Wonzimer Gallery, Los Angeles
July 11 – August 7
Written by Gary Brewer
In early May 2020, Alaïa Parhizi and Aidan Nelson, the owners of Wonzimer Gallery had shows lined up through the winter. They had just opened their new space in January. They were preparing press releases and figuring out the logistics for an exhibition opening on July 10.
On May 25, George Floyd was killed by the police and on the 26th, the beginning of an uprising against police brutality and systemic racism filled the streets of America and the world. The protests that followed led to properties being ransacked and looted as aggressive police responses to the protests exacerbated a tinderbox of rage and frustration. During the early morning hours of May 30, a group of opportunists split off from the peaceful protests that filled downtown Los Angeles and taking advantage of the situation, looted buildings along Olive St. near Justin Herman Plaza. Wonzimer Gallery was looted- the doors kicked in, eight paintings from a solo exhibition were stolen and several others damaged, as well as personal belongings, computers and other valuables taken.
I spoke with both of them during the following days offering my support and advice. They were deeply shaken, but determined to rebuild and regroup and decided to change their exhibition schedule and host a show titled Blackness that would offer an opportunity for a group of young black artists to celebrate the creativity and beauty of blackness. They asked two artists, Cheyann Washington- who is in the exhibition, and Tea Vickers, to curate the show: giving the artists the freedom to do what they felt best to express their ideas, ethos and emotions. One hundred percent of the sales go to the artists: Wonzimer expressly wanted the exhibition to be about supporting young artists of color, and their pursuit of creative freedom.
Walking into the gallery one immediately senses a fresh vital energy. The room is filled with paintings, photographs, installation, sculptures and film. The work ranges from funky, expressive sculptures to deeply resolved classical photographs. The variety of the work and the young age of the artists in the exhibition fill the space with an atmosphere pregnant with potential. These are artists early in their careers, freely exploring and assimilating knowledge and experience. The curators wanted the show to explore and celebrate the vision of black artists and the exhibition beautifully expresses that ambition, with works that reflect a multiplicity of visions and ideas.
When one first enters the gallery, a room within a room has been created, by the artist and co-curator Cheyann Washington. The installation is created using silk paintings of varying sizes hung with a loose casual touch. Images are pinned to the wall and are also hung on strings, like delicate clothing lines, creating a magical space that one can walk within and be surrounded by ethereal paintings. The images are achieved with a loose fluid hand; they have a charm and ease that is both elevating and magical. Human forms meld into organic and plant-like forms. There is a naïve quality to them, but they are painted with a sure understanding of design, color and composition and done in a swift technique. Painting on silk and other fabrics does not leave much room for error; when a mark is made it stays. There is a fresh immediacy to her technique, blended with beautiful colors and a style that is joyous.
The artist said of her work, “The silk pieces are still experiments… though I have found my own style, it is established: the figure, nature and movement. I am always finding ways to express the emotions that I am having- and through what’s happening right now- my silk pieces bring a lot of joy and happiness and overall, more positivity than the current state of the world. But they can also be a representation to what may come, or of what we all hold, as artists, and as human beings, to keep that joy and bring these kinds of positive images of what could be in the world.”
As we spoke she mentioned that part of her intention, as a co-curator, was to highlight an important issue. “Part of what this show is about, is really highlighting the conversation of why are these kinds of shows even necessary? Why is this happening now? Why hasn’t this happened before? Like, what’s been happening in the art world that has not been including black and brown people until very recently?”
As one passes the diaphanous silk paintings of Washington, a suite of dramatic black and white photographs by the artist Mariah McKenzie are displayed on the wall. Each photograph is a closely cropped image of a black woman. Her dark skin, that is oiled to capture every detail of her flesh, is dramatically contrasted against a white background. These are portraits that the artist has taken of herself. Her body becomes a reflection, a metaphor of self-acceptance and of loving oneself; to look closely and to embrace everything one sees.
These photographs have a formal power that is striking. The abstract qualities of positive and negative-space give the images an immediacy that is arresting. These photographs could easily slip into being erotic, but the classical power gives them a sculptural presence and a quality of balance and harmony; the body is more of a deity than a sexualized image.
