COLA 20 at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery
By H.C. Arnold
Through July 2nd
Putting on a retrospective for 271 artists would be a daunting task for even the most seasoned curator. Managing the logistics of the installation while juggling the particulars of each work would be impossible. With COLA 20, on view from April 23rd through July 2nd at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery at Barnsdall Park, the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs sidesteps many of these potential pitfalls. Relying largely on documentation, the exhibition differs from its previous manifestations by cataloguing the first 20 years of the City of Los Angeles Individual Artists Fellowship Program. Founded by the Department of Cultural Affairs, the program provides numerous artists the ways to pursue their visions with a generous grant and accompanying exhibition. Normally, these shows present around ten to twelve artists annually. For COLA 20, the DCA wanted to take a trip down memory lane while honoring several past fellows who have passed away.
The exhibition is organized by year with different areas of the gallery dedicated to each. These mini-retrospectives contain a collection of photographs of that years fellows’ artwork, the poster from the COLA show, and other information. Unfortunately, this leaves much to be desired. Instead of retaining the power and inspiration I’m sure the original works and exhibition possessed, the artwork is reduced to displays akin to what you would see at an information kiosk. This is the risk COLA 20 takes by trying to make sure each year and each artist has a place in it. Unfortunately, sometimes less is more.
Fortunately, there are several artists whose work is present. These are Michael Brewster, Wanda Coleman, James Doolin, Ron George, Tony Gleaton, Arthur Jarvinen, Larry Karush, Willie Robert Middlebrook Jr., Rachel Rosenthal, Michael White, and Norman Yonemoto. One thing immediately apparent about this collection of artists is their range of practices including panting, photography, film, music, poetry, and sonic art. Such a group of disparate approaches echoes the diversity of the city these artists called home.
James Doolin’s paintings turn sweeping views of California into pastoral landscapes with an illustrative flair. Exploring the familiar turns of the highways or the nearby desert’s valleys and cliffs, Doolin reminds us of how nature and the human-made collide through heightened colors and dynamic compositions. Things like storm clouds and trains take on distinct personalities as humanity radically transforms the landscape. However, not all of Doolin’s paintings are as literal. Also included in the exhibition is #14 from his Arch series. Far more abstract than the landscapes, #14 is a meditation on the light and colors of Los Angles. The minimal composition follows the contours of its shaped canvas, and the vibrant hues blend into each other like the endless traffic lights, track homes, and strip malls we encounter routinely. With #14 Doolin, takes the rigidity of Minimalism and subverts its perceived coldness with the warmth of Southern California.
Several artists turn their attention to the social and political realities of the black communities living here. Wanda Coleman was an unapologetic poet who focused her attention on being black and living below the poverty line in Los Angeles. The unfortunate truths of anger and violence populate her words. In a display case are a collection of her writings, and several poems that are heavily edited. Unlike the other artist represented here, with Coleman, we see her working process as she crosses out words and makes notes in the margins. If poetry is best delivered spoken, these edited texts visualize the vitality of her now silenced voice.
Willie Robert Middlebrook turned the lens of his camera on his family in an attempt to alter public perception of the local black community. Instead of taking a photojournalistic approach in his work, Middlebrook exploited darkroom techniques to produce painterly images often of his own face. The result is a series of faces that are at once peering at you from behind the surface while simultaneously being wiped away from it. Feeling less like photographs and more like advertisements being deteriorated by the city, these images are portraits of a steadfast resilience against the various assaults and oppressions Los Angeles harbors under its shinny veneer.
Instead of focusing on the socio-political or environmental realities of life, Michael Brewster calls attention to the personal. Whistlers 2 is a series of 4 speakers that when activated produce random whistling sounds. Standing alone in the middle of piece, you are made to constantly turn your head in an attempt to catch the origin of the sound only to be confused even more as another whistle suddenly chirps over your shoulder. This game of sonic guess-who relies on the immateriality of sound and the materiality of your body. In the room where the piece is installed, you become aware yourself within the small space due to the ephemeral whistles jumping around you. Brewster’s work tends to the spaces where you and the world meet and serve as reminders of how fleeting this world can be.
For all of the featured artists in COLA 20 who have passed away, the show serves as a posthumous exhibition that pays tribute to their individual legacy while reminding us the larger artist community they are part of. Large and diverse, this community is as rich as Los Angeles, and thankfully with the fellowship program, it will remain so.