Noted for his “technical unorthodoxy,” Los Angeles–based artist Timothy Washington reveals the inextricability of art and craft, using street detritus, Christian imagery, and warped, alien-like human forms to question the relationships between humanity, spirituality, and the cosmos. Formally trained at Choinard Art Institute in the 1960s, Washington was a young member of the black assemblage-art movement that emerged in LA in the ’60s; his mixed-media drypoints were included in LACMA’s first contemporary show of black artists, in 1971. While Washington has continued his career through the present, selling to private collections and participating in group exhibitions, “Love They Neighbor” is his solo museum debut, considered by many to be overdue.
The show includes a breadth of work that emphasizes Washington’s long-term experimental approach, and specifically his irreverent use of the materials at hand. The mixed-media drypoint 1A, 1972, was created in reaction to receiving his draft notification, which is defaced and affixed to the piece. It is one of his best-known works, but most of those that follow stray from this graphic and straightforwardly political approach. The Energy Source: First Warning, 1990, is a towering carved-wood figure, both alien and human, with wheels for arms. The three sculptures, Love, Glorifying Womanhood, and Several Faces, One Race, are joyful and chaotic amalgams of children’s toys, mirrors, barometers, and a myriad of other findings, and all four are made from Washington’s preferred glue-and-cotton composite, of which he says, “I am still picking cotton.” His series of hanging washboard assemblages have faces reminiscent of African masks, as do the twenty-one altered wooden spoons in Spoons, 2013. Black Cross and White Cross, both 1993, testify to Washington’s Christian influences, a strong theme throughout his career.
With an eccentric mosaic of influences and materials, Washington blends his deep-seated folk sensibility with the politics of found objects, all shot through with a distinct New Age flare. Disparate elements coalesce to speak towards Washington’s idea of “space consciousness,” suggesting that all objects and histories can be a mystic’s tools for seeing beyond our earthly experience and our human tendency towards distinction. Collectively, the work beams an intense and sometimes ecstatic message of unity.
Assembling works by thirty-six artists from the late 1970s to the present, “Take It or Leave It” underscores the dynamic and often blurry intersection of appropriation and institutional critique. Tempting questions arise: Does appropriation’s critique always reflect upon its exhibiting institution? In want of a discursive frame, must institutional critique always employ some form of appropriation?
“Take It or Leave It” aggregates works likely necessary for its task by artists including Louise Lawler, Sherrie Levine, Haim Steinbach, and Fred Wilson. It transcends the expected by presenting both signature works by these artists from the 1980s and some of their more recent pieces. Also presented are media, such as painting, usually omitted from histories of either appropriation or institutional critique, like Sue Williams’s fiery joke painting Spiritual America, 1992. Such inclusions give “Take It or Leave It” a self-conscious elasticity, revising history while writing it.
Andrea Fraser’s Museum Highlights: A Gallery Talk, 1989, a video of a faux docent tour scripted entirely of quotations, introduces the show and may have also inspired its method. Powerful juxtapositions that tempt taboo, such as Glenn Ligon’s Notes on the Margin of the Black Book, 1991–93, as threatening cyclorama for Paul McCarthy’s Michael Jackson Fucked Up Big Head Big Foot (MJFUBH), 2010, exemplify the extreme potential of this method to complicate both past and present. Acting as the finale to the exhibition is Stephen Prina’s elegiac installation The Second Sentence of Everything I Read Is You: Mourning Sex, 2005–2007, a singing memorial to Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Possibly too many works surround this already affective piece, including Mike Kelley’s Craft Morphology Flow Chart, 1991, Fred Wilson’s Slit, 1995, and David Wojnarowicz’s Crash: The Birth of Language / The Invention of Lies, 1986. All this threatens to overwhelm, but in so doing honestly dramatizes the challenge of “Take It Or Leave It”: how to make history of what remains largely present.
The thirty photographs in this show by Hiroshi Sugimoto fall into three categories: “Dioramas,” “Portraits,” and “Photogenic Drawings.” For the latter, a selection of eleven recent works, Sugimoto drew from William Henry Fox Talbot’s archives at the Getty, which he visited in 2009. The works’ inclusion in the show, among photographs that reconsider the preciousness of museum displays, makes for an apt kind of homecoming. By copying and distorting museum archives of prephotography, then presenting them in that same museum, Sugimoto achieves a cunning short circuit in which the record, not the artist or the machine, remains at the center of the photograph.
