Gender fluidity, intersectional feminism, inequality: Art projects move forward with Mike Kelley grants

Are you proud of your gender? Do you care what someone else’s gender is? Who decided your gender?

These are just some of the questions that the arts organization L.A. Freewaves will attempt to answer in an evening of roving performances called “Ain’t I a Womxn?”

The project has been more than two years in the making but will finally come to fruition with a grant of $40,000 from the Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts. On Wednesday the foundation will announce L.A. Freewaves and nine other recipients of 2018 Artist Project Grants totaling $400,000.

This year’s grants form the largest sum the program has given out in its three-year history. The 10 recipients, all based in or near Los Angeles, are the largest grantee pool to date.

The late artist Kelley was known for an experimental art practice and a philanthropic spirit. His foundation awards grants to individuals and groups who create work that is particularly difficult to make or might otherwise fly under the radar.

Recipients for 2018 include the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Hammer Museum, the nonprofit gallery LAXART, the Underground Museum, the Craft and Folk Art Museum, the nonprofit exhibition space Joan and Self Help Graphics, all in L.A.; the Pasadena group Fulcrum Arts; and the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach.

The vast range of projects these groups will undertake, said Mike Kelley Foundation Executive Director Mary Clare Stevens, reflects the energy and diversity of the L.A. arts scene. And political themes, in which the artists frequently question institutions and social structures, add up to an “overwhelming address of the times,” she said.

“Politics is on everyone’s mind these days,” Stevens said. “We’re living with this administration, and there’s been an urgency in the arts community to continue deep investigation of systems, of power structures, of race and gender. There’s a tradition of that in the arts — of questioning — especially now, with diminishing funding for the arts. The space of art is a space of freedom. And it brings this back to how crucial arts funding is right now.”

In conjunction with the downtown arts space Joan, which received a grant of $45,000, artist and filmmaker Alison O’Daniel will use the thumping and scritch-scratching sounds of skateboards as percussive instruments in a newly composed sound piece that’s part of her series “The Tuba Thieves.” O’Daniel is hearing impaired and will collaborate with a composer and six local skateboarders who are also hearing impaired as part of her investigation into the physical experience of sound.

Artist Cameron Rowland will present his first solo museum exhibition at MOCA, which received a grant of $40,000. The work, made in the tradition of ready-made and found-object sculptures, explores ideas of dispossession and ownership in the U.S. as well as social inequality. It also examines the Community Redevelopment Agency of Los Angeles and its development of the Bunker Hill area as well as questions of eminent domain and MOCA’s own history within that neighborhood, among other ideas.

With its grant of $40,000, Self Help Graphics will set up a printmaking atelier in its Boyle Heights space for 12 master printers from around the U.S. As part of the Chicanx/Latinx Print Summit Portfolio & Atelier, the artists will create prints as well as hold free public workshops and provide intergenerational mentorships for working artists. The new print editions will be featured in a “Print Summit Portfolio” exhibition in June.

Self Help Graphics, co-director Betty Avila said, “has been a space for creativity, innovation, political interrogation and cultural expression for artists of color since its inception” in the early 1970s. The Mike Kelley grant money, she said, “comes at a crucial time in our history when the Chicana/o and Latinx experience, for both immigrants and American-born Latinos, is being questioned by our nation's highest office.”

L.A. Freewaves’ July 28 event, planned to unfurl beneath a full moon in Los Angeles State Historic Park near Chinatown, will result in an online book, “Dis…Miss Data.” Both the event and the book are meant to address gender fluidity and intersectional feminism, as well as inequalities and stereotypes in our culture.

“It’s extraordinary. It’s making a big difference in the scale that we’ll be able to do this,” said L.A. Freewaves founding director Anne Bray. “Gender is in the news every day now. And this is allowing new people — artists that are not so famous, that are of color, that are a diverse range and most are without galleries — to put new images into the public arena for consideration of how everyone feels about gender.”

Her group, which brings together lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender feminist artists of color, has been gathering images from artists and asking questions about gender at art events throughout L.A. County for more than two years. The “Dis…Miss Data” book will include the public's responses to some of the gender questions posed during the July performance, as well as artists’ responses to those public comments.

“Now more than ever, projects like these demonstrate the importance of art as a voice of the times and as an agent for change,” the Mike Kelley Foundation’s Stevens said. “They create diverse spaces where artists and audiences can come together to reflect, interpret, and comment on both substantive issues of the day and visionary ideas"

The grant-funded projects will debut throughout 2018 and 2019.

Follow me on Twitter: @debvankin


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