are blue-collar Mexican immigrants who came to the U.S. as teenagers. Mother Maria Elena is a school custodian, and his father, Ramiro Gomez, Sr., drives a truck for Costco.
A talented soccer player growing up in San Bernardino, Gomez thought he was headed for a career as a professional athlete. But given his affliction with the bleeding disorder hemophilia, he struggled with constant injuries and long recoveries.
He tried his hand at art school – he had always been talented – but it wasn’t the right fit, and he dropped out. In the same year, his beloved grandmother died. The confident, composed young man began to feel untethered.
“I wasn’t getting anything out of my life at that point,” Gomez said. “I was just so lost.”
His partner, a film editor, told him about a family in the Hollywood Hills that needed a live-in nanny for their baby twins. Gomez, who’s always liked children and used to coach youth soccer, agreed to take the job. Little did he know it would change him as an artist.
While the children napped, Gomez wanted to practice his art. But, he said, “it wasn’t even my home. I didn’t feel comfortable bringing in canvases.”
So he began tearing out pages from old home décor magazines lying around the house. And he dabbed impressionistic images of faceless domestic workers into scenes of luxurious living rooms and kitchens.
Looking for feedback, he uploaded photos of his work to Facebook.
“I did it originally to get acknowledgement because I felt that these were my only thoughts, and that I was the only person feeling this,” Gomez said.
People instantly connected with these images. Encouraged, he created a blog, Happy Hills, in 2011.
As online buzz began, immigration activists took notice, and academics brought up his paintings in lectures.
George Lipsitz, a Black Studies professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has been following Gomez’s work since 2011, when the young man introduced himself at a lecture Lipsitz gave on the Mexican-American experience.
“Art comes from unexpected places, and here’s this 27-year-old from San Bernardino who was not invited by anybody to be an artist,” Lipsitz said. “He invited himself.”
Lipsitz was taken by Gomez’s sincerity and love for the people he was painting.
“Ramiro’s images force us to acknowledge the hard work that’s been done, to realize who does this work,” Lipsitz said.
Chon Noriega, director of the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center, said Gomez’s art is quieter than the poster art made by pro-immigration reform artists, featuring bold graphics and written messages.
But “the works themselves were in their own way quite stunning,” said Noriega.
Aside from the magazine art, Gomez has “interrupted” David Hockney paintings of ’60s Southern California. For example, Gomez painted his own version of Hockney’s “A Bigger Splash” and inserted a pool cleaner and housekeeper into the background.
While Gomez is certainly not the first artist to comment on migrant labor and racial segmentation of the workforce, his images are some of the most powerful Noriega has seen.
“He’s resonated as much with the arts world as with rights activists who are struggling to bring visibility to these issues,” Noriega said.
Visibility only increased when Gomez began putting life-sized cardboard figures in upscale neighborhoods around Los Angeles.
He’s done more than 50 installations, including ones outside the White House and in the Arizona desert.
Recently, he decided to display a cutout depicting himself and the twins he used to take care of, and came to adore.
He drove to a park in West Hollywood, where he used to bring the twins. The city had commissioned him to paint a mural in the corner of the park. But even though it was a familiar destination, he felt antsy.
“To be honest, there still is a nervousness, still the opportunity to put up a piece and to hear someone’s reaction, which may or may not be positive,” Gomez said.
There was that time he placed a cutout of a man selling maps to the homes of Hollywood stars — next to a man actually selling the maps. The man told Gomez to take the piece away. He didn’t want any attention from the authorities because of his illegal status.
“It’s a tricky position to be in when I want to bring attention to people who sometimes don’t want the attention in the first place,” Gomez said.
At the park, Gomez hammered the cutout into the ground. His friend Vera Machado, a nanny from Brazil, came by with the two sisters she cares for. She looked at Gomez’s work and told him in Spanish that it was “muy bonita.”
For Gomez, it was fine that she didn’t read much more into his piece.
“Who am I to judge her and want to bring out some hidden politics in there because what I’m doing is I’m prodding her for something that may not be there, and it might be my personal thing,” Gomez said.
More than a pretty picture
But at his first solo show at the Charlie James Gallery in Chinatown, people saw past a pretty picture.
“I think this makes some people feel really uncomfortable,” said Marguerite Coster, a health research manager from Silver Lake. She said she’s befriended her pool cleaner and landscaper and tries to pay them good wages.
Even so, she was struck by the images of the faceless workers in Gomez’s paintings.
“Those really resonate for me, because you realize what it’s like to be a non-person,” Coster said.
Immigration activist Zacil Pech was as interested in the art patrons as she was the artwork. Pech thought of her mother – a housekeeper, who has been living in the U.S. without legal status – as she looked around the room at gallery-goers.
“Most of them are white people, and it’s kind of like, ‘Interesting, I hope you’re able to realize the reality of our lives and your lives and how they differ,'” Pech said.
As for Gomez, it’s a good night. Museums are interested, and a few collectors make purchases on the spot. But Gomez can’t help but notice the irony: Wealthy people buying his art.
“And at the same time, underpaying their staff. Even that should somehow seep in because they can’t look at my work and not think about themselves and their implication,” Gomez said.
Gomez also thinks about the workers who might come across his art, hanging in a house. He said he hopes they realize that they’re the ones who are valuable.