Can We Live? at Monte Vista Projects

Rakeem (1)
Can We Live?, Monte Vista Projects; Photo credit Rakeem Cunningham

Group Exhibition Takes Multi-Dimensional Look at People of Color

Monte Vista Projects, Los Angeles
through August 25

Written by Genie Davis
Can We Live? at Monte Vista Projects through August 25th, is a visual and emotional grabber, featuring the work of Andre Terrel Jackson, Kimberly Morris, and Clifford Prince King. Working in a variety of mediums, these are exciting and intimate pieces. As the curatorial notes suggest, the artists invite viewers to examine both the “adversity and majesty in the everyday experience of Black America.”

Curator Rakeem Cunningham says the show was inspired by experience, articles and online quotes, as well as the idea that contemporary black art is not defined by any single thing, but simply represents work currently being made. He adds “I read an article earlier this year by writer Tiana Clark for Buzzfeed that was called “Black Burnout”. She talks about the pressures of black people having to work harder than our peers while at the same time having to prove our humanity to our peers.”

According to Cunningham, “In the context of the art world, I often find that black artists have these boxes put around us. In order for our work to be taken seriously in the ‘mainstream,’ mostly white owned institutions, it feels like the work has to address a certain subject matter, or pre-conceived notions of what our work is about are thrown upon us.”

Talking with the exhibiting artists, Cunningham says the group critiqued their personal experiences, including how it felt to be the only black person in art classes; the expectations to over-excel, and what it is like to “be a black artist that didn’t follow the traditional route of going to art school, and how belittling and alienating that can feel.”

In addition, their art dialog included the experience of being a “darker-skinned, queer artist making work about trying to love yourself, when the art world tells you identity politics in work is tired and played out.”

There is definitely nothing tired about this exhibition, which pops with vibrant pinks, rich blacks, galvanizing textural sculpture, and photographs that have an ethereal, timeless quality.

Cunningham explains that the artists also discussed family history, the process of making minimalist sculpture using synthetic hair, and the complexity of human desire for affection and sex. He says he wanted to allow black artists to “show work about their humanity, desires, wants, dreams, and relationships. I think black people exist outside of their relationship to law enforcement and oppression, and it’s okay to allow all of that to exist in one, complex black human being. Hence the title: Can We LIVE?

Cunningham chose his three artists through research. “I have Indesign files where I keep all of my curatorial ideas and mood boards, and I just sat and wrote down artists I wanted and put examples of their work on the same document. I try to go to at least a show once every two weeks to see who is showing what. But when it came down to the final selection, I selected artists that I felt made work that had narrative weight.”
He notes that he’s a strong believer in “the personal having the potential the be universal.” He wanted to curate something that “didn’t feel inaccessible to my mother, sister, or aunts.”

Rakeem (3)
Kimberly Morris, Can We Live?, Monte Vista Projects; Photo credit Rakeem Cunningham

The work of artists Jackson, King, and Morris certainly supports that, with the works spaciously well-curated within the gallery to interact with each other through their materials, palettes, and above all, subjects. The works each individually and interactively accomplish precisely what the exhibition intends: a reveal of each artist’s experiences approached “so personally that viewers can feel something by looking at the work,” Cunningham relates. He says he wanted the artists to show others that one does not have to weaken or water down their experiences, but rather, to make visceral, passionate, and high-quality work. “I think it’s about how you interpret your ideas that make them strong,” he says.

Jackson calls his mixed-media work similar to making hip-hop “I sample my life, family, and friends; I remix visual references…” His highly textural use of diverse materials from silicone, yarn, acrylic paint, to glitter and hair, creates work that dances with joy and tension.
Morris often creates bringing elements of herself into her work, even using her own hair. She notes “Pressures of fitting into what the majority culture defines as normal: neater hair and constrictive body typecasting, dictate my daily routine.” She remarks that “Hair for many black women is a racial identifier; it often speaks for us before we have an opportunity to speak for ourselves.” She has been working with hair, both real and synthetic, as a primary medium for the past four years. Here, a dangling braid with a doll’s head at its tip is positioned against hot pink, plunging the viewer into a relationship with the subject, and a compulsion to truly look at it.
King’s photography seems to float outside time, quiet yet intensely present and immediate, graceful, powerful, and intimate. His purpose is to challenge conventional notions of the everyday experience as a queer black person.

Although Cunningham calls the three artists’ work the opposite of his own, with all three being firmly grounded in depictions of the real world, while his own art revolves around turning reality into fantasy. “It’s okay and great that there are so many ideas of what blackness is, because it is all of those things and more,” he asserts.

He encourages viewers to see the show, and consider their relationship to the art they view, purchase, own, or admire. “Art is powerful and can entertain, educate, confuse, encourage, or discourage whoever engages with it, and we should treat every opportunity with the utmost care.” He adds “To the black readers and artists…keep making the work you want to make and don’t let anyone pressure you into feeling like your experience is just a check-box on a list to make institutions look better. Take up as much space as you want and deserve — and thrive.

Monte Vista Projects
Bendix Building, 1206 Maple Avenue, 5th floor, #523, Los Angeles, 90015

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