Review: Five pandemic-postponed art shows worth seeing right now

Linda Besemer, "Tony's Painting," 2013, acrylic
(Tatiana Mata)

COVID-19 is not over, despite the political posturing of anti-government commentators and the absurd claims of some cosseted celebrities. Risk in Los Angeles County is currently low, according to the CDC’s COVID Data Tracker, but hundreds were hospitalized in the last week. Things are definitely in flux, a fact represented by the jumble of requirements that art spaces have in place for visiting. One museum will require advance reservations and proof of vaccination, another will wave a drop-in through the front door, no questions asked and mask optional. It’s confusing.

Exhibitions postponed over the last few years are opening up in abundance, however, making for a suddenly crowded field. Recently, I donned my N95 respirator and caught up with several of them around town. Here are five that I saw:

All paint, no canvas

In 1993, painter Linda Besemer made a brushstroke that sent her on a path she has explored in her work for nearly three decades. At the Carolyn Campagna Kleefeld Contemporary Art Museum at Cal State Long Beach, 23 paintings, plus an informative selection of studies and sketches, offer a concise and absorbing survey of the Los Angeles-based artist’s career.


What made that 1993 brushstroke unusual is hinted at in the title of the work, which opens the show. “Detachable Stroke #1” is all paint, no canvas. No support undergirds Besemer’s brushstroke, 3 feet tall and 10 inches wide. Instead, a detached slather of acrylic paint hangs directly on the wall.

Linda Besemer, "Detachable Stroke #1," 1993, acrylic paint
(Christopher Knight / Los Angeles Times)

The slather looks a bit like it escaped from Roy Lichtenstein’s famous 1965 paintings of Abstract Expressionist brushstrokes, which he derived from a comic book illustration. But hers is not a picture. It’s a three-dimensional object — a Pop Art sign materialized, as it were. Besemer’s paint mark appears to be black, white and gray, but look closely and a full color spectrum is embedded within it.

This is painting as paint, nothing more, which opened up a surprisingly complex set of considerations. The show, organized by former Kleefeld curator Kristina Newhouse, includes geometric and organic patterns of vivid color in loose sheets of paint that drape over rods, fold back on themselves, get carved up, slide off the wall and onto the floor and more. Optical illusions abound, further confounding the physical materiality of paint.

Besemer often composes her visually intense pictures with computer programs, sometimes inserting random digital noise into Utopian expectations for sleek mathematical perfection. (One painting is titled “Sophie’s Neurosis,” wittily putting binary choice in its place.) The abstract visual clatter of a work like “Tony’s Painting,” all linear swoops and layered curls like a flat-screen TV on the fritz, jams the circuits. It caps her work’s larger point: Identity has been a productive subject for art since the 1990s, but asserting identity is not an answer. Instead, these confounding paintings insist, identity is a question.

An innovative approach to textile

At the Craft in America Center, Ferne Jacobs merges traditional, handmade textile and basketry technologies to birth an innovative genus entirely her own. Second-wave feminism in the 1960s fostered reconsiderations of craft production associated with women, and Jacobs took to the textile loom. The result, chronicled in 27 examples selected by curator Emily Zaiden, evolved over nearly 50 years in her Echo Park studio.

Ferne Jacobs, "The Round," 2007-08, coiled thread
(Madison Metro / Craft in America)

In the mid-1970s, she set the loom aside to make labor-intensive textiles with her hands — think all weft, no warp — coiling thread into long, thin, finely wrought ropes that Jacobs used to build basketlike forms. (Log in to the gallery’s website for video demonstrations.) “Shadow Figure” (1976-77) is a thin, wedge-shaped volume that stands 5 feet tall, leans against a wall and is open at the top, constructed from medium tan thread shot through in a few discrete places with red, white and blue. The deflated cavity, an abstract vessel, is loosely suggestive of bodily viscera.

