This Artwork Changed My Life: Jay Lynn Gomez’s “Las Meninas”

Joanna García Cherán
Nov 10, 2020 1:00PM

Elephant and Artsy have come together to present This Artwork Changed My Life, a creative collaboration that shares the stories of life-changing encounters with art. A new piece will be published every two weeks on both Elephant and Artsy. Together, our publications want to celebrate the personal and transformative power of art.

Out today on Elephant is Nina Mingya Powles on Yoko Onos Grapefruit.

Jay Lynn Gomez’s Las Meninas, North Fairing Road, Bel Air, 2013 (2018) is a contemporary pastiche of Diego Velázquez’s masterpiece Las Meninas (1656). In the Los Angeles–based artist’s life-size, sculptural take, the infanta is tended to by two present-day, faceless nannies, nodding to the unsung domestic laborers who are often rendered invisible. Upon encountering Gomez’s Las Meninas, I realized it speaks to the tension of my lived experiences; it validates my disparate identities as a domestic worker and a “knowledge worker.”

The cardboard nannies who tend to the young girl in Gomez’s piece are purposely depicted as vague bodies with minimal facial features, suggesting that they are overlooked by their employers. The figures, however, are familiar when one recognizes the dark skin and tired, sloped backs. Art writer Lawrence Weschler has noted that the blur of paint reiterates the blur of status involved. Conversely, the infanta’s regalia is painted in sheer detail, much like the original 17th-century canvas.

The piece is part of Gomez’s ongoing cardboard cutout series, which lends visibility to the people who labor to upkeep the lavish lifestyles of wealthy Angelenos. Gomez started making the works in 2011, strategically staging the pieces throughout West Hollywood, Beverly Hills, and Westwood. Made from accessible materials and occupying public space, the works become harder to ignore than the workers themselves. And ironically, these ephemeral public installations are often taken down by the same laborers Gomez seeks to depict. Under the direction of their employers, they become collaborators in this experimental activation.

The way that Gomez juxtaposes the workers and the surrounding luxury transports me back to my early childhood, spending Sunday evenings in building lobbies sifting through pages of lifestyle magazines. While I was too young to read English, I admired the sleek beach-house interior decor on the pages as my parents vacuumed office cubicles. I imagined my family living in a two-story house with a chandelier, instead of our cramped home where my parents and three siblings shared one room. We lived tangentially to wealth, facilitating others’ luxury by scrubbing their floors.

As a sophomore in college, I was introduced to Gomez, the cousin of my friend Cristina. Unaware of the artist’s status as a rising contemporary artist, I felt a kinship from our shared backgrounds and lived experiences. Seeing Gomez’s work for the first time after the visit was formative—I had never seen artwork that depicted domestic laborers front and center, with such gentle loudness. Before this, art had only depicted worlds that I knew peripherally, as the help. I had not yet seen an artist interrupting the canonical point of view, pulling the help to the forefront, reminding art connoisseurs of our existence.

Gomez’s source of inspiration was the enfleshed experience of being a live-in nanny in Beverly Hills and coming from a working-class family. Similarly, I came from a family of full-blooded indigenous immigrants who have quietly lived on the margins of poverty as fruit pickers, gardeners, handymen, nannies, maids, and custodians. We perform manual labor so other people can enjoy their lives.

At the age of 12, my extracurriculars became taking out the trash and scrubbing bathrooms at a lumber depot with my parents. I enjoyed cleaning with my family because I felt important and safe doing something I was good at. The feeling of safety was fleeting, not present in other aspects of my life, especially school (my avenue towards retiring my parents one day). I felt imposter syndrome in high school as I entered International Baccalaureate classes. My classmates spent their summers building schools for people like myself had my parents not emigrated to the United States. I spent my summers stripping wax off of floors.

I carried this feeling of incongruity to college. I shrunk myself and embodied some of the invisibility that came with the experience of belonging to the background of society. I felt guilty for not maximizing the newfound social capital that came with educational accruement; however, it was paralyzing to confront new experiences as the “other.” With Gomez’s work, I finally felt validation for my lived experiences and the future that I was striving for. It was an invitation to unapologetically enter the white spaces I found myself navigating. While I was studying masterworks by Diego Velázquez and Pablo Picasso, I was also clearing debris at construction sites with my family during school breaks; my role in these two worlds made sense to me now. I found an opportunity to embrace being an outsider.

I was cleaning apartments the weekend before I obtained my first full-time museum role in marketing. My dad asked me if I would be cleaning or sitting at a desk. Since then, I’ve navigated foreign spaces that were never meant for me and begun to unlearn the societal expectations that were imposed on me when I felt the need to dream smaller. It’s a whole new world when the children of janitors finally get a seat at the table.

I often think about Gomez’s art and who it was meant for. While affluent collectors and institutions are racing to acquire the artist’s work, I think of the cleaners of those spaces who will also view these works and what they must think. I’m forever indebted to Gomez. Her perspective revitalized my energy and passion for the arts. But Gomez’s work is larger than me; it’s a recognition of all workers performing thankless labor.

Joanna García Cherán