Monday night in Santa Monica, the Broad Stage hosted a true who’s-who of the L.A. fine-art community, as a cross-section of artists, impresarios and students showed up for a conversation. Ninety minutes flew by as artists Njideka Akunyili Crosby and Charles Gaines spoke with each other and with Hammer Museum senior curator Anne Ellegood about who they are, what they do and why they do it.
Beginning with an overview of each artist’s titanic résumé, the conversation went on to yield fresh knowledge and new insight, even for those already familiar with the work. As organizer William Turner noted, “The goal here is to get to know these artists better,” as well as to reflect on what specifically Los Angeles has to offer artists who choose to live and work here.
In both materials and style, as well as biography and generation, these two are more than different; their pairing could even be considered unlikely. Yet in their contrasting approaches to considering postcolonial theory and narrative, they are more than on the same page, as both expand their given genre to include marginal spaces. The success and frankly the joy of the conversation was watching them work all that out for themselves, live onstage, in real time.
Gaines was born in the American South in 1944, moving to Newark as a kid and eventually to Fresno to teach. Eventually he joined the CalArts faculty, where his courses and several former students such as Mark Bradford have become legendary. In between pursuing a then-conventional career trajectory centered on NYC galleries, Gaines soon became a permanent, even emblematic Angeleno.
Crosby was born in a small Nigerian town in 1983, moved to the capital metropolis of Lagos for boarding school at 11, to America at 16, and to L.A. from New York only a few years ago — yet she’s already been popularly proclaimed an L.A. artist. Both are represented in the Hammer’s permanent collection, both have ties to CalArts and its extended community, and both remain extremely interested in how things ended up that way.
“Nigeria was under British rule until 1960,” Crosby reminds us. And although it was technically over by the time she was born, colonialism’s legacy of mingled cultures is still present now, and certainly when she was growing up. Yet as she grew into her global citizenship, she began to feel even more the pull of her roots, and to contemplate what it means to embrace a cosmopolitan identity. “I rejected the part of the American Dream predicated on assimilation,” she states. Her immigrant narrative is therefore modeled on an internationalism that draws strength from differences. Her work is made using a range of materials and techniques that posit mixed media as an allegory, in its own layered forms demonstrating an array of “evidence of one’s heritage,” poignantly expressed through the lens of personal experiences.
As an African-American child in the late 1940s and into his adolescence in the 1950s, Gaines remembers not grasping the idea behind the races being separated. He describes experiencing a kind of cognitive dissonance between how people were labeled and how life was as he knew it and himself to be. He landed on the idea that images and texts were assigned and assumed to have inherent meanings, such that “White” and “Colored” were accepted as categories to which one belonged automatically and arbitrarily; this did not sit well with him. This modality of thought in turn gave rise to a conceptual art practice in which he deconstructs and examines systems — the very mechanisms by which we attach meaning to images. Not all his work is about race, but all his semiotic investigations are rooted in the cognitive functions that make racism, among other things, possible in the social and individual mind.
Along those lines, Gaines also remembers L.A. “back then” as a much more balkanized place than it is now. “I didn’t feel comfortable here until about five years ago,” he laughs, but he isn’t really joking. He spoke of how the myth of West Coast freedom was both true and, for a long time, only truly available to white males. Crosby for her part is aware that hers is “a lucky generation, who are arriving on the scene now to find it much more welcoming.”
Speaking of their personal aesthetic choices, and the divergent styles they pursue, Gaines offered that he works, and thinks, abstractly as a means to stay in the quasi-scientific systems place he inhabits, where too much narrative reduces the field of inquiry when it ought to stay wide. His concern is “the origins of the arbitrary. There’s no immutable definition of what it even means to make art, why should there be one of who can be an artist?”
For her part, Crosby made an eloquent case for representation, for working with pictures and stories, which had to do with the idea of taking ownership of history. For example, she cited the debate within African literature about what language it “should” be written in. English is the language of colonial oppression, and some thinkers advocate ignoring it and writing in their local tongue. But so many modern Africans do speak English in their daily lives, and they see writing in it as a chance to establish ownership of it for their own purposes. Crosby spoke about how that parallels her creative process in visual art, in which she was rigorously educated and trained in European techniques, which she now bends toward telling a non-European story. In this way she is asserting her ownership of a “foreign” visual language in a way that speaks directly to the geopolitics of colonial rule and its after-effects in real life.