When I visit Skirball Cultural Center to see the latest exhibitions there, I expect to be informed, surprised, and challenged. That definitely was the case last year, with exhibitions celebrating composer Leonard Bernstein and Supreme Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Instead of speaking at the visitors, Skirball exhibitions speak to the visitors in a very friendly, accessible way. Two new exhibitions have the same easy-going approach to sharing their stories, and both are very elegantly installed.
The exhibition Black is Beautiful by photographer Kwame Braithwaite (b. 1938) presents over 40 photographs of black women and men “during an era when segregation still prevailed across the United States” (Skirball). Images by Braithwaite chosen for this exhibition celebrate black beauty and pride at a time when mainstream beauty standards excluded people of color. Brathwaite and his art helped to coin the term “Black is Beautiful,” planting the seeds for contemporary political movements like Black Lives Matter. This is the first major museum exhibition dedicated to this important artist, though here in Los Angeles, we were lucky enough to have seen a smaller exhibition of his work at Philip Martin Gallery last year.
Another exhibition at Skirball I want to urge you to see is Fearless Fashion, celebrating the famous fashion designer Rudi Gernreich (1922-1985). And fearless, he was… He gained notoriety for his jaw-dropping and innovative designs, including the “monokini,” a women’s topless swimsuit and pantsuits for women. Born in Austria in 1938 as a Viennese Jew, he fled the country due to its anti-Semitic policies. He found sanctuary in Los Angeles, where he was able to “challenge conventional beauty standards and redefine style” (Skirball).
The presentation of this exhibition is unusually theatrical, with mannequins modeling his designs in dramatic poses, as if in the middle of a dance – a reminder of Gernreich’s association with a well-known interracial and socially engaged dance troupe, Lester Horton Dance Theater. Seductive and Sexy would be the best way to describe not only Gernreich’s fashion, but this beautifully designed exhibition, as well.
Across town in the Arts District, I went to see Vielmetter Los Angeles, the new, ambitious gallery by Susanne Vielmetter, who still has her gallery in Culver City, though it’s scheduled to close in Autumn. There are two exhibitions that will grab your attention from the get-go. The exhibition by New York-based sculptor Arlene Shechet (b. 1951) is a dramatic confrontation of geometric shapes and a variety of materials – wood, ceramic, metal – rarely combined in one sculpture. In spite of their small to medium scale, their energy fills the entire gallery. The works are so surprisingly diverse that if I didn’t know better, I would have thought it was a group show.
The second exhibition at Vielmetter Los Angeles is by Austin-based artist Deborah Roberts (b. 1962), presenting a series of her signature style mixed-media collages on canvas. Most of the images are of young black boys who experience an inescapable sense of danger. Many of Roberts’ works references the “tragic case of Tamir Rice… the twelve- year-old boy who was playing with a toy gun in a park… and shot and killed by a Cleveland police officer” (Vielmetter). The title of one artwork, I do solemnly swear (Nessun Dorma Series), was inspired by the famous aria “Nessun Dorma” from a Puccini opera. Like most Italian operas, life and death are the fodder for Deborah Roberts’ poignant art.