Essential Arts: How Corita Kent’s words inspired Jeffrey Gibson’s new show
Welcome to impeachment week, in which we grow increasingly concerned about the fate of our fragile republic — but also the aesthetics of Sen. Ted Cruz’s haircut. I’m Carolina A. Miranda, arts and urban design columnist at the Los Angeles Times, here with your weekly dose of culture news — and hamburger dispatches:
Shortly after abandoning her religious vows in 1968, Corita Kent produced a series of 29 prints called “Heroes and Sheroes” that honored political and civil rights figures she admired. The prints mark a moment of departure, when Kent is increasingly appropriating images from mass media and, unshackled from the Catholic Church, her critiques of the powerful become more overt.
Among those prints is “it can be said of them,” from 1969, which features images of Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy with an excerpt of a poem by E.B. White that reads, “it can be said of him, as of few men in like position, that he did not fear the weather and did not turn his sails, but instead, challenged the wind itself to improve its direction and to cause it to blow more softly and more kindly over the world and its people.”
Those works — and those words — function as a point of departure for New York-based artist Jeffrey Gibson in a seductive solo show at Roberts Projects in Culver City.
The exhibition, titled “It Can Be Said of Them,” draws inspiration from Kent’s activism but also the ways in which she deployed language. Kent uses “them” in the title of the print rather than “him,” leaving room for ambiguity and inclusivity. And it is exactly this space that Gibson likes to inhabit.
He is an artist who deftly fuses a variety of image-making and cultural traditions — often with biting humor, a dollop of institutional critique and plenty of snappy nods to queer and popular culture. In bright geometric wall hangings, he employs contemporary materials such as bright nylon fringe in ways that reference Indigenous art-making traditions such as beading and weaving. Other objects, such as his beaded punching bags, feature lyrics harvested from songs by performers such as Tracy Chapman and Björk.
The works feature a multitude of worlds and clever turns of phrase. “SHE WAS BEAUTIFUL BOY” reads one wall piece. As the artist told the Brooklyn Rail in 2018, he is interested in the “hybridity of language.”
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There is never just one thing going on in a work by Jeffrey Gibson.
Of Choctaw and Cherokee heritage, Gibson has long done away with the borders that govern entrenched cultural divides: between male and female, between fine art and craft, between art-world power structures that have relegated Indigenous art to anthropological artifact and the obvious aesthetic and material innovations of those traditions.
“It requires a great deal of energy to maintain binary systems that do not truly reflect the nuances of reality,” he told the Rail.
One of those binaries is Modernism and the Indigenous art forms that inspired it.
Gibson’s bright geometric patterns can be said to harken to Modernism and geometric abstraction, as is often noted by critics. But his masterfully constructed works also feel like a reclamation of a form that was Indigenous all along.
In 2017, the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe organized an exhibition titled “Action/Abstraction Redefined” that examined the ways in which Indigenous artists at the institute had engaged Modernism throughout the 1960s and ’70s. As scholar and curator Tatiana Lomahaftewa-Singer notes in the very worthwhile catalog, “Unlike Abstract Expressionists from New York, IAIA artists did not have to look far for inspirations for their abstractions: Abstract elements were part of Native art for thousands of years.”
Gibson wraps those ideas up in pieces that pack a literal punch — pieces that reflect on the legacies of a key L.A. figure like Corita Kent but also the centuries of tradition that came before her.
“It Can Be Said of Them” is on view at Robert Projects through Feb. 27. The show is open to the public via advance reservation at this link.
Plays and players
Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” has been reimagined in countless ways. Chilean actor-director Francisco Reyes tells his version of the story, “Yorick, La Historia de Hamlet,” from the POV of the prince’s long-dead jester, who tells his story from the grave. Originally begun as an outdoor theatrical piece, the artist has reimagined his curious puppet show for the age of streaming — and it is being staged by REDCAT through Sunday. “The result,” writes Times theater critic Charles McNulty, “is captivatingly theatrical.”
Since we’re on the subject of unstable kingdoms: McNulty has also been tuning into other broadcast dramas — namely the impeachment trial — while rereading “Hamlet.” “Every age sees itself in Shakespeare’s tragedy,” he writes, “but little did I expect to be reminded of the recent uprising and its poisonous politics when returning to this most philosophical of revenge dramas.”
McNulty also pays tribute to Christopher Plummer, who died last week at 91: “To do justice to the grand tragic roles requires a knowledge of extremes, but longevity in the theater demands discipline.”
Culture reporter Ashley Lee revisits “Cinderella” — the 1997 TV movie version that starred Brandy in the title role and Whitney Houston as the wicked stepmother. When it premiered, the film received a critical drubbing. But Lee says that creatives today “could learn a thing or two from its clever spin on a classic text.”
Writer and comedian, Kris Andersson, known for his drag persona, the sassy Dixie Longate, is launching a 95-minute online performance that will serve as a fundraiser for 21 arts centers and theaters around the country, including the O.C.'s Segerstrom Center, which is selling tickets for the show’s two-week run. As Jessica Gelt reports, the theaters keep 80% of ticket sales, and Andersson gets the balance to cover production costs. Says Andersson: “I wanted this to be a way for me to give back to theaters.”
Classical music critic Mark Swed has also been hanging out online to check out the L.A. Philharmonic’s recent benefit, “Icons on Inspiration.” And he says the show redefines the curious pandemic creation known as the online fundraiser. The conversations and performances, he writes, are “the best pitch imaginable for supporting not just the L.A. Phil but music and, beyond that ... the culture that a country can’t be without.”
