The title of Nathaniel Donnett's exhibition at the Lawndale Art Center — Paper or Plastic? — is a question commonly heard in grocery-store lines.
But while Donnett draws on brown paper sacks, the plastic he collages into the larger works comes from black garbage bags.
The interplay between the two isn't just formal. It mirrors tensions between light- and dark-skinned people of African descent, and Donnett's use of the paper sacks, in particular, references the “brown paper bag test” once used to determine access to social, educational and employment opportunities. People whose skin was darker than the bag were excluded.
The way Donnett combines draftsmanship with a classroom-inspired installation — complete with a multiple-choice test visitors are invited to take on paper bags instead of standardized forms — makes Paper or Plastic? the most memorable show in the Lawndale's current exhibition lineup.
Donnett creates his large collages on an assemblage of small sacks — the kind used for packing lunches or enveloping liquor-store bottles — onto which the artist often draws a conflicted figure or figures.
The plastic bags obscure the figure's identity. In You're pretty, for a dark doll, plastic bags cover the face and hair of the girl holding the doll. Similar bags hide the face of a boy holding a mask with the features of a Greco-Roman statue in We wear the mask that grins and lies.
The installation also includes a suite of drawings on individual sacks. Their imagery is similarly racially loaded — one drawing depicts three crayons, respectively marked “light skin,” “brown skin” and “dark skin” next to a “Coloreds Coloring Book” — but also includes the bubbles found on standardized tests. Several rows of schoolroom desks in the middle of the gallery are stocked with Donnett's own tests, which the viewer is encouraged to take, filling out the answers on paper bags that are blank except for the bubbles.
One question reads: “Spike Lee directed a drama/musical movie titled School Daze that delved into colorism” — discrimination based on skin tone. “What were the names of the two sororities?”
If you haven't seen the film, you can't be expected to know the answer, which underscores Donnett's point that tests “conducted to compare the intelligence between blacks and whites” have failed to “take into account culture differences and biases of the white creators of the tests.”
For Donnett, standardized tests can be seen as an updated version of the paper bag test. The sacks are also a metaphor for the “baggage … we personally carry with us individually.”
To help viewers shed some of their baggage, the installation includes an altar, of which Donnett, in the short-answer part of the test, invites viewers to make use.
“On the back of the paper bags, please write a sentence, paragraph or two of a time you've felt like an outcast for any reason,” he writes. “Then ball up the bag and place it on the altar. This will be a symbolic gesture for acknowledging and letting go of your baggage.”
OK, maybe that gesture's a little too earnest, even cheesy. But we're used to artists trafficking in irony when dealing with racial issues. It's nice to see someone err on the side of sincerity.