ENTERTAINMENT ARTS & CULTURE
Review

In L.A. galleries now: A celebration of black women, a cheeky take on living with disability

Mickalene Thomas’ installation “Do I Look Like a Lady?” at the Museum of Contemporary Art is an unabashed love letter to African American women.

A two-channel video projection plays in a dim space furnished in the style of a 1970s living room and lined with large, silk-screened portraits of prominent entertainment figures: Diahann Carroll, Diana Ross, Pam Grier, Naomi Sims. It is a celebration of black women asserting and defining themselves through media; it is also a powerful statement about the intersection of gender and race.

Mickalene Thomas, “Do I Look Like a Lady?” (Comedians and Singers),” video still, 2016.
Mickalene Thomas, “Do I Look Like a Lady?” (Comedians and Singers),” video still, 2016. (From Mickalene Thomas / Lehmann Maupin / Artists Rights Society)

The video is a pastiche of clips of women, mostly stand-up comics and singers, arrayed across the screens in an irregular, ever-shifting grid. The performers include Josephine Baker, Jackie “Moms” Mabley, Wanda Sykes. They sing or speak about the trials and ironies of being a black woman, forming a motley chorus of voices from a variety of time periods and perspectives. There is a long segment devoted to Whitney Houston singing “The Greatest Love of All,” which, with its message of self-love, could be an anthem for the installation, leavened with more biting lyrics from Nina Simone and Eartha Kitt.

The clips are interrupted by segments of static, evoking the experience — for those of us old enough to remember — of changing television channels. The living room, in which viewers are invited to sit, consists of chairs and ottomans upholstered in brightly patterned fabrics, arranged among potted plants and stacks of books on feminism and works of African American culture, history and fiction. These 1970s references evoke the fertile time when black women pulled from the discourses of civil rights and feminism to assert their own identities, interests and desires.

Installation view of “Mickalene Thomas: Do I Look Like a Lady?” at MOCA.
Installation view of “Mickalene Thomas: Do I Look Like a Lady?” at MOCA. (Brian Forrest / Museum of Contemporary Art)

The work’s title, “Do I Look Like a Lady?,” pretty much says it all. Women, who didn’t see themselves in images of white femininity and found their concerns neglected by social and political movements dominated by black men, began to forge a more inclusive and flexible space for self-definition. Thomas’ work is an impassioned tribute to embracing oneself in all one’s facets, and an acknowledgment of the foremothers who made it possible.

MOCA Grand Avenue, 250 S. Grand Ave., L.A. Through Feb. 6; closed Tuesdays. (213) 621-2766, www.moca.org

Mickalene Thomas, “Do I Look Like a Lady? (Comedians and Singers),” video still, 2016.
Mickalene Thomas, “Do I Look Like a Lady? (Comedians and Singers),” video still, 2016. (From Mickalene Thomas / Lehmann Maupin / Artists Rights Society)

The rainbow-sherbet colors of Yong Soon Min’s installation at Commonwealth & Council seem a bit cheery for a work inspired by a brain hemorrhage.

The centerpiece is a round table segmented like a pie, in which slices are different bright colors. Each slice is incised with lines that resemble neural networks and a cutout of a word, written in cursive. Words situated across from one another form vaguely homonymic but odd pairs: diaspora/diarrhea, womb/tomb, happiness/penis, thank/spank. As the result of a cerebral hemorrhage several years ago, Min often confuses one word for another. The piece is a cheeky acknowledgment of these cognitive difficulties, putting a brave, even humorous face on a reckoning with disability.

Yong Soon Min, "AVM: After Venus (Mal)formation,” 2016.
Yong Soon Min, "AVM: After Venus (Mal)formation,” 2016. (Ruben Diaz / Yong Soon Min and Commonwealth and Council)
Yong Soon Min, "AVM: After Venus (Mal)formation," 2016.
Yong Soon Min, "AVM: After Venus (Mal)formation," 2016. (Ruben Diaz/ Yong Soon Min and Commonwealth and Council)

The hemorrhage must have been an especially dismaying challenge for Min, who has been creating provocative installations and photo-based works with significant textual components for more than 30 years. The table is surrounded by curved benches, which are also inscribed with snippets of handwriting, including quotations from earlier works.

