There is depth and thoughtfulness, material wit and humanist insight, and an urbane, esoteric empathy at the heart of mixed-media works by Los Angeles artist Derrick Maddox. Semiotic sophistication mingles with folk-inflected found-object assemblage in such profusion that it’s hard to believe this is the artist’s first solo show in L.A.
Curated by Yael Lipschutz and on view through March 13 by appointment at painter Henry Taylor’s former studio in Chinatown, “Lucid Within the Dream, Touch Yourself You Are Breathing” offers a keen selection of examples of Maddox doing his best to, as he says, “take ugly, dirty and discarded things, and make them into something beautiful.”
Collected on daily walks taken through Northeast Los Angeles, the discarded objects (part of a larger series called “I Went Walking”) gathered in a quasi-meditative ritual are reminiscent of how Robert Rauschenberg is said to have worked. He’d walk out of his studio (coincidentally, in New York’s Chinatown neighborhood) and make that day’s art exclusively out of what he found in a square block radius. Think twigs, pebbles, broken skate decks, rubber baby-bottle nipples, torn photographs, newspapers and wood panels.
For Maddox, his assemblages are more than bricolage; he also enacts significant transformation when, for example, he crafts handmade paper by mulching his finds. The result is a thickly textured, slate-gray pulp of cigarettes and autumn leaves, receipts and business cards, food wrappers and Bible flyers. Maddox then uses those sheets as the balanced grounds for mixed-media collages and paintings — in some cases using tar instead of oil paint.
For example, one reads “0.6” in a two-fifths reference, one has a photo of Rodney King taken the night of his brutal police beating, one splashes a paintball tag across a sign for a credit rehab service. It starts to become apparent that the found materials are further curated by Maddox to serve as parts of a larger story of history, society and culture. A small American flag affixed to a cardboard ground acts as both an object and an image, occupying physical space while also being a potentially problematic symbol of itself in a conceptual space.
Taylor’s former studio space makes a convincing white-box gallery, and a relatively minimalist installation design gives Maddox’s singularly detail-dense works plenty of room to expound. The salon-style arrangement of those mulched-paper and cardboard-based works on the wall and floor generates a kind of solar system of individual pieces. A striking wall sculpture presents a wire birdcage filled with found objects, and an arc of word-based assemblages behind it. Overall the room is rich with narrative and abstract impulses, mysterious surfaces, material surprises, and insightful social and political commentary. But the first thing you notice is the toast.
A series of small paintings and prints on slices of white bread, one realizes, is everywhere. Many feature small-scale portraits of cultural icons like Andy Warhol and Warhol’s version of Marilyn Monroe, Tupac Shakur, Donald Trump. Others are text-based, containing phrases that echo urban signage or subculture memes. “We Buy Houses,” “Whitey World,” “#Facts,” “Obama.” Maddox uses generic white bread, because that’s in itself an emblem for processed pabulum; it’s a disparaging phrase and also, were you to eat it, it’d be super bad for you anyway. But bread is also life; and it’s biodegradable and thus it decays. Bread is linked to biblical parable. "Bread" is money; some of the bread has pictures of money on it. Tupac’s slice is burnt.
In a large institutional display case running the length of the space — a single work called Nothing Was Said (a conversation on race) — scores of bread slices are laid out in neat rows, like specimens. In other, smaller cases, words or just letters are presented in a jumbled pile, the better to express the dangers of imprecise language, the liminal spaces of misunderstanding and propaganda.
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The birdcage affixed to the mustard-yellow wall (Brotha Got It Bad) is full of portraits on bread depicting all the young black men killed by police in the past year — along with a Mason jar with a statuette of Aunt Jemima in it. This work is flanked by rustic wood plaques to which are affixed single letters on bread slices made to read, like Scrabble tiles, “MAKE,” “AGAIN,” “GREAT.” The cage is America.
Henry Taylor Space, 510 Bernard St., Chinatown; email@example.com; Open by appointment through March 13; free.