The Distance Between the Grooves in My Fingerprint: Personal Marks from Christy Roberts Berkowitz
American Jewish University Gallery, Los Angeles
through July 1
Written by Genie Davis
At the American Jewish University Gallery through July 1st, Los Angeles artist Christy Roberts Berkowitz exhibits an astonishingly wide-ranging solo exhibition of video, installation, mixed-media and text. The show offers a look at the “diverging and overlapping” of truth, fiction, and narratives based upon Berkowitz’s combined ancestry of Mayflower-era colonial heritage and Russian-Jewish refugee.
Roberts Berkowitz describes her interdisciplinary art as a practice that composes experiences, images, and objects; attempting to reconcile the merging of resistance and escapism, expectation and failure, and subject and object, along with the intersection of community and individualism. At the same time, she stays engaged in her work with what she terms “the historical trajectory of western design – from William Morris to Bauhaus.” The viewer will find an immersive exhibition that includes everything from photographs, to gut-punching videos, and a numberless clock.
According to the artist, she is “personally interested in the spaces we wear thin with the friction of our interior and exterior lives. For example, I’m interested in witchcraft as a site for intersectional feminist spirituality, and I’m interested in queer family building as praxis against patriarchy and white supremacy. I believe that art can get you free within a system, but not necessarily from a system. Getting free within a system, however, is the first step towards dismantling oppressive systems, and I am ultimately interested in liberation.”
Roberts Berkowitz is, in other words, an art revolutionary. It fits that she says she’s most inspired by “the breaking and expanding of paradigms.”
Her new body of work is her most personal to date, in a practice that spans over ten years of making videos, photographs, objects, and drawings as well as emphasizing the practice of performance art. Curator Rotem Rozental has allowed the artist here to determine the best approach to her ideas for the exhibition in terms of mediums.
The mediums she chooses include the richly painted emerald green walls of the gallery and the green and white wall paper of a small-room-size installation. The color and the mood it sets is elegant with history and heritage, fecund with the expansion of our/the artist’s knowledge of it. The color of the physical gallery for this exhibition also feels ironic, a poke at our over-reverence of pedigree and family trees, and the idea of the leafy-green family tree itself. It is also both a feminist and humanistic statement: this shade of emerald was discovered in 1814, became popular among the higher social classes of women, and made them sick from an ingredient in it: arsenic. Embracing their perceived status was deadly, or at least filled with threat.
In Roberts Berkowitz’ installation piece, on a dinner table, family heirlooms are created through refabrication, repainting, and reimagining them; the pattern of the white and green wall paper offers an ominous if inchoate recollection of the threat of violence. At home, outside the home, in how we act, are told to act, believe we must act, from who we are – these threats are everywhere. And they are very likely rooted in our history as Americans, as in the history of our families and selves.
In the exhibition, Roberts Berkowitz outlines her family’s dual and vastly different pasts, acknowledging on a broader scale the displacement of Native-Americans, and the need of asylum-seeking refugees.
Although in early June she performed along with non-binary artist Badly Licked Bear, her work at AJU is less about physical enactment than past exhibitions.
“I feel that this work is presenting an archive as a body. In other words, it’s like I ripped all of this out of my body and put it on the wall. Some of the works even have wounds,” she says.
Using both her family archive and her own role in it for research, Roberts Berkowitz wanted to use this exhibition to discuss white supremacy and investigate her own inherited and lived role in it.
According to Roberts Berkowitz, “My identity is the most appropriate site, I believe, for me to do that, and my heritage is a large part of my identity.”
Calling her heritage specific and relatable, she notes that it is also a site ripe for discussing the nature of the United States itself. This is a discussion made even more pertinent by our present socio-political climate, and our cultural reluctance to identify our nation as entirely based on immigration.
“On one hand, I am a direct descendant of actual Mayflower pilgrims,” she attests. “I am a product of settler colonial violence. There is a clock in the exhibition and two of the weights of the clock are replicas of candlesticks that Edward Winslow, my ancestor, brought on the Mayflower. The other two weights of the clock are (in form) replicas of the kind of bomb used by the Narodnaya Volya to assassinate Czar Alexander II of Russia in 1881. The assassination was, in part, blamed on the Jews, and the Pogroms followed shortly.”
Roberts Berkowitz’ Jewish ancestors immigrated to the U.S. in 1890, as refugees from Odessa, fleeing the Pogroms after waiting in Whitechapel, London – a historic Jewish community at the time – to be granted asylum.
“The clock has wounds and the hands of the clock are tangled, preventing it from moving time forward. In the Borstein Gallery hallway, my mother’s family and my father’s family face each other. The image of my great uncle in work clothes next to a large, cut down palm tree in Los Angeles, sits in contrast to the large photograph of my great great grandparents’ manor house in the South. They are very different families, living in very different parts of the country, living extremely different lives, and yet they both exist in me.”
The beautifully intimate works – and the artist’s description of them – is immediately, viscerally involving. This makes it easy for viewers to engage with a dialog about both Roberts Berkowitz’ ancestors and that of the nation as a whole – and our personal family trees.
Much of the work in the exhibition focuses on the artist’s mother, the first female police officer hired by the Ontario police department. Roberts Berkowitz explains that she was “tokenized by the department and used to recruit other minorities.”
However, her mother was the first woman to whom other women could report sexual assault at the police department, and a feminist pioneer in helping to deconstruct stories about the physical and mental abilities of women.
Still, Roberts Berkowitz says “we live in a police state and rape culture…she was a police officer, and personally, as an abolitionist who believes that police do not keep vulnerable communities safe…I am fundamentally opposed to the police and other forms of state violence.”
In a video work, Roberts Berkowitz and her mother, both clad in green robes, painting together, discuss her mother’s work and family history. Through conversation they paint a story of their family, themselves, and their community.
Roberts Berkowitz’ work here and throughout the exhibition offers ways to separate, assimilate, and discuss what she views as “the trauma of generational violence.” She adds that “The work proposes a number of ways to talk about that violence, from propositional weapons and self-reliance to queer family building.”
As a conceptual artist, Roberts Berkowitz does not have a primary medium, and asserts that her mediums are secondary to whatever idea she is exploring and investigating. “I do, however, love process and I love drawing, I love making video and film, I love making sculpture, I love photography, and after a long semi-abusive relationship with it, I even love…. painting.”
Above all else, this exhibition demonstrates that she loves making provocative, relatable work that compels viewers to take a deep look at their pasts, and that of this country.
American Jewish University Gallery
15600 Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles, 90077