This month, Frieze Los Angeles art fair takes over the backlot at Paramount Pictures Feb. 15-17, temporarily restoring vitality to what was once a vibrant cornerstone of the studio system. In recent years, film fortunes have plummeted at the venerable company, a decline symbolized on the New York City street portion of the backlot, where artist Kori Newkirk’s Signal, a collection of tumbleweeds, have congregated as if in a ghost town. Look closer and you'll see they are not weeds but TV antennas, a harbinger of a faded future. A midcentury relic, these antennas once stood for a bright new media-forward tomorrow, but Newkirk has reimagined them as futuristic skeletal floaters.
“A symbol of the future at one point, now it’s a symbol of the past," Newkirk tells L.A. Weekly. “I’m really interested in that dichotomy and thinking about what those things look like and how can I transform that into something that makes sense with what I do normally. I thought, that antenna looks like a tumbleweed. And I thought, perfect for Los Angeles, and the idea of the West and the expansion and manifest destiny and how that feeds into the dissemination and reception of images and information; it all just started to make sense.”
Newkirk’s work will be surrounded by 14 site-specific installations by artists including Sarah Cain, who is taking over a brownstone for her I touched a cactus flower, an abstract reimagining of the interior, and Paul McCarthy, whose building-sized inflatable ketchup bottle will center the faux financial district. It plays off of Tino Sehgal’s performance-driven piece wryly commenting on the buying and selling of art.
“It’s a very specific site and it has a really strong context,” Frieze Projects curator Ali Subotnick says of the location and the dynamic roster of L.A.-based artists participating, including Barbara Kruger and Karon Davis. “I wanted proposals that would engage the space, activate the space, address the site and fair context in whatever way they thought was interesting.”
While assembling Signal, Newkirk first ran into issues when he opted for antennas without the wear and aging most of them bear. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these turned out to be relatively hard to come by. Luckily, he found one place that still makes them. He has assembled roughly 30 sculptures, with the largest stretching about 30 feet, leaning against a building. “I’m super excited and super anxious,” he says.
Looking back through Newkirk’s body of work reveals a pattern of finding alternative uses for random items, a Duchampian habit of combining objects and images, often drawn from African-American pop culture, into a new context. There were hints of it in his breakout piece, Modified Cadillac (Prototype #2) in 1997 (around the time he received his MFA from UC Irvine); it's a life-sized silhouette of a ’70s Cadillac applied to a MOCA gallery wall in black pigment and pomade, a hair relaxer often used by African-American men in the ’70s and before.
Newkirk followed that in 2001 with a similarly realized police surveillance helicopter on the wall of the Studio Museum in Harlem. Both pieces set the tone for much of the political subtext dealing with identity that runs throughout his oeuvre. Serena Williams’ hair beads inspired a phase of hanging beaded curtains painted with cityscapes and suburban landscapes that almost came to define his practice.
His 2017 artist-in-residency project at Pasadena City College featured two parallel axles with bicycle rims, some with tires, some without. It can be said to point the way toward Signal, and another recurring figure, the circle, which he attributes to his formative years as a figure skater in upstate New York, carving the same rounded patterns over and over.
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Born in the Bronx, today Newkirk is a quintessential L.A. artist, living and working in the downtown area for 21 years. As successful as he’s become, he fears rising real estate prices will force him, along with most artists, from the downtown area. “Las Vegas, Palmdale would be pretty good, Long Beach — I have to choose my next to-be-gentrified neighborhood. If there’s any speculators out there who want to support me on that,” he jokes. Sort of.
Real estate issues aside, he’s optimistic about the fair, even though Los Angeles has yet to prove itself a major art market, despite its bounty of artmakers. “I’m sure there have been doubts, but I think one of the great things about a fair is that it attracts people from all over. From all over the world they will be coming here for this opportunity, because the myth and the reputation of Los Angeles has been disseminated so far out there that I’m sure everyone will at least come the first year to check it out,” Newkirk says. “We make [these works of art] here and hopefully we’ll be able to sell them here with the same sort of gusto and attention with which they get sold in other places.”