In Sugimoto's well-known diorama photographs, taken at such institutions as the American Museum of Natural History, he reveals the affectedness of our elegiac and sentimental viewing of these images. A polar bear roars over his just-caught prey, and a manatee swims through a sun-dappled sea; however, these images were taken of displays only passively encountered, not of scenes staged or caught by the photographer. His too-flattering Renaissance portraits, on closer inspection, have achieved their smooth contours not by lighting or angles, but from the waxen surfaces of replicas. Sugimoto challenges the eye to more carefully discern what actually lived, after it is rendered static by the camera. The photographs strip away sentient factors other than the hand of the photographer.
Talbot’s exercises similarly sought to remove that hand. He achieved his photogenic drawings by coating paper with solutions that, when left in sunlight, revealed the flattened shapes of objects such as leaves; he later captured images using a camera obscura, whose long exposures produced the first negatives. Sugimoto picks up this narrative by photographing, enlarging, and coloring the same images. In Roofline of Lacock Abbey, ca. 1835–1839, 2008, architecture eludes figuration. The building appears more like a natural phenomenon than a man-made structure. Rather than offer the artist’s clearly delineated view, the image documents the natural light that filtered the image through time. Sugimoto’s enhancements emphasize these processes rather than the pictures themselves.
This third and final rendition of Jacob Hashimoto’s two-story installation Gas Giant, 2014, includes thousands of small rice-paper disks, squares, diamonds, and other shapes, each supported by a thin bamboo frame and suspended from the ceiling by a delicate line. Repurposing parts from its earlier iterations, Gas Giant is an expansive and multifaceted sculptural collage that reaches thirty-four feet into the air, suspended from the upper level of the museum’s airy central space. Throughout, paper pieces are hung in clusters, each organized by color and shape—blue squares, white ovals, yellow hexagons. Together they appear like waves in a paper sea, clouds in a sculptural atmosphere, or, from another point of view, distinct neighborhoods in a playfully fabricated universe. Some of these groupings burst with colorful geometric or abstract designs. Tiny bits of brilliant green collaged onto squares hanging near the floor suggest grass, while multihued abstractions overhead could be likened to fields of flora or, in another light, miniature pop-up museums.
These microdesigns, together with the sheer multitude of suspended parts, emphasize the amount of labor involved in making and installing Gas Giant. The magnitude of Hashimoto’s effort, combined with the way the installation works with the space to gracefully engulf the audience, creates an impression often associated with such spaces as temples, cathedrals, or mosques. That said, the artist’s use of traditional Japanese materials and his choice to recycle parts from one project to the next suggest a more temporal sacred construction—a Shinto shrine, built from natural materials and, by tradition, torn down and remade every twenty years, or a Buddhist sand mandala, meticulously made from grains of sand before being released into the sea. Similarly, Gas Giant is both rigorously formal and fleetingly experiential. Like participatory art—or spiritual ritual—it must be experienced in situ.
Recent weeks have seen the art world’s temperature spike over the money in art (and politics) problem. Who knows how long such simmering ideological skirmishes will last and whether confrontation can bubble into anything progressively steam-worthy. Nevertheless, taking sides vis-à-vis the raging “free market” has become more explicit.
Now, then, is an ideal and necessary time to encounter the ebullient and searing paintings that John Tweddle made in the late 1960s and early 1970s, before removing himself from the New York art scene. In addition to some drawings, eight large canvases are on view, most of which are shaped by a wavy outline measuring about ten feet wide and over six feet high. In the paintings, Tweddle’s furious struggle against the commodity status of art (against capitalism) resonates with extreme clarity and graphic vividness. With titles such as Art World, Time Bomb, and Sold, the works’ politic is, up front, the engine of painterly action. Above other recurring motifs, it is the dollar sign that reigns supreme. Dollars erupt in virulent colonies and circulate around Tweddle’s characteristically concentric and highly patterned compositions. Evoking tapestries, rugs, quilts, altarpieces, and mandalas, he achieves great optical effects.