Many of Jacobs’ thread sculptures evoke internal body parts, including orifices ranging from vulva to mouth, although almost never explicitly. Linear webs hang loosely on the wall, like residue from an autopsy surgeon’s scalpel, while snakelike shapes seem to be in the process of shedding their skin — ecdysis, as internal development outgrows its container.

Others rise precariously from the floor, as if determined to stand. Some, open at both top and bottom, could be imagined as magnificent headdresses.

Wall text aptly describes the general sculptural demeanor as totemic: With their inescapable displays of ritual repetition in the fabrication of coiled thread, the works seem to function as intuitively generated emblems that don’t describe things in nature but instead embody their spirit. “The Round” (2007-08) is among the most beautiful: A nearly 2-foot-tall pair of lumpy, voluptuous, vibrantly multicolored vessels has next to no figurative qualities, but the forms nonetheless appear to be locked in a powerful embrace.

Mario Moore, "Vanitas: The Fight," 2020, oil on canvas
(Christopher Knight / Los Angeles Times)

Skillful, figurative paint-handling

The invigorating show of 29 paintings and three drawings from the past dozen years by Detroit-based artist Mario Moore at the California African American Museum opens with a 2010 self-portrait in the guise of a history painting. The picture resonates far beyond its clear demonstration of skillful figurative paint-handling.

Moore’s lifeless severed head is shown, like John the Baptist, poised atop a silver platter held by Herodias, her torso lavishly attired in garments of purest white. Moore’s close-up framing of the composition slyly cuts off her head too.

Picturing a Black man slaughtered at the behest of a white woman whose honor has supposedly been slighted puts the 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till — a brutal crime instrumental in catalyzing the American civil rights movement — squarely in mind. Moore’s paintbrush layers history in evocative ways, while inserting himself into a universalized scene pulls social havoc into the present.

The Detroit Institute of Arts in Moore’s hometown is one of the nation’s greatest art museums, and he repeatedly draws on painterly tropes from art history for contemporary narratives. Stylistically, he tends to go for Baroque theatricality or Neoclassical grandeur.

A lovely portrait of a CAAM custodian visiting the Exposition Park Rose Garden balances her patient face with a big, luxurious blossom, which seems to beckon her across the field to come smell the roses. A second self-portrait deploys the artist as a surprising odalisque, albeit fully attired in an urban ensemble of T-shirt, baggy jeans and heavy work boots while stretched out on a rustic chaise before a tranquil pond in a sunny woodland. The serene rural scene demands to know: So, who doesn’t belong where, doing what?

There’s a lot to read, pictorially speaking, in Moore’s show, ably selected by curator Taylor Renee Aldridge. A marvelous culmination is “Vanitas: The Fight,” a still life built around an old master-style self-portrait reflected in a mirror and a famous comic book of pugilistic Superman battling Muhammad Ali, while Batman looks on ringside. Cascading from the table’s edge is a manumission document releasing a family named Moore from chattel slavery as burning incense and a nearby plate of water quietly consecrate the sober scene.

Deborah Roberts, "Little man, little man (detail)," 2020, mixed media collage
(Christopher Knight / Los Angeles Times)

Monumental collages and murals

The lobby at CAAM currently features a five-part monumental collage-mural by Texas-based Deborah Roberts, part of a traveling exhibition organized by the Contemporary Austin and shared with Art + Practice in Leimert Park. “Little man, little man” (2020), titled after James Baldwin’s only children’s book, arrays visions of a young Black boy making outsize gestures somewhere between dance moves, sports motions and the urgent signals of a human semaphore.

Unlike the scribbly, energetic line in the original book illustrations by French artist Yoran Cazac, Roberts’ collaged images bring sturdy heft to the agile young man. His face is constructed from fragments of other faces, assembled with an assured hand. (His own collaged hands are often enormous.) Fracturing simplifies and distills a technique pioneered by collage master Romare Bearden, which itself built on the African art inspirations of Cubism a century ago. The boy’s assembled face is male, female, indeterminate, old and young, and it features a wide array of shades of Black skin. He’s at once joyfully communal and determinedly unique.

