Pick of the Week

Face to Face: Los Angeles Collects Portraiture

As noted in an Artillery Pick quite recently, portraiture is the oldest form of ‘identity art’, and moreover, representation itself. It is ‘naming’ in the largest sense – placing, identifying, classifying, narrating, and implicitly conceptualizing, though without explanation. In other words, at its most successful, it gives us some sense of what it means to be alive in a specific time and place. To the extent that the classifying impulse has often functioned as an aspect of colonialism, we can be grateful that Face to Face, the California African American Museum’s current show of portraiture, is liberated from that taint. The current show is bracing both in terms of its chronological and stylistic range, and its clear reflection of L.A. collectors’ on-going engagement with this work. But what is particularly fascinating is the extent to which over the course of that liberation from the vestiges of colonialism, African-American artists have transformed the classifying impulse into something larger, more broadly conceptual and frankly subversive – e.g., the performative aspect of work by Mickalene Thomas and Tschabalala Self, or crossing the representational threshold into the domain of fiction, as in the ‘imagined’ (or is it?) portraiture of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. The iconic ‘reversal’ (or perhaps more literally here, ‘inversion’) is another strategy represented here. It’s the polar-opposite of, say, Kehinde Wiley (who is also represented here – in one of his more interesting paintings), where the iconic aspect of a subject is referenced and simultaneously subverted. Titus Kaphar does this quite literally in his 2014 Jerome VII, where the lower half of the subject’s head, floating in its gold leafed field, is enshrouded by gold-flecked tar. Even the most straightforward and conventional of the portraits evince a sense of flux, the conditional (and perhaps aspirational) – always moving towards another place, another way of being. In this relatively compact exhibition, curators Naima J. Keith and Diana Nawi have in turn offered viewers another way of seeing that process play out. 

California African American Museum (CAAM)
600 State Drive – Exposition Park
Los Angeles, CA 90037
Show runs thru October 8, 2017


80/50 Quiet Storm

We read history for perspective on advancing and collapsing civilizations and their impacts on planetary life and (hopefully) an understanding of historical cycles and a sense of where we might all be headed (besides other planets). Art exhibitions, historical and otherwise, do not presume to offer this kind of perspective, but through the prism of curatorial scope and selection, can occasionally suggest parallels and intersections across a historical interval. The scope here is a range of abstraction played out between mid- to late-20th century generations – roughly ‘high baby-boom’ and ‘Gen-X’ (or possibly ‘Y’ – i.e., the pre-millennial), meaning before all hell broke loose. Curator (and gallery director) Carl Berg is a practiced hand at composing these kinds of fractured and fragmented views into coherent overviews, and this one comes across with a silken touch – a welcome note of serenity in these turbulent times. The parallels are striking: e.g., between, say Mieke Gelley’s roughly fragmented and seemingly collaged color abstractions and Samantha Thomas’s fractalized mappings/foliations in luminous blues (or her more austerely rectilinear, but aggressively pleated rendition); or Don Suggs’ Le Parc-esque pinwheels superimposed upon photographed landscapes and Devon Tsuno’s atmospheric/aquatic abstractions with their ‘interlineated’ references to actual landscape elements (less apparent here – where the emphasis is clearly on a unified field or uniformly abstracted environment). ‘Intra-generational’ comparisons can be made here, too – e.g., between Tsuno and Tom Mueske, whose eight All Over canvases in oil enamel reference a similarly unified field. The through-line is abstraction, with a variable emphasis on the gestural or expressive at one pole, and minimalism at the other (sometimes both by the same artist, e.g., Gerald Giamportone). A secondary through-line here is the natural world. Not all of the artists address this directly. Lies Kraal, Andy Kolar, and Anna-Maria Bogner all seem determinedly abstract. But (with the possible exception of Bogner – whose sculptural installation here is like an etherealized Richard Serra), even Kraal and Kolar invoke an ideal domain (of color, order, gesture) that make implicit contrast with the less-than-ideal actualities beyond the gallery’s precincts. Steve DeGroodt’s As It Should Be (2013) sums up that notion (in cloth and rattan) concretely. And I would be remiss to reference the ‘ethereal’ without drawing attention to Jae Hwa Yoo’s genius canvas here. The show is elegantly installed; and over the course of an oppressive summer (okay, the rest of one’s life), it might be worth taking a moment’s respite from the raging tumult outside for the ‘quiet storm’ whispering through this gallery’s beautifully proportioned spaces. 