Tweddle’s anger and energy are a shot in the arm. In Art (Truck), 1970, for example, a central black form in the shape of a flower is pollinated with lots of yellow dollar signs and a truck labeled with “Art” belches exhaust at the painting’s core. The bloom could hardly look more toxic and pernicious, hypnotic and nauseating. One sees that its petals appear as gashes and slits in the picture plane—a wound-like rupture in the middle of a greenish-yellow patch of painting that festers like a putrid lesion on the canvas’s otherwise tan skin. Heads of cackling dogs, crowing cocks, hissing snakes, and crazed people line up in silhouette around the perimeter of the painting’s undulating border to watch. And if all that sounds over the top, I dare you to take a good long look for yourself and try not to feel volatile. (I do not know what it means that this lesser-known artist and repudiator is mostly historicized in relation to his early patron, the collector Robert Scull.)
Between 1896 and 1905, photographer and suffragist Marie Høeg and Bolette Berg ran a fairly conservative photo studio in Horten, Norway, selling unremarkable landscapes and portraits—but their collection of self-portraits discovered in the 1980s records a private challenge to gender norms of the day. The first of two gallery rooms at ONE Archives spotlights five modest prints from Høeg’s glass negatives; the subject meets the camera’s gaze as she poses in long underwear, in a black frock, and wearing a long knife like a sword. On the back wall, in contrast with Høeg’s more assertive, even defiant posturing, a grainy slideshow ratchets through eighty black-and-white frames showing Swedish artist Klara Lidén slumping over the toilet in a bathroom stall. In Untitled (Handicapped), 2007, the artist occupies a public rest room designated not M or F but “handicapped,” pushing the context of a gay and lesbian archive toward the androgynous territory of identity in general, and forcing an ideological comparison between “non-normative” bodies.
Thrown onto one of three walls papered with flattened cardboard boxes in the second room is a more subdued and poetic if unsubtle manifesto: Lidén’s 2008 The Myth of Progress (Moonwalk). This piece reasserts the historical bent of the exhibition’s pairing. Cars and bikes fly through the frame, moving forward through a nocturnal urban landscape; but Lidén’s body slides backward, in profile, dressed in dark sweatshirt and jeans. This video is also a self-portrait—a pose conveying the desire to retract, rewind, slow down, and to counter restrictive, linear plots.
At least a century separates the self-imaging and self-identification of these two women—Lidén’s black artist outfit from Høeg’s black frock. From suffrage in the late nineteenth century to the gender binary in the early twenty-first, in some sense the parameters of feminism have less evolved than simply shifted. Instead, as with Handicapped, Lidén insists on the monotony of history; the floor of a public bathroom may not count as progress, but how much worse to forget how we got there.
Perhaps best known as a beacon of French New Wave cinema, Agnès Varda has since 2003 cultivated an engaging visual art practice as well, which has come to LACMA in the debut US museum presentation of her photography, collage, sculpture, and installation. The centerpiece of the exhibition, commissioned by the museum, is a large structure titled My Shack of Cinema, 1968–2013, whose walls and roof are made entirely of 35-mm filmstrips from Varda’s 1969 film LIONS LOVE (…AND LIES), which she admits was a total “flop” at the time of its original release.
As viewers enter the exhibition, the shack appears simply as a structure (with windows and film canister “seats”) whose walls gleam burnt orange and tan, and tint the gallery’s floor. But once inside the shack, visitors are able to inspect up-close individual frames depicting the sun-bleached streets and homes of 1960s Los Angeles and the film’s stars: Viva, Jerry Ragni, and Jim Rado. LIONS LOVE plays on a monitor adorned with a feather boa and American flag, and sprawled across a lengthy wall nearby is a colorful collage, which acts like an oversize scrapbook, juxtaposing Varda’s photos, memorabilia, and hand-scrawled commentary from the set of film.
More photography, which has remained the backbone of Varda’s multifarious practice, is also featured in the show, including a series of images taken during filming as well as intimate snapshots of Varda and her family on the beach and in their convertible. Throughout the exhibition, Varda’s presence can be felt, as the range of media, her jovial artist’s statement on a wall, and the layering of perspectives achieved within the film shack all combine to celebrate her singularly sensitive and peripatetic vision.