It would be fine to describe Glenn Kaino as a conceptual, installation or multimedia artist; that would get close to an aesthetic appreciation of his practice. But it leaves out dynamics of material experimentation and place-making — not to mention books, web platforms, gallery curation and nonprofit activism — that are every bit as salient to his vision. A native of East L.A. and a graduate of UC San Diego and UC Irvine, Kaino approaches each of his projects, whether from an institutional scale to more intimate, performative encounters, with the same problem-solving perspective on personal experience that drives his presence as a citizen of the city and the world.
Along the way, he’s collaborated with figures from Mark Bradford to athlete Tommie Smith (of 1968 Mexico City Olympics fame), actor/producer Jesse Williams (their collaboration VISIBILITY’s apps are BLeBRiTY and EBROJI), and musician John Legend (who with Williams co-produced the film With Drawn Arms based on the work inspired by Smith’s raised-fist, gold medal podium protest). A related exhibition is on view until spring 2020 at the San Jose Museum of Art.
Across literature, history, magic, philosophy, technology and the environment, Kaino’s projects are as eclectic as the downtown gallery Deep River (which he founded in 1997 and where he was the first to show Mark Bradford) and the co-founding of modern kunsthalles LAXART in 2005 and The Mistake Room in 2014. He is on the boards of the Hammer Museum and the Music Center and works with nonprofit culinary/visual arts hybrid Active Cultures. He had his fingers in Napster, launched a progressive social media and news platform called Uber in 2007, exhibited at the Whitney Biennial in 2004, and built the illusion of a mirrored slide to the Earth’s core for Desert X in 2017.
Besides San Jose, a new exhibition from Kaino is currently on view at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. “When A Pot Finds Its Purpose” is a poignant and multivalent meditation on the physical musicality and nationalized symbolism of the bell in our politics and culture, intertwined with a cascade of fertile soil, itself both a literal and metaphorical representation of hope, stewardship and interconnectedness.
We see this same accretive symbolism and material symbiosis in a number of large-scale public art projects closer to home. He’s creating sculpture for the landings on either side of the L.A. River as part of the 12-acre Sixth Street Viaduct PARC project — set to open a couple of years after the city expects to complete the viaduct in 2022. His representation of the iconic “L.A. hands” will be both a cultural and architectural signifier.
His commission for the Airport Metro Connector at the LAX/Metro Transit Center is based on years of research into ideas about how humans might travel to space, from the Aztecs to H.G. Wells, NASA to Space X. Keeping on the theme of lofty ideas, this May Kaino inaugurates the new Compound Long Beach, a community art center supporting the arts and holistic wellness, with a 6-month immersive installation which he describes as “visualized hope.” Playing with technology to create a kind of cloud chamber, harnessing cosmic rays to let you see (and hear) the invisible energy of thousands of hopes and dreams is right up Kaino’s alley. After all, his favorite way to describe his eclectic practice is simply to say, “I hope for a living.”