The Broad Stage in Santa Monica is streaming the West Coast premiere of “Breathing Free,” a 45-minute visual album that showcases Black performers (including Derrell Acon, Curtis Bannister and Kelly Griffin) and was organized by the New York-based Heartbeat Opera, which aims to make the art form more accessible to new audiences. “We wanted to get to know the Black composers and librettists of yesteryear and today,” co-founder Ethan Heard tells The Times’ Makeda Easter.
Museums et al.
Currently, it is possible to go to museums like LACMA and the Huntington and shop inside the gift stores. But it’s impossible to visit the galleries. I have a look at why this lopsided COVID-19 policy exists and it has little to do with science or common sense: “It all comes down to the industries that have the financial muscle to change Gov. Newsom’s mind. And currently, the culture industries are not it.” My message to Sacramento: Reopen. The. Museums.
Related: The New York Times’ Robin Pogrebin on how L.A. museums are struggling after a year of lockdown.
The Museum of Contemporary Art has established a new senior leadership structure, reports The Times’ Deborah Vankin. Director Klaus Biesenbach will become artistic director and the museum will bring on an executive director, who will be focused more on day-to-day operations. In a note to staff, management stated that “limited governmental support for museums like MOCA” has led to “a heavy reliance on private fundraising,” necessitating the move.
Plus, Vankin also reports on the Desert X biennial, whose opening this month was postponed until March due to the COVID-19 surge. It’s also contending with a loss of sponsorship: the city of Palm Springs decided against sponsoring the biennial after the organization teamed up with Saudi authorities for a 2020 version of the show in Saudi Arabia.
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Meanwhile at LACMA, pandemic budgets are taking a toll: the museum has put director Michael Govan’s house up for sale, just nine months after buying it. The museum will no longer supply a house for its director, and the money saved will be poured back into the budget.
Art in other places
Times art critic Christopher Knight reviews the new HBO doc “Black Art: In the Absence of Light,” directed by Sam Pollard. The film can be unfocused, he reports, covering a great deal of territory: “It is part welcome record of an art exhibition and its broad impact over two generations of artists, part survey of what an arbitrary selection of Black artists have achieved since, part analysis of diverse issues within a culture too often mischaracterized as monolithic and part chronicle of a crucial institutional infrastructure that has grown exponentially in the new millennium.” But, “better too much than too little.”
If all goes according to plan, the “Immersive Van Gogh” exhibition will open in Los Angeles on May 27, reports Julia Barajas. The installation projects the Dutch painter’s most famous works onto half a million cubic feet of wall and floor space. Sound familiar? The project was featured in the fifth episode of “Emily in Paris.”
Matt Cooper has rounded up 21 virtual culture picks for the Valentine’s Day weekend. This includes a performance by Josh Groban, airing Sunday, and a broadcast of a 2017 performance of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” by the National Theatre in London.
If you are looking for an interactive musical performance, may I suggest logging on for “The Adjacent Possible,” a participatory work by artist Joshua-Michele Ross that is being staged by the Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana.
You won’t see much during this sound-driven piece, but you will hear plenty. The sessions gather 20 people over Zoom and the internet to collectively create a piece of music on a digital web instrument of the artist’s design. (I played an instrument called “Clay,” which sounded like a beating heart. Other instruments evoked the tones of wind chimes and other more spectral noises.)
Ross teaches you to play. But more important, he teaches you to listen. There is a brief rehearsal and a performance (which he records), and it all comes to a sudden end when a participant, at random, hits a button called “The End.”
Performances of “The Adjacent Possible” are ongoing through April. Advance registration is required via grandcentralartcenter.com.
S. Clay Wilson, a standard bearer of the underground “comix” movement who was known for his ornately grotesque panels and a character called the Checkered Demon, is dead at 79.
Leslie Robertson, the structural engineer of New York’s World Trade Center, felled by terrorists on 9/11, has died at 92.
Chick Corea, the Grammy Award-winning pianist who racked up a total of 23 trophies and helped define the sound of jazz fusion in the 1970s, has died at 79.
In other news
— Since I’ve been delving into all things Paul R. Williams: Here is a great piece by art writer Colony Little about how Nickerson Gardens, the Watts housing project designed by Williams, materializes in the work of painter Kerry James Marshall, who lived there as a boy.
— There is now a manga biography of architect Denise Scott Brown.
— How ballet dancers are using TikTok to question the form.
— SFMOMA director Neal Benezra is stepping down.
— A recovery fund initiated by the J. Paul Getty Trust will award $38.5 million to small and midsize L.A. County arts groups contending with the financial fallout of the pandemic.
— Want to see the Gerald Buck collection at UCI’s Institute and Museum of California Art? William Poundstone suggests checking out its Instagram.
— Andrew Russeth has a good report on museums and deaccessioning as they struggle to evolve into more equitable institutions.
— Artist-led protests in Cuba have called for the removal of Culture Minister Alpidio Alonso in response to a video that shows Alonso appearing to hit a journalist.
— Plus: a bipartisan group of U.S. senators has introduced a resolution in support of Cuban artists following a lengthy period of crackdowns.
— Archaeologists have unearthed a 600-year-old sculpture of an eagle at the site of the Templo Mayor in Mexico City.
And last but not least ...
I am here for all the burgers.
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