Ken Gonzales-Day documents. Even an exhibition of his own photographs, Surface Tension, consists of photographs taken by him of an overlooked art by others: murals.
At the Skirball Center, each of his color photographs, aligned in rows like the bricks of a wall, is a rectangular fragment of a mural or other form of public painting. The floor of the gallery is covered in a schematic map of the greater L.A. area in gray where small red numbers correspond to each mural.
Ken Gonzales-Day, “The Elixir,” mural by Patrick Henry Johnson, Crenshaw Blvd at Stocker St, Leimert Park, 2011. © 2017 Ken Gonzales-Day.
In this exhibition, Gonzales-Day’s art is an index to other art—how to find, and more important, identify what is usually anonymous. On your way to Art + Practice in Leimert Park, you might have noticed the stylized black woman with an Afro painted on the side of a building on Crenshaw but never realized it was “The Elixir” by Patrick Henry Johnson. (A work that had to be repainted.) You may have driven past “John Muir Woods” running along Ocean Park, south of Lincoln, in Santa Monica. It was painted by Jane Golden. Or, while stopped at the light on Wilton and Santa Monica in Hollywood, you saw the ode to “Actors and Singers” with a rather eclectic selection that includes both Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ringo Starr and painted by Hector Ponce. Brochures at the Skirball gallery include not only the usual expository text but literally operate as a map to the stars of mural painting. Gonzales-Day did not limit his exploration to murals but included curious signage and funk graffiti sprayed on palm trees. His service here is to the unsung heros of vernacular art, artists trained or not who felt compelled to make great big marks, meaningful images, where they can be seen by anyone, anytime.
Ken Gonzales-Day, Palm Trees at Venice Public Art Graffiti Walls, Venice Beach, 2017. Photo © 2017 Ken Gonzales-Day
This PST:LA/LA profect was developed collaborativelybetween Gonzales-Day and Skirball curators, which sent the artist on a ten-month journey across the city—from East Los Angeles to Venice Beach, from Pacoima to Watts. Conceptually, it follows his earlier series of photographs documenting the locations of lynchings in the West, which visually confronted assumptions and denial about a tragic past.
Diego Rivera, Dance in Tehuantepec / Danza en Tehuantepec, 1935. Watercolor and pencil on paper. Collection of Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Gift if Mr. and Mrs. Milton W. Lipper, from the Milton W. Lipper Estate (M.74.22.4) © 2017 Bancode México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Another PST:LA/LA exhibition at the Skirball addresses an earlier legacy. Another Promised Land:Anita Brenner’s Mexico is also documentary, chronicling a life shaped by the harsh conditions and anti-semitism of her time. Born in Aquascalientes, Mexico to parents who were Jewish immigrants, Brenner was educated in both her native Mexico and in Texas. Her father moved the family to the United State after the Mexican Revolution but also moved back as conditions permitted. As a bilingual woman of intellectual and creative leanings, she became a profilic writer on Mexican culture from the 1920s onward. Without traditional academic credentials, she turned her Ph.D. thesis on anthropology into the influential 1929 book Idols Behind Altars, an early study of pre-historic Mexico and its lasting effect on colonial and modern culture. (She commissioned Edward Weston and Tina Modotti to take photographs for it.) She was friends with the artistic elite of Mexico City, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, along with Mathias Goeritz, Jean Charlot, Leonora Carrington and Pedro Friedeberg. Works by all of these artists are included in the show. The import is in how Brenner toiled to develop a favorable impression of Mexico. Her 1943 book on the Mexican Revolution, The Wind That Swept Mexico, was the first to chronicle the political and social shifts from the Mexican perspective, one less hostile than that offered by the American press influenced by the Hearst papers.
Diego Rivera, Dance in Tehuantepec / Danza en Tehuantepec, 1935. Watercolor and pencil on paper. Collection of Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Gift if Mr. and Mrs. Milton W. Lipper, from the Milton W. Lipper Estate (M.74.22.4) © 2017 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
The exhibition organized by Skirball curator Laura Mart and guest curator Karen Cordero presents materials and photographs from Brenner’s archives at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, which are of abundant interest, proof of Brenner’s dedicated life. It is on view through Feb 25.