A Case for Art
Why Art Matters!
Torrance Art Museum
By Lorraine Heitzman
Through August 12th
Anybody reading this review won’t likely need to be convinced that art matters, but if they did entertain any doubts, the show at the Torrance Art Museum provides ample justification. Why Art Matters! is TAM’s response to the political sea change we underwent in January and makes the case for the continued funding of the National Endowment for the Arts. If there is a defensive aspect embedded in the title and underlying the show’s theme it is only because support for the arts is threatened. Implied is the belief that a society that fails to support its artists will suffer from the absence of a thriving creative community; from politics to aesthetics, the arts enrich us all.
To give breadth to the inquiry, nine respected Southern California curators were invited to select an artist they believed expresses some aspect of the value of art. Curator/Artist pairs are: Dan Cameron/Chaz Bojorquez, Emily Gonzalez-Jarrett/Glen Wilson, Kio Griffith/Kenyatta A C Hinkle, Nancy Meyer/Liat Yossifor, Kristina Newhouse/Linda Pollack, Max Presneill/Finishing School, Paul Schimmel/Henry Taylor, Tyler Stallings/Beatriz Cortez & Rafa Esparza and Catherine Taft/Arshia Haq.
Finishing School’s video, We Will Show You Fear in a Handful of Dust documents the installation of a full-size replica of a Predator drone. The sculpture was placed on campus at Occidental College in 2014 and was finished onsite by volunteers who applied mud to the drone’s surface. The artist collective intended to correlate the tactile experience of using mud to the mud used for housing in the areas where the US military actively deployed drones during the Obama administration. The consequences of using weaponized drones is emphasized through the simple application of mud and supported by concept drawings, a Google site image and scale model. Finishing School effectively transforms an issue that is abstract to many people into an understandable, tangible and visceral experience.
Beatriz Cortez & Rafa Esparza have also incorporated the technology of indigenous peoples. At TAM they installed Nomad 13, a contemporary module of adobe bricks, sacred plants of the Americas and chain link. Among the many associations the word “nomad” carries, the name conjures up scientific inquiry and space exploration. Into this mix, Cortez and Esparza have created a symbolic storehouse for heirloom plants such as amaranth and quinoa. Guarding and protecting these life-sustaining plants is a statue of a pit bull. Could our survival depend upon saving and honoring past technologies and plant forms? Nomad 13 suggests the future may rest upon the past.
Kenyatta A C Hinkle offers three lyrical but disturbing India ink drawings of women floating on fields of white Duralar. These three are from her “Evanesced” series that depict black women who have been murdered, gone missing, or otherwise disappeared through the African Diaspora. The naked women, both standing and kneeling, are not specific portraits because these represent unknown women. They are an accounting of the lost, and as such they embody great pain along with their beautiful forms. A counter point to this inventory of female flesh and another re-creation is a video by Arshia Haq impersonating Marilyn Monroe singing, “Happy Birthday” to President Kennedy. Haq, the founder of Discostan, has a background in mixing up pop music, whether it is from Southeast Asia or North Africa. Here she inverts an American myth and icon in one stroke.
The godfather of cholo writing, Chaz Bojorquez, incorporates his calligraphic style of graffiti in several dynamic paintings. Born in Los Angeles, Bojorquez attended Chouinard Art Institute where he studied Asian calligraphy. He brings his street sensibility to his work along with a refined application of letterforms, merging different cultures in the process. Up close, the forms in his larger paintings are somewhat lost in the glitzy, dense surfaces, but from afar they cohere and show their undeniable graphic strength. Across the gallery, Liat Yossifour’s two oil paintings work in a completely reverse manner. They are all about their luscious surfaces and demand a close inspection, falling apart somewhat from a distance. Originally from Israel, Yossifour has lived in Los Angeles since her teens and was inspired by her mother, an artist who worked with clay. That makes sense, as her paint-laden surfaces look like the freshly applied material incised with lines. Experiencing her work is an immersive experience; her skillful manipulation of paint keeps her process visible and energetic.
In the interactive mixed media installation, I Stand For… Linda Pollack asks museumgoers to complete her sentence and write their thoughts onto manila folders. The declarations are then affixed to a clothesline adjacent to an American flag and participants are encouraged to post to social media. The crowdsourcing engages the public but does not offer much complexity or visual interest. I Stand For… might benefit from more input from the artist to balance the public’s contributions, and in doing so, transform the raw material of the affirmations to greater effect.
Henry Taylor’s paintings bring a much-needed jolt of vitality to the gallery. His large canvas, “Stand Tall-Y’all” dominates in size, color and punch, loosely portraying an African American figure in overalls, his somber posture framed by a large open white palm. The size of this informal portrait dignifies the subject as much as any John Singer Sargent socialite but there is irony in Taylor’s use of scale. This is not a society portrait in any sense of the word. Taylor is an artist who addresses cultural and racial themes through his depiction of African Americans in minimal environments. Taylor’s pared-down portraits are deceptively simple and make the commonplace heroic. In their own way the paintings are radical, altering our perceptions of others and ourselves.
In an interesting juxtaposition to Taylor’s work, Glen Wilson intertwines photographic images of Angelinos within the grid of chain link gates that are tethered onto a central pole. The installation suggests the imprisonment of his characters in their neighborhood and status quo. Rather than aspiring to Taylor’s more universal approach, Wilson grounds his work in a specificity of place with social and political implications. The portraits challenge our assumptions about race and community and expose the barriers their subjects face as we view the men and women through the loveless, dehumanizing grid of chain link fencing. In the end, Wilson’s portraits tell us more about life in Southern California than about the individuals he only partially reveals.
Why Art Matters! makes the thoughtful case for the value of art and yet the overall impact of this show is less compelling than it should be given the talent of these artists. The exhibit lacks a visual cohesion that is distracting from the urgency of its mission, perhaps an inherent problem with a show that focuses on a didactic question. To persuade anyone about the importance of art, the museum might have staged a more dynamic installation. The range of work and the questions raised are thought provoking though and the conceit is admirable. By all means see this show and consider what is at stake for artists, museums and the public when the creative class loses the support and respect from our government. Thank you, TAM, for taking a stand.