DENK Gallery
749 E. Temple Street
Los Angeles, CA 90012
Show runs thru August 19, 2017


Over the Rainbow

The title of the show is as ironic as it is aspirational. Most of us find ourselves in a place far more culturally fractured than we imagined less than a year ago, and pressing forward into an ever-more dystopian reality. Which is why it is as important as ever to state plainly who we are, where we live – as individuals, society, culture – who we want to be, and the society and culture we want to create. Contemporary art movements seem to be shifting away from ‘identity art,’ per se. But in a sense it’s been with us since portraiture; almost since humankind distinguished itself from its surrounding environment. Here, curator (and gallery co-director) René-Julien Praz has assembled a group of works of disparate sensibility and formal approach, from the most drily conceptual, to the formally abstract, from symbolism to the intimately documentary, even journalistic, from the gestural to the performative. What distinguishes each of the works though, and the show as a whole, is its formal power. ‘Identity’ art emphasizes disclosure as much as declarative statement. It’s an expression of terms and conditions, rather than a declaration of purpose – ‘this is where we are.’ Many of the works here play with the notion of the reveal, or the symbolic, epigrammatic reveal; also draping and transparency. There is the disclosure, and then what is held back (and something is always held back) (e.g., the photographic studies of Paul Mpagi Sepuya, or Zackary Drucker & Amos Mac’s atmospheric portrait); or alternatively, what is left behind. (Consider Sadie Barnette’s ‘strike’ of a matchbook ‘souvenir’ in her Untitled (Eagle Creek Saloon) prints.) We are an occupied country right now, and a sense of besiegement comes across with immediacy in many of these works – from Aa Bronson’s White Flag 10 (2015) to George Stoll’s Untitled (dropped American flag #4); also Matthew Chambers’ deft allusion to a ‘brave new world’ – just the other side of an exploded brick wall (New Land). Jack Pierson’s Twilight series of silkscreen/collage prints seem poignantly ironic only a few years after they were made. But, as Praz points out, these are struggles we have seen and experienced before, though perhaps never more vividly than in the 20th and 21st century. And still perhaps nowhere more vividly than in the work of Jean Genet – to whom the show pays tribute with both a drawing and 29 illustrations by Jean Cocteau of Genet’s Querelle de Brest (1948); and a long clip from Genet’s only film, Un chant d’amour (1950) – one of the greatest documents of homoerotic cinema ever produced. The film alone is worth a detour to the gallery … and then there are all those walls to smash, souvenirs to reclaim.  

6150 Wilshire Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90048
Show runs thru August 26, 2017


The Inner Eye: Vision and Transcendence in African Arts

Not more than a year ago, I was writing about a show at LACMA with a transcendental dimension – not merely transcending its materials, approach and style, but whose visionary qualities might potentially carry the dedicated viewer to a place of transcendence. Only a year later, I am again confronted with an exhibition – that not only holds out this possibility, but announces it as subject and integral component of the exhibited work. The aforementioned show (Agnes Martin) came out of Western modernism. Here, the transcendence is intrinsic to an aspect of daily/historical life and cultural experience and (not incidentally) religious practices that accompanied them and emerges from a broad overview of several African cultures evolving over the course of six centuries. It’s also seen in this broad context as intrinsic to the act of seeing itself; also, paraphrasing John Berger, the ways of seeing – the casual observation, as distinguished from the deliberate or extended regard, an averted or deflected gaze. Where the direct gaze was discouraged (in ritual acknowledgment of power, religious observance, etc.), the gaze in these instances is redirected ‘inward,’ or ‘beyond.’ Although a number of the heads and masks have the pared, schematic quality of Cycladic idols, many of them acknowledge complexity, duality, even duplicity – thinking here of a Congolese head (albeit late 19th century) in which a double-funnel of heads is mounted atop another proto-Cubistic mask – literally gazing in all directions. Even the mask ‘speaks’ back to its bearer – it was not uncommon for inscriptions to appear on the mask inner side. 

LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art)
5905 Wilshire Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90036
Show runs thru July 9, 2017


Jim Shaw: The Wig Museum

Are you one of those people who have difficulty making clear-cut distinctions between your night(or day)mares and the actuality of your everyday life? (I am – especially when I’m running a fever.) Jim Shaw not only gets you; he’s created a sacred space for your nightmares – a massive chambered nautilus of an installation he calls The Wig Museum. The ‘Wig Museum’ is really just an ‘exit-through-the-gift-shop’ pendant (though Shaw is fond of hair and hair-styling as a device) to a much larger vision, which, it’s not much of an exaggeration to say, is a kind of apocalyptically surreal version of that nightmare of everyday life we’re not only likely to dream but wake up to in recent months. It’s your nightmare of Western Civilization gone to hell played out somewhere between a gutted theatre, a film soundstage, and, well, Wilshire Boulevard – which happens to be just outside. Any surreal art will inevitably approach the conditions of theatre and cinema – and The Wig Museum accomplishes this magnificently. I’ve always admired the way Shaw played with his dreamscape on both large and small scale; and to incorporate history into this vision is to inevitably move towards a larger scale. Here, he not only embraces theatricality, he’s incorporated actual pieces of theatrical backdrops (from the Masonic Temple archives acquired wholesale with the physical edifice) into his installations. He also borrows uninhibitedly from the art historical canon – everyone from Michelangelo and Leonardo to Brueghel and Bosch, Blake and Fuseli, Picasso and de Chirico. There’s even a reference to Duchamp (the ‘Bride’ herself – or is it more of a reference to that dual archive-oracle of the future-present, the ‘Cloud’?). Speaking of which, clouds surround George Washington here; but unlike the ‘apotheosis’ that inspired it (somewhere between Brumidi’s Capitol dome fresco and David), this Washington appears to be vacuuming up everything in his wake. (Political commentary? And Barbara Bush might just be burning up – but can’t we blame it on global warming?) Yes, it’s the ghost of your Civilization Past come to drag you back to your dawn-of-the-dead life. So be sure to study those artfully styled piles of dead human hair on your way out. You’ll feel positively naked without one as you exit; but then, it’s summer outside and we’re all burning up. Welcome to L.A.

Marciano Art Foundation
4357 Wilshire Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90010
Show runs thru September 17, 2017


Edgar Arceneaux – Until, Until, Until…

The subject of appearances and disappearances is not new to Edgar Arceneaux – in fact it might be considered a through-line in his work over the years. But Arceneaux is always acutely conscious of the sea-changes of time and history and the chain of causality traceable in their residues. Until, Until, Until… actually exists in two iterations – emblematic of what Arceneaux has assembled here and its chaotic, almost delirious power. Originally conceived as a multi-media live performance for the Performa Festival, it’s installed here both as video of the actual performance (with Frank Lawson the ‘leading player,’ if you will) and broadcast footage of what inspired this excavation: a performance by Broadway legend Ben Vereen conceived as a tribute to a legendary black vaudeville performer, Bert Williams, a black performer who performed (as was the then-required custom) in blackface – for the gala entertainments organized around Ronald Reagan’s 1981 presidential inauguration. For those of us unaware of this performance until (well) Until…, the first reaction might be ‘what was he thinking?’ It was a question that did not go unasked at the time (and regardless of Vereen’s intentions, it reflects something of the danger inherent in conceding the merest hint of vulnerability to the right). Lawson’s performance answers part of the question, reproducing the second half of this notorious performance – which the ABC television network, in its own spectacular betrayal, cut away from for a soul-drained rendition of Stevie Wonder tunes by two Osmond siblings (pre-Kardashian staples of the television entertainment of that era). The viewer is free to wander between two scrims with overlapping footage screening on either side with a television monitor and props strategically situated between. In another gallery, Arceneaux recreates this historical ‘box’ of truth, denial, memory, reflection, and their shadows in miniature – actual framed boxes of abstracted landscape watercolors beneath newspaper front-page negatives printed onto mirrored glass – a kind of plein-air vision suffocated beneath political (and psychological) repression. Elsewhere the fossilized residues of pre-Plessy jurisprudence (vintage copies of caselaw volumes, legal hornbooks, and commentaries encrusted in sugar and salt crystals) are exhibited in vitrines and assembled across a platform that might be their coffin, while drawings on muslin allude to the surreally selective memory conditioning this troubled (and on-going) trajectory.

Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects
6006 Washington Blvd.
Culver City, CA 90232
Show runs thru July 1, 2017



Kerry James Marshall: Mastry

Kerry James Marshall’s current retrospective at MoCA is less a ‘Pick-of-the-Week’ than a Must of the Year. Regardless of the particulars of each individual’s experience, it is a show that compels serious reevaluation of the historical canon of Western painting (and possibly representational and narrative painting generally), that artistic apogee we call the ‘masterpiece,’ and the tenuous perspectives offered by art and cultural history. This is as much about Culture as art (I imagine Marshall’s voice: ‘Listen up, Clement Greenberg…’) It’s about how culture responds to a power structure and how its art absorbs and channels a dominant political narrative; how cultural authority channels and reflects – in varying degrees of uncertainty and subtlety – that power structure. More importantly, it’s about how those terms are subverted or entirely reversed. Of course it is a political art. It is also an art of idealism. It embraces the same canon it challenges, and says ‘Look at me.’ For those of us privileged to have had broad exposure to Western painting to the extent that we recall images of Africans or individuals of African descent in works of European art, consider who those individuals were and where they were in those representations. Consider the black maid who figures prominently and distinctively in Manet’s Olympia. The courtesan ‘Olympia’ may be nothing more than her pose or her job description, but that is the girl the world is coming to see, the girl the political power structure supports, and the device Manet has chosen to challenge one segment of that power structure. And in 1863, that beautiful, well-dressed maid was probably one of the lucky ones. And then the maid(s), (fill in the blanks: stable boys, coachmen, valets, blackamoors, natives on an African savannah) recede again into the backgrounds or disappear altogether. With a frontality that matches Manet’s, Marshall addresses appearance on every level – from the casual, almost fleeting observation, to the consciously and directly representational, to the formally evidentiary and broadly symbolic; and finally (and sometimes equally directly) to the underlying narrative that supports or challenges the perception of those representations. This extends to the importance of the frame itself (and scale: these are large paintings) – addressing the ‘narrative’: what it tells or reveals, and leaves out or represses (and sometimes, as Helen Molesworth, the show’s co-curator and editor of its catalogue, might put it, both simultaneously). In contrast to that European benchmark, Marshall’s treatment of the figure ranges between a hard schematic realism and something more ‘magical.’ His approach is allegorical, rather than strictly historical (or ‘memorial’), reaching back to where that ‘disappearance’ actually begins – the medieval and early Renaissance. Alongside those hard-scraped figures, bluebirds arc and scrolls or music staves unfurl ‘keynote’ messages or blunt broadsides. Also frankly dissonant notes both pictorial and stylistic: a ‘paradise’ not lost, but corrupted and certainly disrupted – these are allegories replete with contradiction. As Molesworth put it in one of her gallery talks (which I encourage prospective viewers to check out), “You can’t resolve this; you can only be with this.” Whatever the duration of your visit, Marshall’s paintings will be with you for a long time. 

The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MoCA)
250 So. Grand Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90012
Show runs thru July 3, 2017


Cindy Bernard – Things Change, Things Stay the Same

Periodically, we hear complaints (or alternatively, sighs of gratitude) from one quarter or another that painting is dead; or sometimes more specifically, that abstract painting is dead. At this point it’s far more likely the planet will die before abstract painting. Not exactly the cheeriest thought – but I get it. Today, as we face hard realities pitched somewhere between the Alien and Scary Movie franchises, artists appear once again to be veering in an abstract direction. The difference is a certain material specificity that connects with motive, while both deconstructing or dissolving that materiality and transposing or reconfiguring it into something entirely different – not a new ‘reality’ exactly, but a device suggesting something about one reality and another yet to be determined. I’m not sure Cindy Bernard would even characterize this work (most of which was originally conceived some time ago, and another body of work executed between 1988 and 1983) as abstraction – its constituent parts might be more easily categorized as ‘pattern and decoration’ – but in their various fragmentations, juxtapositions, reconfigurations, and placement, they construct a fresh syntax of relationships, correspondences, and color harmonics. That we ‘read’ certain elements as flowers, symbols, patterns, etc., only augments the power of their abstraction. Many of the fragments were directly inspired by a relative’s quilts. Here, liberated from their domestic ‘grids,’ and recomposed amid varicolored stripings and rhombi, verticals, and other geometric swaths of solid color (or gray), or simply isolated eccentrically in their white paper fields (all works in watercolor and graphite on paper), they assume an entirely different character – a ‘reality’ we can’t name, but recognize nonetheless. Color and pattern here are a kind of seduction – the flirtation that provokes a conversation of longer duration. In her Security Envelope Grids, Bernard took an entirely different approach, photographing and enlarging the subject security grids (though they have a distinctly graphic, ink-heavy look in their uniform black frames). Here the densely woven patterns and hatchings of logos and trademarks broadcast power (of branding, corporate agency, and sheer political/economic leverage) as well as protection, while Bernard alludes to their extensions into the more eccentric mesh of communities and individual lives.  

Richard Telles Fine Art
7380 Beverly Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90036
Show runs thru June 24, 2017