Black Art Reigns

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A few days after the national holiday honoring Martin Luther King and the city is bristling with indignant stories about the obvious absence of black nominees for the Academy Awards.

That scenario used to be standard in the realm of contemporary art as well but things have changed. The last decade has seen obvious and welcome rise in the number of black artists shown at museums and galleries in LA. This month, an unprecedented number of galleries are showing exciting work by black artists.

It could well be a ripple effect from Now Dig This at the Hammer Museum, part of the Getty's 2011 PST initiative and from MOCA’s 2012 Blues for Smoke. Since then, LACMA presented a critically lauded retrospective of the late Noah Purifoy, and the Hammer, which has been notably supportive of black art, showed Charles Gaines and Mark Bradford and launched a satellite space in Leimert Park.

The California African American Museum in Exposition Park, which opened in 1984 with the show Black Olympians, has a varied program that includes exhibitions of art. On view through April 26 is Hard Edged: Geometrical Abstraction and Beyond. (Thanks to Christopher Knight of the LA Times for his article on this.)

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Daniel LaRue Johnson, "Big Red," 1964
Mixed media assemblage and acrylic on canvas
Courtesy of California African American Museum

“Hard-Edge” is a term coined by LA critic Jules Langsner to describe geometric abstract painting of 1960's. While there is a fair amount of such work done by multiple generations of black artists in this show, the use of the past tense makes the term descriptive of a history as well as underscoring the alternative meaning of being tough or difficult. Organized by CAAM's visual arts curator Mar Hollingsworth, the show includes work by nearly 50 artists starting with the stunning 1964 painting by Daniel LaRue Johnson, Big Red, a square of dark red stripes framing a smaller square of charred black detritus, a piece that in itself contains both meanings of “Hard Edged.” A pair of 1976 circular ceramics by Doyle Lane bring a hand-crafted approach to formal arrangements of color and shape while a younger artist, Holly Tempo, uses metallic silver and day-glo orange spray paint on her 2012 Heat Wave: This is for Real.

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Doyle Lane, "Unititle," 1976
Clay painting
Courtesy of California African American Museum

Lisa Soto’s crocheted colored wire grids, one hanging in front of the other, glint and glimmer in the light but also tremble with the slightest breeze, complemented by Charla Puryear’s 2015 futuristic glass chandelier, Lunar Sunshine

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Lisa C. Soto, "NGC 1003 & NGC 0913," 2015
Courtesy of the artist
Photo: Jamaal Tolbert

Assemblages by recognized artists like David Hammons, John Riddle or Purifoy create context for work by younger artists like Kori Newkirk or Brenna Youngblood.

Meanwhile, both of those artists are having gallery shows. Youngblood’s What A Feeling, at Honor Fraser Gallery brims with the vibrancy of that Flashdance theme song. Large scale moody abstractions are backgrounds for elements of collage with such wit and subtlety that the longer you spend with them the greater the reward. Look up to see a rough hewn wooden star covered in gold paint suspended by chains from the ceiling. Look down to see floors covered in blue or red plaid carpet, not an arbitrary decision. The red checks come from the shirt of Brawny man, whose unshaven chin and tanned chest can be seen on the plastic wrapper of those paper towels. Sheets of those Brawny towels are layered on the surface of a triptych, a muscular trio of big white canvases slathered with a scarlet mountain range. Thin strips of the red plaid fabric hang along the interior edges of two canvases, barely visible. The show continues to February 27. (Also on view is a sprightly installation The Small Laboratory by William Leavitt, who added a small show of work by Raul Guerrero, Janet Jenkins and Katy Crowe.)

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Brenna Youngblood, "Untitled," 2016
Acrylic, spray-paint, paper towels, and paper towel packaging on canvas
72 x 180 inches
Courtesy the artist and Honor Fraser Gallery
Photo: Brian Forrest

Newkirk first came on the scene in the mid-1990's with wall-sized images composed from curtains of beads worn in hair-braids, a body of work that was so popular, he needed a change. The currant show pivots around circles. Rows of bicycle tires are aligned, their spokes cluttered with collections of CD's and DVD's that offer their own glimpse of disposable culture. Tin cans arranged on the wall in a vertical line look like glittering black voids. Fringed silver mylar curtains are added to photographs of an otherwise mundane intersection of downtown LA. The show continues through February 6 at Roberts & Tilton, which has shown a consistent commitment to black artists, publishing the substantial monograph LA Object. (Among the artists they support is 90-year-old Betye Saar, considered an icon, whose retrospective opens at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art at the end of this month but, shamefully, is not coming here!)

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Kori Newkirk, "Republic," 2016
Steel, aluminum, metal, rubber, plastic, copper
26.75 x 26.75 x 242 in (67.9 x 67.9 x 614.7 cm)
Courtesy Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, California
Photo: Robert Wedemeyer

But wait, there are more!

A number of artists who were active with the Watts Towers Art Program, which evolved after the 1965 uprising, are being shown in a small show appropriately called Watts, at the Loft at Liz’s, which is on the second floor of Liz’s Antique Hardware on La Brea through February 15. There is work by Dale Brockman Davis and half a dozen others including John Outterbridge, who can be seen in greater depth in his current show at the Hammer’s Art + Practice space in Leimert Park through February 27. 

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John Outterbridge, "Rag and Bag Idiom III," 2012
Mixed media. 34 x 14 x 7 1Ž2 inches
Image courtesy of Tilton Gallery, New York

Other gallery shows include James Little’s geometric abstractions of chevrons and stripes in buttery warm paint that he makes himself at Louis Stern through March 12. And opening January 30, a promising show of expressive figurative paintings with assemblage elements, Blessings on Blessings, by Aaron Fowler is at Diane Rosenstein through March 12. 

As I said, unprecedented.