Nine of Roberts’ collage-and-pencil works on canvas at Art + Practice, plus nine from a suite of 27 Warhol-style silk-screen heads, elaborate the theme, introducing girls and kids in groups. (In a nice touch, the silk screens are hung low on the wall — kid-height.) Roberts places her figures off-center against blank white fields, her unerring design sense yielding the savvy effect of a fashion shoot. Given a larger absence of Black faces in commercial culture, these kids insert themselves — camera-ready.

In the rear gallery, two old-fashioned photo booths are transformed into video stalls, filled with a mirrored wall, text in raised felt, a recitation of names and an animation of multicolored paper and $20 bills — notably featuring the face of tyrant Andrew Jackson, not yet replaced by Harriet Tubman, heroine of the Underground Railroad. Jumbled, the installation’s collage of text and image doesn’t quite work, especially compared to the resonant clarity of Roberts’ pictorial work.

Bede Tungutalum, "Moon and Stars," 1988, raw silk and ink
(Christopher Knight / Los Angeles Times)

Dazzling textiles printed with silk screens

Finally, at the Fowler Museum at UCLA, “Aboriginal Screen-Printed Textiles From Australia’s Top End” offers a gorgeous selection of textiles printed with silk screens in mostly bold patterns and vibrant hues. They have been produced since the 1980s by 45 artists working at five Aboriginal-owned art centers in northern coastal regions in the vicinity of Darwin (Australia’s “Top End”). The communities — Tiwi, Jilamara, Injalak, Bábbarra and Merrepen — are small, with populations ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand.

Printed on silk, cotton, linen and other materials using traditional screen-printing techniques — cut stencils or, on occasion, photo transfers — the imagery is figurative as well as abstract. It can represent simple survival objects (fishing traps, fruits, emergency vehicles, palms, burial posts) or esoteric symbols, some legible only to the Aboriginal clan. There’s something appealing about a secret sign language being manufactured into cloth used for commerce in clothing or furnishings — an International Clandestine style.

Among the dazzlers are fine linen panels by Susan Marawarr with copper-metallic striations printed over deep-black crosshatching. (The optical shimmer is like heat rising from the desert floor.) Sonia Namarnyilk layered three stencils to print complex patterns of mermaid-like water spirits, their fluid, bright orange undulations interspersed with playful turtles and rippling billabong plants.

Interlocking waves of blue and white lines punctuated with dots by Kieren Karritpul turn memories of knotted fishnets made by his mom and grandmother into patterns of immensely sophisticated spatial rhythms. The same goes for the crimson moon and stars over silver and gray bands in a Bede Tungutalum textile, which a wall label explains derives from a harvest ritual at the end of monsoon season.

Traditional Aboriginal bark and body painting gained international notice in the 1960s as jet travel shrank the world. In the 1980s, during an art market boom, the paintings entered the commercial mainstream, often to the exploitative detriment of the communities that made them. Textile printing became one means for some of those communities to regain a degree of control, putting their artistic skills to commercial use for their own benefit. The exhibition and its lush catalog, organized by Fowler curator Joanna Barrkman, is a measure of its success.

“Linda Besemer: StrokeRollFoldSheetSlabGlitch,” CSULB Kleefeld Contemporary, 1250 N. Bellflower Blvd., Long Beach, through June 25.

“Building the Essentials: Ferne Jacobs,” Craft in America Center, 8415 W. 3rd St., through June 18.

“Mario Moore | Enshrined: Presence + Preservation,” California African American Museum, 600 State Drive, Exposition Park, through Oct. 2.

“Deborah Roberts: I’m,” California African American Museum, 600 State Drive, Exposition Park; and Art + Practice, 3401 W. 43rd Place, through Aug. 20.

“Aboriginal Screen-Printed Textiles From Australia’s Top End,” Fowler Museum at UCLA, 308 Charles E. Young Drive N., Westwood, through July 10.