Pam Douglas’ Sanctuary Reaches an Epic Conclusion with Sanctuary 3
TAG Gallery, Los Angeles
January 20–February 13, 2021
Written by Genie Davis
Like reading a great, grand novel, after reading tantalizing excerpts, artist Pam Douglas’ Sanctuary presents the complete collection of works of her series, including works from Sanctuary 1 and Sanctuary 2 as well as the new body of images in Sanctuary 3, bringing her three-year-plus project to an epic conclusion.
The exhibition’s subject is global migration; its approach is immersive, as Douglas leads the viewer through a long and riveting journey to the relative safety of a migrant camp in which the presence of a one-tent schoolhouse and Doctors Without Borders medical tent promises hope. Taking up all of the gallery’s 6000-square-feet, the complete exhibition includes more than 50 individual installations interconnected both in theme and journey.
This is a passion project for the artist, and it is a fierce, galvanizing, heartbreaking one. In the end, it also provides a message of a better future, but such a painful path it is that leads both artist and viewer to that still tenuous point.
Having viewed the first two series, seeing these in a restructured combination with Sanctuary 3 is an awe-inspiring experience. In all three sections of this consuming installation, Douglas uses a limited chromatic palette that features of charcoal, chalk, twine, wood, and burlap, but there are differences in each series both in terms of central subjects and material. The burlap comes from used coffee bags. The limited palette allows viewers to focus on the pain, pride, struggle, sadness, and resilience of those crossing the border. It evokes that of sun-browned newspaper images. Colorful elements are only significantly prevalent in the latest section of the series.
The cumulative effect of each series within the complete body of Sanctuary is one of awakening to the very human suffering, journey, and spirit of those migrating toward a better life. Douglas has referred to this masterwork as a “social justice communication,” and indeed her immersive installation offers an experience that impacts and impresses, combining the pure art of her installation with a powerful message of need and equality.
The combined exhibition begins with raft images from Sanctuary 2. These dimensional wall hangings lead into freestanding works. On the gallery floor, white footprints guide the viewer on a path through the exhibition and the journeys it depicts. Some footprints are children’s, others are adults. Opposite the entrance wall are three dimensional rafts viewed initially as a part of Sanctuary 2 last year. In this series, migrating families at risk by sea. dimensional rafts drift from a dark mural. Twine and wood, burlap covered foam rollers, rusty wires all bring this section a tactile depth. The turbulent but abstract mural sways with both sea and sky. Poised on their individual rafts, figures reveal both the finely crafted drawn images Douglas shapes and sculptural elements. Sculptural clay hands seamlessly meet drawn faces. Canvas bends beneath a young girl’s drawn-body as if she were kneeling on the raft logs.
Viewers follow the floor footprints to wall works, originally seen in Sanctuary 1, of walking migration. In this work, Douglas focused on migrant children taken from their parents, caged at the U.S Mexican border. Using life-size mixed media drawings, she creates rich and full realized drawn-faces that engage viewers with the poignancy, horror, and necessity which are all a part of seeking a border refuge severely lacking. We see children caged behind ropes, and struggling, walking figures in settings that evoke the desolation of the desert terrain in which they crossed.
Running floor to ceiling, these images, many of parents and children together, are spaced out along the gallery wall. Many carry seemingly enormously heavy possessions wrapped in burlap, unwieldly packages bearing their only belongings. A chain link fence stands as a barrier to their crossing. Along its base are shoes that resonate with the history of humans fleeing danger abandoning their shoes in haste or death.
Two children in a deeply moving piece titled “Greeting” serve as the introduction to the entirely new works in Sanctuary 3 toward the back of the gallery. Despite their concerned, even sorrowful, expressions, one of the girls holds a sign aloft that features a happy face. A repurposed abstract work by Douglas is their backdrop.
As a whole, this series contains more hopeful elements than the other two sections. Here, families are sheltered in tents, warming their hands by a glowing fire that breaks the sepia-toned palette with orange and gold; school children pour over a full-color map; a child in a pink hoodie watches her worried, sorrowful mother who is draped in yellow. Rather than fleeing on a perilous journey, robbed of family and possessions, these people have arrived. They have arrived in a limbo, but there is the hope here, however fragile, hope in the school space, the medical vials and needed care offered in the blue tent of Doctors Without Borders, and the normalcy of laundry on lines. A realistic mural landscape gives us treacherous brown mountains and inky sky, giving way to a rosier sky and full blue brightness behind the dimensional installations.
Viewers follow more white footprints leading to the moving “Mama Holds Up the World,” which gives us a mother literally holding a shanty roof pole steady while her child looks up at her with trust and longing. Behind this installation a her mural’s dark sky sweeps toward blue.
Another floor sculpture reveals small electric candle flames glowing before painted, full-color warming fires that hands reach to warm. The fires are contained beneath the slope of a small shanty roof, created from another repurposed abstract painting.
Next to that structure, is the child and her mother, clad in pink and yellow clothing, sheltered in a tent constructed from another of Douglas’ abstract canvases. Next to these figures, a barefoot man waits in his own tent; and taking up a large corner space are the drawn figures of children gathered in a dimensional classroom of sorts. Nearby, a chicken and empty water bottles share a patch of dirt. Notably the figure of the school room teacher wears colored clothing, a hopeful purple shade.
Across from this work a laundry tent features clothing hung on a net line; two small girls wash over a “pool” of repurposed abstract work. To the side of it, a 6-foot monochrome charcoal wall work gives a wide scale view of a massive, expansive tent village; the fully realized drawing includes laundry, food, people; it is fully populated by life itself, and gives a literal and figurative window into the vastness of this tent village.
The Doctors Without Borders Tent fills a large space, leading to it is a line of people waiting to see doctors; a man lies in bed inside the tent receiving what appears to be urgently needed care.
Dimensional wall works, originally a part of the first Sanctuary series, feature walking refugees that now appear to be heading toward medical care. In one image, man carries his child wrapped in burlap. Another two drawn figures are carrying a dimensional hammock-like stretcher toward the medical tent.
The final element of the exhibition is the donation table for Doctors Without Borders. Douglas is devoted to the organization, and viewers should be moved to contribute by its purpose, too.
While the show at TAG closed in mid-February, it is viewable online in two formats: an edited, graceful video from LA Art Documents; and a walk-through of the complete exhibition and art talk.
This important installation should be traveling soon to other locations, bringing Douglas’ innately powerful tribute to the human spirit and vital recognition of human struggle to an even wider audience. Wherever and however you view it, “important” does not overstate.
5458 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles, 90036