Even without her disability, one would be surprised to find that Liz Young--a bubbly woman with an easy countenance--could create the artwork showcased in “The Dignity of Survival: Desire and Destiny,” on view at the L.A. County Museum of Art through Jan. 30.
Young says the exhibition--a room-size installation composed of a caged-in room, a guillotine-like shaving stand and an old-fashioned birthing chair reminiscent of an electric chair but connected to a ball-and-chain-like trail of cast iron bones and internal organs--is “about how everybody, in a day-to-day situation, lives with pain and struggle.”
Young, 35, who has been in a wheelchair since her back was broken in a car accident at 18, makes work that is highly personal. The birthing chair, for instance, has straps that tie one’s legs onto the chair and rawhide shoes with heavy steel soles that stick to the ground.
Her work, she says, aims at universality. “Obviously, I’m not the only one who struggles. I am, most evidently, physically tied to myself here. But I always hope that those kind of issues are universal.”
Young’s LACMA show is a breakthrough for the artist, whose work has been seen at alternative venues such as Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, S.I.T.E. and the Foundation for Art Resources’ FAR Bazzar. Young is the first artist to have an exhibition sponsored by LACMA’s Art Here and Now, a 7-year-old contemporary art program that grew out of the museum’s former Young Talent Award.
The contemporary art program, normally confined to acquiring work by emerging and mid-career L.A. artists, made an exception in this case, museum officials said, because the curators were so impressed by Young’s work that they wanted to do more than just acquire a single object.
“We recognized that Liz’s art form is highly installational and theatrical, and we wanted to support that,” said LACMA curator Howard N. Fox, who curated the show.
In addition to the installation itself, the museum also sponsored three of her “live procedures,” performed by Young and five companions using the works in her exhibition as props. The last of these “procedures"--which carry a disclaimer advising parental discretion because of partial nudity--takes place Jan. 21 at 7:30 p.m.
Young, who has a companion installation of smaller works on view at Ruth Bloom Gallery in Santa Monica through Jan. 13, said she believes that LACMA took “a risk” in showing her work because “some people just don’t want to look at the ideas of life and death.”
Insisting that she isn’t after shock value, Young said she agrees with the museum’s parental discretion advisory. “After all, I make the work, first, for me,” she says. “I am interested in this attraction-repulsion thing myself. But I’m also trying to use materials and turn them inside out, to make the pieces useful but obsolete, to bring in irony.”
Young is as much craftsperson as artist. She was responsible for every element of the installation--from the cardboard covered walls to the unfinished wood floors to the welded cage and cast-iron chains, to the crocheted “umbilical cord” made with dried animal intestines.
“I did everything--I’m interested in making it my space --good or bad,” the Otis/Parsons graduate says. “I’ve been welding for nine or 10 years, so I’ve pretty much got that down now. But I try to incorporate both what it’s like to be in a man’s world--going to the steel yard and the use of heavy materials--and also incorporate womanly crafty materials. I’m interested in both aspects.
“I make things in pieces, and I do have help. To put that whole cage up at the museum--even an able-bodied person couldn’t have done that without help. So it’s a community effort. I never question, or think, ‘I can’t do this because I’m in a wheelchair.’ I just think, ‘Who can I call to help me?’
“Next year I will have lived half my life in a wheelchair,” she says. “I’m not proud of that, but I can’t escape it. I don’t believe every day that I’m tortured, but even if I wasn’t in a wheelchair, I don’t think anybody can go through life without feeling oppressed. And that’s what the work is about--the notion of survival amidst these struggles of everyday life.”
* “The Dignity of Survival: Desire and Destiny,” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., (213) 857-6000, through Jan. 30.
* “The Mutiny of Flesh: The Prudence of Reason,” at Ruth Bloom Gallery, 2112 Broadway, Santa Monica, (310) 829-7454, through Jan. 13.