Found objects made into art: Timothy Washington’s long-overdue solo show

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Washington’s sculptures often contain noisemakers and moving pieces. This one, a futuristic animal inspired by Harley Davidson motorcyles, can carry the weight of the artist himself.

Though he doesn't go to church, Washington's work is often quite spiritual. "Introductionary Title," a sculpture from 1967, makes reference to the crucifixion.
Though he doesn’t go to church, Washington’s work is often quite spiritual. “Introductionary Title,” a sculpture from 1967, makes reference to the crucifixion.

Read the news and it can be easy to think that art is all about money and glamor: splashy openings, $142 million paintings and rapper Drake snapping selfies at the L.A. County Museum of Art.

But an exhibition at the Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles is a reminder that art is also about dedication. For decades, one L.A. artist has been quietly making fantastical pieces out of bits of debris. As long as he can remember, Timothy Washington has been making art.

“I remember clearly that we used to walk for blocks and blocks in the gutter next to the curb looking for pieces that we could take back home and put into our art,” Washington said.

Washington’s sculptures often contain noisemakers and moving pieces. This one, a futuristic animal inspired by Harley Davidson motorcyles, can carry the weight of the artist himself.

Now 67 years old, he is doing much the same thing — combing yard sales, thrift stores and the streets of L.A. for bits of wood, cracked coffee mugs and old toys. He takes these objects and fuses them into wild sculptures that look like retro-futuristic sci-fi robots. One piece with timers resembles a spiny tree. A four-legged bird-creature is studded with playing cards. Many of his pieces also incorporate bells.

Every item retains its own form of identity, but working together forms a whole,” Washington said. “Now, this should be applied to humanity.”

In the world of L.A. art, Washington is a bit of an outlier: deeply spiritual in an industry that tends to be secular; a fan of storytelling at a time when the art world is hot on abstraction. He is often linked to a wider movement of African-American artists working in assemblage, but steers clear of art world wheeling and dealing.

“He has a really strong set of values and a real strong sense of independence. And for him, that’s really who he is and it’s something he really stands by,” said Suzanne Isken, director at the Craft and Folk Art Museum.

"Black Cross" and "White Cross," a pair of horizontal crosses he assembled in the early 1990s.
“Black Cross” and “White Cross,” a pair of horizontal crosses he assembled in the early 1990s.

Washington was born and raised in L.A. For much of his adult life, he worked as a set painter for the studios — on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, The Golden Girls and even The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. He says the experience conditioned him to handle his materials quickly and skillfully.

“If you were in the paint room mixing color more than 15 minutes, you were in deep trouble. So it taught you right away what colors were the warms and cools and how to achieve, how to get the colors that you desire,” Washington said.

In the '70s, Washington was using printing plates as the basis of collages. "1A," made in 1972, was createdin protest to the Vietnam War, and contains the artist's vandalized draft card.
In the ’70s, Washington was using printing plates as the basis of collages. “1A,” made in 1972, was created in protest to the Vietnam War, and contains the artist’s vandalized draft card.

In 1969, Washington graduated with a fine arts degree from the Chouinard Art Institute. And just two years later, the L.A. County Museum of Art included him in a seminal show called “Three Graphic Artists.”

“In the contemporary period, in the post-War period, it’s the first show of African-American artists,” said Kellie Jones, an independent curator who has organized exhibitions on African-American art in L.A. and New York. “It is major, because you have Charles White, a huge name in terms of African-American artists. You have David Hammons who becomes this huge name. And you have Timothy Washington.”

In 1972, he creates one of his best known pieces in this vein: “1A,” a self-portrait that shows the young Washington raising a middle finger at his draft card, which is glued to the piece. It was his statement against the Vietnam War.

“1A” is now on view at the Craft and Folk Art Museum, along with more than three dozen other pieces that reflect Washington’s increasingly complex combinations of materials.

The show, called “Love Thy Neighbor,” is his first solo exhibit at a museum. It’s on view at the Craft and Folk Art Museum through April 27.

An early assemblage piece, "God Is," from 1974, contains a piece of burned wood from the Watts Riots.
An early assemblage piece, “God Is,” from 1974, contains a piece of burned wood from the Watts Riots.
A face is constructed out of glass eyes, cowry shells and broken dishes in this detail "The Energy Source: Second Warning," from 2003.
A face is constructed out of glass eyes, cowry shells and broken dishes in this detail “The Energy Source: Second Warning,” from 2003.
In a recent series, the artist turned to washboards as the basis of small, wall-hanging assemblages. "Unauthorized," from 2012, is seen above.
In a recent series, the artist turned to washboards as the basis of small, wall-hanging assemblages. “Unauthorized,” from 2012, is seen above.
"Several Faces: One Race" contains faces of all races -- as well a mirror, so that viewers might see themselves in the work.
“Several Faces: One Race” contains faces of all races — as well a mirror, so that viewers might see themselves in the work.
Washington's sculptures contain intricate assemblages at every height, since he likes children to be able to take in the details as well. Seen here: "Several Faces: One Race," from 2011.
Washington’s sculptures contain intricate assemblages at every height, since he likes children to be able to take in the details as well. Seen here: “Several Faces: One Race,” from 2011.
An installation view of Washington's Works at the Craft and Folk Art Museum, the first museum solo exhibition in the artist's nearly five-decade-long career.
An installation view of Washington’s Works at the Craft and Folk Art Museum, the first museum solo exhibition in the artist’s nearly five-decade-long career.
A face is constructed out of glass eyes, cowry shells and broken dishes in this detail "The Energy Source: Second Warning," from 2003.
A face is constructed out of glass eyes, cowry shells and broken dishes in this detail “The Energy Source: Second Warning,” from 2003.
A detail from "Final Notice," which was constructed over the course of a decade, from 2003-2013. Coffee mug handles serve as ears.
A detail from “Final Notice,” which was constructed over the course of a decade, from 2003-2013. Coffee mug handles serve as ears.
Washington combs the streets of L.A. for bits of detritus to use in his work. In "Energy Source: First Warning," a working thermometer is embedded in the leg of a sinuous female figure.
Washington combs the streets of L.A. for bits of detritus to use in his work. In “Energy Source: First Warning,” a working thermometer is embedded in the leg of a sinuous female figure.
In the foreground, the dramatic scultpure, made of nails and old Volkswagen parts from which the exhibition takes its name: "Love They Neighbor," from 1968.
In the foreground, the dramatic scultpure, made of nails and old Volkswagen parts from which the exhibition takes its name: “Love They Neighbor,” from 1968.