A New Yorker Heads West

An Art-Filled L.A. Weekend

  • Me inside Chris Burden’s Urban Light (2008) LACMA installation

It was with great excitement that I traveled to Los Angeles two weekends ago to participate in the kick-start of Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980, a six-month initiative highlighting the rich and evolving art scene of this vibrant city. Having been born and raised in New York City, I have come to cherish its unique cultural history—claiming “Museum Mile” as my own backyard and its prestigious museums as my playground. Yet while inherently proud of New York-centric cultural movements such as the Harlem Renaissance and abstract expressionist painting, arts of the West Coast have always held a strong element of intrigue for me as well: pop, performance, conceptual art, collaboration! It was thus with keen anticipation that I embarked upon finally experiencing this Western cultural locus in person.

Upon arriving in L.A., I was immediately struck by its topographical distinction: rolling California hills penetrated by multitudes of unique and bustling neighborhoods. The juxtapositions between outdoors and indoors and expansiveness and intimacy were themes I continuously encountered throughout the city in terms of landscape, lifestyle, and certainly artistic expression. 

My first stop was at the Art Platform – Los Angeles fair, an official sponsor of Pacific Standard Time that contributed to the diverse representation of Southern California’s art community through multifarious gallery exhibitions. Here, innovative art initiatives such as the performance art journal Native Strategies found a forum through which to disseminate critical reflections on creative expression in L.A. In its first volume, performance artist Brian Getnick reflected: “I’ve been seeing a type of performance art that has an urgency in its engagement with its audience, through humor and through anachronistic forms of entertainment.” Indeed, my experiences exploring art for the next few days in L.A. revealed a cultural landscape at once nostalgic in its site-specific history, relevant in its social reflection, and forward-thinking in its cultural exploration.

  • Charles Gaines
    Skybox, 2011
    Curtesy Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects

These nuanced occupations of time and meaning were reiterated in my next destination: the art district Culver City. I found a current gallery installation of Charles Gaines’ Skybox (2011) especially powerful in its capacity to distill time and exploit viewer engagement. Entering a dark room, I was immediately mesmerized and drawn towards a canvas of luminescence in which countless stars were twinkling before my eyes. After prolonged minutes of transcendent looking, the lights in the gallery slowly brightened and, to my great surprise, the iridescent specks reduced to reveal text. With light, both literal and symbolic, historical passages exploring concepts of social justice are disclosed to the viewer, only to be slowly concealed yet again by the dimming of lights and emergence of the intergalactic sublime. The ceaseless sunrise and sunset achieved creates a space in which the viewer meditates upon greater visual, social, and metaphysical perspectives. In that moment, I felt intellectually responsible for what I was reading and, moreover, emotionally inspired by what I was physically experiencing.

1 of
  • Left:
    Bruce Talamon
    David Hammons, Slauson Studio,1974
    Courtesy Roberts & Tilton

    David Hammons
    America the Beautiful, 1968
    Courtesy The Hammer Museum

  • Betye Saar
    Red Time (2011) installation view
    Courtesy Roberts & Tilton

Another highlight was a gallery featuring works by Betye Saar and David Hammons, two renowned artists who began their careers in L.A. and engage in a dialogue of civil activism and aesthetic exploration. While Betye Saar’s Red Time installation utilizes found objects and assemblage, photographs of David Hammons capture the process of his performance and multimedia practices. These smaller exhibitions served as the perfect introduction to my main reason for visiting L.A.: the Now Dig This! Art & Black Los Angeles 1960-1980 exhibition curated by Kellie Jones with the assistance of Naima Keith—a new Assistant Curator at the Studio Museum.

  • The entrance to Now Dig This! Art & Black Los Angeles 1960-1980 at The Hammer Museum. Photo: Katherine Finerty.

Now Dig This! offers an ambitiously comprehensive and critical approach to the artistic legacy of African American artists during the Civil Rights and Black Power movements.  If the title alone doesn’t draw you in with excited intrigue, the sheer scope of the artworks featured certainly will: 140 seminal pieces finally given the prestigious exhibitionary exposure they deserve. Throughout my art historical studies, I had viewed many of these inspiring works, but only in the reduced forms of slideshow projections and book reproductions. Yet as I walked from room to room, these objects began to spring to life - unraveling their powerful stories and connections before my very eyes. As is particularly well illustrated through works by Saar and Hammons, two artists of focus in the show, the exhibition introduces a distinct aesthetic reflecting the environmental and art contexts unique to the West Coast emphasizing assemblage, installation, and performance.

Saar’s spiritually and socially charged compositions articulate an empowered representation of collective black identity and aesthetic through subversive assemblages of found objects. Aunt Jemima, for example, serves as a potent figure of symbolic reclamation as Saar puts grenades and guns in the place of pancakes, endowing this idealized and subservient racial stereotype with physical and emotional ammunition. David Hammons’ work also seeks to utilize and elevate discarded objects, as illustrated by Bag Lady in Flight, a playful reference to colloquial culture, jazz, and Marcel Duchamp’s readymades and concept of the “Fourth Dimension.” In this work, Hammons transforms paper bags, grease, and hair into a rhythmic and sinuous sculpture – provocative materials and ideas looming beneath every undulating layer. Hammons’ performance and multimedia work is further explored in an exhibition of several acclaimed “body prints,” achieved by pressing oil-covered bodies against paper. Having just viewed a photograph in the Culver City gallery exhibition portraying Hammons creating this type of work in action, it was truly enlightening to encounter the final result. Only ghost-like yet spirited leftovers remain from the physically rigorous and at times violent process of imprinting the body, suggesting the complex experiences of identity formation and representation.

My trip concluded with a day spent at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art—a sprawling cultural center on Museum Row constituting the largest art institution in the western United States. Given its location, scale, and mission, LACMA mirrored many of my sweeping impressions of L.A. from the busy weekend: expansive, diverse, and fostering culturally dynamic experiences in public spaces. All of these unique attributes came to a climactic realization in Chris Burden’s outdoor installation Urban Light (2008), comprising 202 antique cast-iron streetlamps orderly composed to create a contemporary coliseum of recycled L.A. design (pictured above). Referential on historical, global, and local levels, this urban forest beckons all viewers to traverse its dynamic grid and become active inhabitants of the rich and sophisticated city of Los Angeles. Whether you choose to perform, reflect, or merely exist within this charged space—you become fully involved in the city’s nostalgic past, energetic present, and visionary future. From subversive to sublime, the exhibitions I experienced in L.A. all create sites of cultural agency, turning towards the physical and social landscape of the city itself for inspiration.