She said that her career as a model, where people are always creating images of her, was the inspiration to make her own photographs and create an image that reflected her beliefs. Power, beauty, dignity, and spiritual strength are conveyed in these striking self-portraits. The artist said of her work, “I am only 27 years old, but in my experience I have never seen any images of black bodies that I connected to, or that I aspired to be like or gave me that kind of feeling like, ‘Wow this is me; this is a representation of me; I want to be that’. For me right now with all of this going on, and that, to this day, unfortunately black bodies are still being misinterpreted, and to some extent, not valuable. I want people to look at my images and say, ‘Wow, there is so much beauty in blackness, just in the beauty of the skin and the tones of the body.’ I think that we have been through so much and that we have endured so much, that it is important to see that we are resilient and strong and extremely powerful, and that just our forms alone are incomparable, undeniable and beautiful. My biggest hope is that a black man or a black woman can look in the mirror and love themselves and their bodies, despite what is going on around them.”
Tomisin Adepeju is a young Nigerian filmmaker living in London. He has made a profoundly moving short film, Appreciation, which deals with the inconsolable human experience of loss, suffering and faith. It is shot with a majesty, pageantry, and beauty that are deeply stirring. The cadence of the film, the slow movement from one scene to the next, with each passage captured with compelling attention to detail; every shot is a composition of beauty and grace. The lead actress, Tomi Ogunjobi, has a dignity and beauty in her presence that gives the film’s subject a deep gravitas. The poignancy and pathos transcend race, religion or class and penetrates into the heart of a soul, irredeemably shattered, finding the spiritual strength to dance to the universal music of the spirit.
He said of this film, “I realized that most films really don’t show blackness in a very beautiful way. With my film I felt that it absolutely had to be beautiful; where each frame says something- each frame has a purpose. Grief and death are themes that if you are black or white it doesn’t matter ultimately, because we have all lost someone in our lives. It is a powerful theme and I wanted to make a film that transcends race. As a Christian, the film is also in the context of faith. How do you love a God who takes away someone you love? How do you serve a God that takes everything? I came here from Nigeria when I was twelve years old and being in England, which is intrinsically white, was really hard on me- hard for me to find peace. I found film when I was 14 years old and that was a really powerful thing; that and faith saved me. Film has this power to transform lives and it has transformed my life. We are very divided right now as a people, as a nation and as a world, and great film is a way to bring people together. In this film I hope one experiences that we are all the same, that we are all similar, because death and love binds us all together.”
In the far corner of the gallery is an eccentric installation, by the artist Uzumaki Cepeda, comprised of paintings and sculptural/furniture pieces. Colorful, playful and wacky, there is a casual hedonism that brings a smile to one’s face. The furniture/sculpture are upholstered in fake furs in various artificial colors that give the collection the feel that an interior decorator- possibly working for a creature from the film Monsters Inc- has created as a living room ensemble.
After speaking with the artist, I learned that these creations are ‘safe’ spaces, to deconstruct the systems of power that impose the so-called norms of society on people. It gave me a fresh perspective on the art – to see the work as a means to reshape society. They are playful and poignant, eccentric vehicles creating a universe that is transformative and unfixed. The soft fur covering the objects becomes a metaphor for softening the boundaries and edges that define our world. The eccentric and delightful color universe creates an aura that welcomes those whom a straight world with rigid definitions often excludes.
Uzumaki said of the work, “What I am really doing is creating a safe space for black and brown people, LGBT communities and misfits in general. I am not trying to exclude anybody else from my work. I am just trying to put black and brown people in the forefront of my work because I think it matters. I love painting and making paintings out of bits and pieces of color- to make a painting that is nothing, but is something. It’s like it’s breaking out of the ordinary, and creating this abstract space where these rules do not exist. Here there are no boundaries!” To make work that is ‘nothing, but is something’ is not an easy task; it is mystical act to create a transformative space that opens up the world to new possibilities.
