With “Face to Face: Los Angeles Collects Portraiture,” the California African American Museum presents a show that is at once completely contemporary and steeped in history. Portraiture evolved from immortalizing the rich and famous to more egalitarian subjects. It's meant to represent the essence of a subject — a gesture, a gaze, the implied movement or stillness. The content of a portrait goes beyond the human being represented and includes the materials used, the colors and the composition. The works in CAAM’s show span from the museum's inception in 1984 until now and, most important, offer a glimpse at subjects that contemporary black artists highlight in their work. “Face to Face” also presents a sampling of the kind of work that is collected by the patrons who make up a tight community of art lovers in Los Angeles.
The curators of “Face to Face” — Naima J. Keith, deputy director of CAAM, and Diana Nawi, associate curator at Perez Art Museum Miami — highlighted the importance of collectors to the show. Keith spoke about the “generosity of collectors,” and how important that has been to the development of CAAM and the Los Angeles art world in general. As the introduction to the show states, “This exhibition highlights in particular a new generation of collectors of color whose mission, in part, is to support artists already at the early stages of their career, often ahead of the mainstream.” These collectors are important, not only to the development of CAAM but to create an environment for artists in Los Angeles to grow and thrive.
“Face to Face” is split into five thematic sections: public personae, performed bodies, love and desire, redefining icons, and resistance and commemoration. Nawi points out that each artist “uses portraiture to different ends, using different gestures and modes of expression,” taking a ubiquitous art form and molding it with an intention in mind. With Double Portrait by Lorna Simpson and Brenna Youngblood’s photo collage Army, the public personae section is all about the face you present to the world.
There is a guarded quality to both, whether it be the makeup and finery of the woman in the Simpson piece or the expression on the face of the subject in Youngblood’s. As the section panel for performed bodies points out, ”Identity is often understood as an inherent characteristic, something innate and fixed. Artists challenge this assumption, suggesting that identity is not only malleable and shifting but also a self-conscious performance.”
There are purposeful performances, artists that create theater out of identity, but there is also Genevieve Gaignard, who demonstrates how identity can change with a hat or an expression. Both sections point to the fact that identity is a performance, with the artist and the audience both important participants. Many of the subjects in “love and desire” are not just being looked at, they are also doing the looking. Gazing out at the viewer, both of Mickalene Thomas’ women, first in Din Avec la Main dans le Miroir and Look at What You’ve Become, are present. Each work also seems to ask why some things and people are deserving of love and desire and others are not.
Religious paintings take on new faces, fables take on new meanings and the marginalized come to prominence in this show. In Curtis Talwst Santiago’s Homeless Nubian Man Sleeping on Park Bench Under the Stars, a tiny diorama sits in a jewelry box. The viewer has to lean in close to see a tiny figure and imagine the story of the little man on the bench. The images in the “resistance and commemoration” section take all-too-recognizable gestures — hands up in protest, the violence of police misconduct — and place them next to memorials to lost youth.
“Face to Face” is a young show — many of the works were created in the last 10 years — and to see what subjects young artists gravitate toward is important to the bigger political and social conversation. Nawi points out that “Face to Face” has “African-American artists representing themselves.” This show and the collectors who contributed works from their collections give black artists the space and support to create images that
reflect themselves and their community.