John Outterbridge, The Rag Factory (detail), 2011, mixed media, dimensions variable. Installation view.


For “Pacific Standard Time,” the multisite initiative that runs from October 2011 to April 2012 and celebrates art made in Southern California between 1945 and 1980, the artist John Outterbridge has created a site-specific installation at LAXART made almost entirely out of rags collected from the streets of Los Angeles and from a downtown factory. Widely known as a teacher, mentor, and community organizer, and as the director of the Watts Towers Arts Center from 1975 to 1992, Outterbridge has made work for the past forty years that is widely associated with the California Assemblage movement. The show is on view from September 10 to October 22.

I SEE A RAG AS AN OBJECT OF MANY VIBRATIONS. You wear clothes, and after you’re tired of them, they’re just rags. But you can’t escape the importance of the rag, no matter where you go or what you do. We use them to wrap around our bodies, but we also hide in them. Because of the colors, because of their previous lives and their histories, rags are pretty much a statement about our social position in the world and the importance of the cast-off. I like using metal a great deal too, or really any material that has a voice. Rag is not as cold as metal, and you can fold it up and put it in your pocket, you can put it in a bundle, you can hang it from the ceiling, you can decorate with it, it becomes a pillow you can lay your head down on. And that’s why I chose not to use anything for this show but piles of rags.

I was born in 1933, a long time ago. When I was a kid growing up in North Carolina, I had a mother and a father who had a lot of faith in cast-offs, the beauty and the aesthetics of what is not of use anymore, and that has always excited me because I saw old fences, degraded buildings, and scrub rags not as foreign objects but as being of a piece in the language of life, each with a lot of kinship between them. When you grow up the way I did, the way most African Americans did, separation was the law, and there were certain things––many things––that you just couldn’t do. We don’t talk about race in the way that we should, because it’s not popular anymore. We think that everything has been done before––even though nothing has been done before.

You bring that in your studio with you, that anger, whatever knowledge you gain from it. You don’t just do art; art becomes your life. The creative expression, whatever you’re doing—the fact that you have to go on the sidewalk and protest, and sometimes you have to break a glass window—it becomes part of your creative gesture, and it becomes part of your art. There is a little time to separate the act of doing art and act of going into life. And sometimes you’re not capable or able to speak of it, simply because you choke up, when you have to get into the past.

I feel good about the use of rag as an expressive element, but I don’t see it as different from other aspects of my life, or the way I think about a general population, a world population. Rags have always been in and around the environments I’ve been a part of. With me, art has the audacity to be anything it needs to be at a given time. Anything. Because the creative process is the beginning of all things, no matter what we’re doing or where we are going. You just can’t get away from rag; even when you throw it away it comes back to you. It’s like water, nourishing to your character, to the character of the cast-off, and to the way we practice living.

— As told to Allese Thomson Baker