The artist Rain Diabolik Spann is working in mixed media to create a complex fusion of abstraction and figuration. In a piece such as “Geometric-Organicist I”, a human head is articulated in bold lines and rich hues. There is a flower form that the head is superimposed upon. Gestural and expressive, the image has a graphic power that holds all of the energy into a singular gestalt. The artist spoke about his interest in seeing the geometric structures that underlie organic forms, and to create an art that conveys both of these realities simultaneously.
The artist said of his work, “ When I look at a person, or a person’s face, or a flower or a house, I see more than just the basic framework. I see it in its entirety, the organic aspects as well as the geometric aspects. I am looking at the life that it holds and looking for the universal structure. I call my style ‘Geometric-Organcism’. I have had a lot of self-conflict when it came to the portrayal of actual color and race, like facial features of black faces or white faces. There is no real definitive race in my work. It has been a conflict to me in my work whether or not I should put a black figure in my paintings to represent my people. I don’t want to force it. I want it be natural and organic to my process.” The artist mentioned that in response to the spike in energy and attention to racism- that this moment is influencing his work. He has begun a new painting that depicts a conflict between a police officer and a black figure. He said, “I am taking my time on it, because it has to be true and it has to come about in an organic way.”
Olinga Dwyer Bolden is the youngest artist in the show. He has a great command of both his materials and intentions. In one painting, “The Cowboy”, a portrait of a black cowboy holding a cloth between his hands with a horseshoe suspended on it- is depicted in earthy colors. It is painted with a loose almost casual hand. The background has a subtle application of thin veils of paint allowing both canvas and faint pencil lines to show- vaguely filling the field to create an ambiguous space. The figure is painted in a sure hand but it has a vulnerability to it; the cowboy’s self image is asserted, but an aura of uncertainty surrounds the figure; the precarity of life is expressed in this poetic visage.
The artist said of this piece, “ I have always been interested in the mythology of the West; the black cowboys who came West as settlers definitely play into this image. But even more so, in a contemporary context, is the Compton Cowboys. There is a photojournalist who followed them and took these beautiful pictures as they rode in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter protests. They were there with their horses and gear and it was just totally striking. There is also the untold history and stories of black people coming to the West and trying to make it work for them; pretty much a new start on a new frontier. The paintings in this show are very fresh, painted during the first few days of the protests. I think, in large part it is intimidating to want to approach these titanic social/cultural issues that we are living through, you know, and you want to do something that is tactful and adds something to the conversation, where you can share your perspective with other people. In some aspects the paintings are personal responses to what’s going on, both the disgust and the wanting things to change for tomorrow.”
In the center of the gallery is a collection of sculptural objects by Retro 1999. There is a funky street/found object quality to these sculptures. They feel like an experience one might have walking in the alleys of DTLA- when one comes upon some discarded group of objects, that take on an aura of urban collapse and decay. The sculptures are charged with a kind of sardonic wit, irony rage and the possibility of metamorphosis. Happy Boy is an armless torso and head, painted in a dirty orange, with an exaggerated devilish grin across his face. On his head is a blue butterfly and there is a banana painted on his ribs. The banana is humorous, but as the artist later told me, is also a critical comment on art world folly: what a joke it is that a banana taped to a wall with duct tape can pass for art.
The artist said of this work, ”My work is subconscious, I do not put any thought into the next thing I do. I am finding out what it means, now, after I make it. I am really into finding things- downtown is like a magnet for magic things. I was filming a lot of these protests, and this work is how I felt. Happy Boy has to do with everything that is going on. I made him with this big grimace, like he is a happy boy while all of these things are going down. I had to make the work in 8 days, and it was a good thing because I had a lot of inspiration. I was so charged up, I just knew I had to put this down, my energy from what going on. This is a very primitive time. It is also a time of metamorphosis and we are all watching it, and we are smiling. To tell you the truth, I was really just trying to shine as a black artist in this moment.”
We are living through transformative times. Covid 19 and the uprisings and social unrest, are profoundly impacting our world. These historic convulsions that are reshaping our society are the dynamics of a metamorphosis. This is an important exhibition. Blackness is filled with the work of young, talented, emerging artists of color- expressing the power that each of them has to shine, and to convey their unique visions for a world in need of positive change.