The floor is covered with oversized photographic reproductions of the artist’s bookcases, featuring tomes about art, post-colonial theory and social and political struggles. They form the backdrop, a network of ideas against which the table’s new normal is forged.

Indeed, Min’s hemorrhage-induced slippages are eerily physical echoes of linguistic theories that uncouple words from their conventional meanings, opening them up to radical new interpretations. In Min’s brain, this unmooring is no longer theoretical.

Yong Soon Min, "Last Notes and Sketches, Min Tae Yong (1918-2001),” 2016.
Yong Soon Min, "Last Notes and Sketches, Min Tae Yong (1918-2001),” 2016. (Ruben Diaz / Yong Soon Min and Commonwealth and Council)

The exhibition continues in a personal vein in another room. Inset into the panels of a folding screen are notes made by Min’s father, Min Tae Yong, late in his life. Written in a neat hand, they are meditations on the nature of the universe, as well as discussions of other beings: “cosmoans, galaxians, starmen.” Some of the notes are two-sided, and the artist has mounted them within the screen so that they swivel. This gesture, paired with the screen’s zigzag shape, suggests the same oscillation seen in Min’s colorful table, shuttling back and forth between control and something less predictable, but full of possibility.

Commonwealth & Council, 3006 W. 7th St. #220, L.A. Through Jan. 7; closed Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays. (213) 703-9077, www.commonwealthandcouncil.com


Kelly Akashi’s exhibition at Ghebaly Gallery reminded me of a conversation I had with the late curator Karin Higa years ago. We were in my daughter’s room and Higa noticed a dream catcher we had made: a wire coat hanger, pulled into an oval, with bits of ribbon and paper affixed to it, hanging from the ceiling. It had been made in haste in an attempt to ward off a 5-year-old’s nightmares, but Higa thought it was beautiful. She saw art in unlikely places.

Akashi’s work subscribes to a similar sensibility. Her work celebrates the unexpected beauty of things that often otherwise go unnoticed.

In the first room, tall weeds, in bronze and copper, sprout from the cracks in the gallery’s concrete floor. Colorful photograms line the walls, depicting mysterious, organic forms that resemble cells or eggs. But rather than pictures of microscopic worlds, they are actually straightforward records of light shining through glass.

Kelly Akashi, “Overlay," 2016.
Kelly Akashi, “Overlay," 2016. (Marten Elder / Kelly Akashi and Ghebaly Gallery)
Kelly Akashi, "Arrangement I," 2016.
Kelly Akashi, "Arrangement I," 2016. (Marten Elder / Kelly Akashi and Ghebaly Gallery )

There is also a “dream catcher” of sorts: two intersecting wire circles, from which several bronze fingers dangle. The effect is surreal, but not as creepy as you might think. The digits feel less like severed appendages and more like organisms in their own right. They seem to be trying to touch something ineffable.

Similar forms appear repeatedly in the second room, which has four pieces of beautifully crafted wood furniture, studded with custom-made candles and blown glass. These arrangements, as Akashi calls them, are part high-end retail display and part mad scientist’s lab, as if something went haywire in the New Age crystal store. The glass forms suggest geodes, bodily organs or strange, fossilized sea sponges. The candles droop, sag and curl over the surfaces like so many tubers, intestines or slugs.

Akashi takes candles seriously as an art form, capturing in microcosm something of the goofy awkwardness and excess of bodies, which are, like candles, always burning down. But they also provide light, a reminder that our brief time here is not wasted. 

Ghebaly Gallery, 2245 E. Washington Blvd., L.A. Through Dec. 23; closed Sundays and Mondays. (323) 282-5187, www.ghebaly.com

Kelly Akashi, "Activity Table," detail, 2016.
Kelly Akashi, "Activity Table," detail, 2016. (Marten Elder/Kelly Akashi and Ghebaly Gallery)

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