Why aren’t there more African-American artists in the mainstream art world? Because the mainstream art world, as with any microcosm of the broader culture, is a racist motherfucker. Okay. Glad we settled that. But even with that as a given, how is one to approach a show such as “Fade,” the sprawling three-venue survey of more than 50 Los Angeles–based African-American artists from the last 13 years, itself just the first installment of a yearlong series of museum shows? Is there even such a thing as African-American art, or are there just the same old categories of art — conceptualist, folk art, video, etc. — that could just as easily have been made by Libras or Episcopalians?
Certainly the work of Charles Gaines, one of the bigger names in “Fade” (and father of its curator, Malik Gaines), has more in common with that of his photo-and-text-oriented academic peers at CalArts — his Untitled (2003) is a large-scale drawing with collaged photos equating the 1983 Korean Air disaster with a proton explosion — than it does with the rusty-tool and leather-wallet and dog-license assemblages of Joseph Sims. And the sumptuous purplish canvases stretched over undulating wooden structures by Sandra Rowe (Shaman’s Breath #1, 5, & 6, 2003) have little if any overlap with the bratty postmodernism of Eric Wesley, represented here by a puzzling hand-painted U-Haul trailer (Cali Love, 2003) and a grid of cartoony portraits of men-on-the-street with dismissive assessments like “too dorky, skinny” and “too Andy Kaufmanish” (Knight Writer, 2001).
Gary Simmons, Fuck
Hollywood (detail, 1991)
Of course, apart from the occasional black figure, the only indication that any of this work is by African-Americans is when the artist explicitly addresses issues of racial identity in the actual content of the work. Which happens about a third of, or maybe half the time. It’s hard to tell exactly who this work is directed toward — my feeling is that the target audience is a white male 50-something art professor desperate to convince himself he hasn’t sold out. But hey, I’ve never been quite able to shake the feeling that the entire art world is just window dressing for murderous mechanisms of global capitalism, and that everyone who participates is both complicit and a token. Rather than confront such an all-consuming abysm of compromise, my strategy is to approach a show like “Fade” as I would any other huge, essentially arbitrary group show: one piece at a time, and pretty much oblivious of the personal history or theoretical allegiances of the artists.
Of the three parts in “Fade”— two shows at Cal State L.A. (at the Luckman Gallery and University Gallery) and one at the city-run Craft and Folk Art Museum across from LACMA — the Luckman show seems the most concise as well as the most confrontational. It opens with Gary Simmons’ Fuck Hollywood (1991), a funereal shoe-shine stand with stereotypes (including the recurring cartoon crows Hekyl & Jekyl) printed on the draped shine rags. Nearby stands Waste, Lavialle Campbell’s 1996 sculpture of a garbage can overflowing with black casts of breasts. Pat Ward Williams’ What You Lookn At (1992) neatly uses the disorienting Bridget Riley–like optical effects of a blown-up dot screen to mimic aggressive eye contact — a picture that truly holds its own in the battle of the Gaze.
Kori Newkirk, Void of
Each of the three venues mixes it up thematically to some extent, and among my favorite pieces in Luckman are a pair of unabashedly formalist welded steel sculptures by Joseph Beckles. Facing each other across the room, Naima’s Grandma and Earth Mother may be more in step with abstract sculptural fashions of the 1950s than with the ’90s pop surrealism still holding sway, but they do it so well it doesn’t matter. Incorporating abstract shapes as well as antique farm implements (pitchfork, horseshoes), and painted in a subtle gradation from gunmetal gray to eggplant purple, Naima’s Grandma (Naima is Beckles’ daughter, so the piece is about the artist’s mother) mixes personal history and a slight sociopolitical inflection with virtuosic formal instincts. Beckles’ placement in the Luckman show is perfect, and some of the more heavy-handed pontificants in the room could learn from his light touch.
Some of the best works in the University Gallery’s installation are videos — in fact, the first piece you encounter is Ulysses Jenkins’ Bequest (2002), which revisits trippy mysticism à la Alice Coltrane with a cable-access collage of flower and water photography (plus the Dark Bob on Venice boardwalk in a burnoose!?) and an extended nine-minute reworking of Eden Ahbez’s song “Nature Boy.” Wow. Other videos include a surprising entry from Mark Bradford (known for his large-scale collages of permanent-wave end papers), in which he practices basketball in an unwieldy, sissified Lakers uniform, and Rodney McMillian, who edited together shots of emotionally overwhelmed white folk in the audience of a Jacksons concert. Wickedly funny.
But most of the work here tends toward the formal and introspective, like Sandra Rowe’s aforementioned painting series, Maren Hassinger’s curtains of threaded red bud leaves (Place of Bliss, 2001), Todd Gray’s blurry, blown-up photos of Disney figurines, and Ian White’s Alluvial Fan (2000), a towering cylinder section composed of small Plexiglas cases holding hundreds of excavated rock and soil samples, vegetation, and battered objects ranging from doorknobs to gas masks.
Predictably, the brown, musty assemblage aesthetic of White, Joseph Sims and others (the heyday of which occurred in the era of beat collagists like Bruce Conner, George Herms and Ed Kienholz) carries over to the show at the Craft and Folk Art Museum, which includes work by the legendary John Outterbridge and the women of the Saar dynasty. Even such works as Weekly diva Vaginal Davis’ Dames Egardess (tiny rough portraits in makeup on cardboard), photos by Glynnis Reed (hand-painted street graphics) and Roland Charles (burnt church remains), and Mark Bradford’s lovely silver-and-blue Fly in the Buttermilk have more than a whiff of nostalgic decay.
At first I toyed with the idea that this ongoing interest in urban detritus might be something unique to the African-American artistic community, but when I thought about it, I realized that I know dozens of artists who aren’t black who still work this vein — they just never get to show outside co-op galleries. This work’s visibility here has more to do with the enormous amount of art that is rendered invisible by art-world fashions, and the power of a racial (or similarly arbitrary) curatorial premise to disrupt these protocols. Which is righteous, in addition to any community-building and role-model-setting effects the show may have.
Nevertheless, I really don’t think the place to start making political reforms is the lofty pinnacle of Western culture, a.k.a. the art world. Say, I know: Why don’t we dismantle the military-industrial complex and use the money we save to pay slave reparations? Same with Natives and Mexican-Americans. And let’s not forget all the ladies. I’ll vote for the candidate who promises all that. Then when everyone’s got economic parity, we can let the art chips fall where they may. Good black art will be good art, and bad white art will be bad art. In the meantime — for art’s sake, anyway — it helps to make believe.
FADE (1990-PRESENT): African-American Artists in Los Angeles, a Survey Exhibition LUCKMAN GALLERY and UNIVERSITY FINE ARTS GALLERY, Cal State L.A. campus, 5151 State University Drive | CRAFT AND FOLK ART MUSEUM, 5814 Wilshire Blvd. Through February 29