Before you realize that June Edmonds’ abstract paintings echo the structure of the star-spangled banner, your gut tells you that you have entered a place of mourning, where a tragic loss is being grieved. It’s as if you’re at a funeral, awash in a flood of melancholy.
Then you realize the funeral Edmonds has staged is for the American flag itself.
In six paintings in the first room of the exhibition “Allegiances and Convictions” at Luis De Jesus gallery in Culver City, it’s as if the flag is being laid to rest because the ideals it has represented for centuries — freedom and self-determination, not to mention life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — no longer have a place in the nation the flag is meant to represent.
That’s chilling and harrowing. But it’s only part of the story.
Edmonds’ paintings are also defiant, rebellious and celebratory. Their palette is unapologetically beautiful: a rainbow of rich, resplendent browns interspersed with deep olive greens, glorious harvest golds, regal purples and burgundies as well as velvety blues and supersaturated blacks.
Edmonds’ paint handling is equally attuned to nuance: thick strokes of paint-loaded brushes applied one at a time, with the deliberation and patience of someone who knows every moment counts and that the struggle is a long one.
Edmonds stacks brushstrokes architecturally, building her abstract banners vertically while marking time. Her flags form the foundation of a future that might be better than the present — and true to the ideals the founding fathers had in mind, particularly their conviction that all people have unalienable rights and that the government’s job is to protect them — no ifs, ands or buts.
Each of Edmonds’ paintings commemorates an American who lived — or lives — by those convictions. There’s Claudette Colvin, who, as a 15-year-old, refused to give up her seat on a bus in Alabama. There’s Omar ibn Said, an Islamic scholar from Senegal who was captured and enslaved in 1807 and wrote the only known Arabic autobiography by a slave in America. Other flags honor poet Lucille Clifton, the Iroquois Confederacy (the oldest known democracy in North America) and Rep. Ilhan Omar, the Somali American from Minnesota elected to the House last year.
In the back gallery hang three more stretched canvases (like the six in the front gallery) and three unstretched ones, each loosely draped on the wall — like a battered triptych. Commemorating William Harvey Carney, the first African American to be awarded the Medal of Honor as a Union solider, Edmonds’ blackened canvases appear to have endured more than their fair share of hellfire.
Like flags, paintings pack a punch when people rally ’round them.
Luis De Jesus Los Angeles, 2685 S. La Cienega Blvd. L.A. Tuesdays-Sundays, through June 15. (310) 838-6000, luisdejesus.com