The Date Farmers, consisting of Armando Lerma and Carlos Ramirez, coined their name early in their careers after joining artistic forces in 1998. Their paintings, collages, sculptures, effigies, installations, and videos are infused with both commercial references and political content. Rooted in their Mexican-American heritage and Californian pop culture, their work contains elements influenced by graffiti, Mexican street murals, traditional revolutionary posters, prison art, Oaxacan sign painting, and tattoo art. The artists often travel across the border into Mexicali and Oaxaca scavenging for found materials such as discarded signs, wood, and corrugated metal that they reconfigure, often juxtaposing pirated images and text with their original artwork. In customizing found objects with a dark wit, the artists put themselves into their work, both emotionally and pictorially, sometimes representing themselves as ferocious black dogs. The Date Farmers have been given free reign in mounting their exhibition, customizing it into their highly idiosyncratic universe.
Originally from Indio, California, a desert region a few hours east of Los Angeles, the duo have been living and working on their art in the peaceful seclusion of the desert until recently when the two artists also took a studio in Los Angeles to assist them in creating their exhibition for Ace Gallery. The Date Farmers combine familiar pop iconography – ranging from Mickey Mouse, Darth Vader, and Spiderman – to ‘amended’ corporate logos with figures from comics, folklore, and Catholicism. In these paintings, desert creatures – such as tarantulas, coyotes, scorpions, and rattlesnakes – are hand-painted on top of seemingly incongruous found signs with collaged lettering, along with such items as stamps, bottle caps, comic strips, and advertisements. The duo uses larger-than-life figures and ideas, like Jesus and brand-names, in what they call “Super Loco.” They mix English and Spanish titles and flaunt creative misspellings like “Servicios D.J. Pleyboy” and the “Superchango.”
In appropriating images from popular culture, The Date Farmers give viewers an entryway to their work then play with the characters to distort them to suit their own message. In Slipped Up, the artists employ the Cracker Jack boy’s fixed pose, in which he covers one of his eyes, in a disturbing way: the boy is witness to a stabbing. The boy, once a lighthearted icon, now becomes a bystander in a difficult situation. The image is complicated further by the cross on the stabber’s chest, as they make him both holy and sinner at the same time. There is something ominous running throughout the work. In two pieces La Pantera (2010) and Black and White Color TV (2010), both have television color bars and “COLOR TV” written on the bottom; however, Black and White Color TV is not in color, and La Pantera has a black-and-white panther prowling across the bars. The pieces are haunting – be it the irony of implied color and no color to be found or the colored bars with a menacing cat glaring out.
The artists blend high and low art in a way that is unpretentious but still noteworthy. The flat blocks of color and cross-hatching accentuate the strong two-dimensional and stencil-like appearance of the work, tying the artists to street art. At the same time, The Date Farmers sometimes leave the eyes empty, as Modigliani did before them, but these artists utilize this technique in a very different way. There is an absence present in the eyes, a vacancy left for the viewer like the discarded signs were left for the artists to draw upon. The artists’ primal drive for personalization and craft within the playground of soulless advertisements makes the work intellectually stimulating and visually compelling.
The Date Farmers have a history just as compelling as their artwork. Armando’s father owned a date farm where Carlos picked dates, yet the two met at an art opening in the Coachella Valley, CA. Carlos’ mother was a migrant who once worked with civil rights leader Cesar Chavez, an American activist and co-founder of the United Farm Workers, during the grape boycott of the 1970s. From the viewpoint of American-born Chicanos, the Date Farmers explore topical subjects with insightful simplicity.