From the couture-inflected to the conceptual, minimal and visceral, the portraiture-centered group show, It’s Time, features six artists offering urgently needed updates to our culture’s definition of beauty. Next door, painter Forrest Kirk’s landscape-shredding solo exhibition, The Owl of Minerva Flies at Dusk, upends pastoral quietude with disruptive materiality and a suspicious attitude toward perfection. Each of these artists in their own way takes aim at the persistently unwise restrictions imposed by conventional cultural paradigms — and they offer some compelling alternatives.
It’s Time brings together works by Kwesi Botchway, Genevieve Gaignard, Rodney McMillian, Wangechi Mutu and Paul Mpagi Sepuya — an interdisciplinary cohort whose work is contextualized by an engaged intergenerational discourse with photographs by the legendary Kwame Brathwaite. It’s portraiture, yes, but it is so much else as well. The idiom of portraiture here is used less to explicitly depict individual likenesses — though it does so occasionally, and always with devotion and empathetic humanity — and more as a prism through which to scrutinize and enact the expansion of what is meant by beauty in a capitalist, Euro-centric, Caucasian and male-dominated cultural milieu.
The title is taken from Max Roach’s foundational musical statement made during the civil rights era. Brathwaite’s luxurious, radiant photographs channel art historical tropes of the royal, rich and gorgeous — placing women of color in the firmament, where they belong, and with accouterments of style that reflect a fusion of heritage with fashion. “Black is Beautiful,” proclaims Brathwaite across decades of his genre-exploding career — a message that still carries a message of affirmation and meaningful change, and continues to be amplified by new generations of artists who heard the call.
Genevieve Gaignard’s new works exist in direct conversation with Brathwaite, sharing with all of these artists an understanding that a representation of a Black body is both a portrait and an implicit critique of that representation, but running that consciousness through the perspective of nostalgia, a whimsical way with found vintage materials, and an innate sense of glamor and self-possession. Rodney McMillian’s 2006 work Untitled (Unknown) serializes unique photographs of a plaster bust of an unknown man. In this way, it is a portrait of nothing and of everything — identity, history, truth, fetish, metaphor, and market value. His pod: frequencies to a manifestationing from 2016 evocatively arranges a collection of black glass vases on low wooden shelves in a way that abstractly references museological display cases, ceremonial altars, shop displays, the vessel as a metaphor of the body, and the gaze of silent witnesses.
Wangechi Mutu’s collages are fantastical and materially omnivorous near-abstract character studies that embrace the literal and figurative process of taking apart and reassembling to create a transcendent kind of alchemy that yields portraits of new beings, and spiritual roadmaps to new ways of being. Paul Mpagi Sepuya is known for studio set-piece photography that questions the hierarchy of staged tableaux and their literary readings throughout art history, replacing idealized models with his own beloved friends to explicitly place the queer Black body at the center of the paradigm. Kwesi Botchway, too, enacts a postcolonial remix on Western art history, challenging the paragon of delicacy in brightly color-blocked, boldly constructed portraits that belong to both nowhere and everywhere.
Forrest Kirk’s The Owl of Minerva Flies at Dusk, in the adjoining exhibition space, also is inspired by an important text from the past — the less jazzy but no less insightful writings of German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, who relates at one point a parable in which Minerva, the goddess of wisdom whose familiar is famously a majestic owl, engages the idea of perfection being possible only in hindsight and the value of mistakes as opportunities to learn. This idea that a whole world can be built of the missteps that give reality its unique dimensions is embodied in his lavish excesses of accumulated, scraped away, burrowed, topographical pigment — all held together by frozen flows of Gorilla Glue used as both an assemblage binder and a metaphorical amber in which every detail of our pasts are preserved.
The organic tumult of trees and decaying architecture, and dystopian palette of orange sci-fi skies and feathered, menacing wild creatures, and pervasive sense of fever dream transforms what might have been a magical kingdom into the chaos of an active psyche — or perhaps, we are witnessing not entropy, but the metamorphosis in which the new world emerges from the compost of its past mistakes.
Forrest Kirk and art John Sonsini host a conversation and walkthrough of their solo exhibitions, on Saturday, February 18, 2pm.
Curator Larry Ossei-Mensah moderates a conversation with Kwame S. Brathwaite, son of the photographer Kwame Brathwaite and Director of The Kwame Brathwaite Archive, with artists Kwesi Botchway, Genevieve Gaignard and Paul Mpagi Sepuya, on Saturday, February 18, 4pm.
Both exhibitions are on view at 1700 S. Santa Fe, downtown; through Feb. 25 (group) & March 11 (Kirk); free; vielmetter.com.
Editor’s note: The disclaimer below refers to advertising posts and does not apply to this or any other editorial stories.
Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting LA Weekly and our advertisers.