This worthwhile, though problematic, exhibition begins simply but evocatively, in a small antechamber, with a juxtaposition of two works that manages to suggest a number of the historical and aesthetic trajectories that will unfold in the rooms to come.
The first of these is a 1964 drawing by Charles White, who came to prominence as a WPA muralist before accepting a teaching position at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles. The piece, entitled Birmingham Totem, was created in response to a 1963 KKK assault on a black church that killed four young girls and injured twenty-two. Depicting a crouching black youth sifting through a mound of debris, the image's tone, despite its subject matter, is not wholly tragic. White's figure is also a bricoleur, and his gesture can be read as one of reassembly and reclamation, refusing defeat.
In this light, the second work, a 1966 sculpture by Melvin Edwards called The Lifted X, does more than bring the shape of White's rubble totem into 3D. Referencing the assassination of Malcolm X, the piece is also grounded in one of the disasters that marked the fight for black civil rights, but by invoking the life of a man who rejected Western culture and built a new identity through Islam, it points to a concrete instance of one of the forms of reconstruction invoked by White's drawing. In a more literal sense, the sculpture itself is constructed from materials found at hand, welded steel salvaged from scrap, typifying the practices of a generation of black assemblage artists who employed the cast-off or ruined as an integral means of representing their experience.
'Cotton Hangup' (1966), part of Melvin Edwards's 'Lynch Fragments' series. Installed at the Studio Museum, Harlem.
Though the work of these artists comprises the core of Now Dig This!, the exhibition's first full room is given over to a more thorough exploration of their forebears. Melvin Edwards is the standout here. Given his use of welded steel, as well as the geometric focus of works like The Fourth Circle, 1966, a comparison with David Smith feels inevitable, and to my mind casts Edwards' use of representational elements in a favorable light. Whereas the explicitness with which industrial materials delineate the face in Smith's Saw Head, 1933, pushes the piece in the direction of kitsch, Edwards' 1966 sculpture Cotton Hangup, pictured above, characteristically retains the figurative as only one possible reading—though the splayed beams dangling from the central suspended mass suggest feet, the framed and hanging object itself is too impacted to register as unambiguously human, and could just as well stand for any weight stripped of identity in service of the extraction of value. Through this indeterminacy, the work evokes the dehumanizing history of black labor under capitalism in a manner that echoes and enhances the dynamic tension of its physical presence.
A strong political charge is also evident in the ostensible assemblage room nestled in the exhibition. Exemplary in this regard, though by no means characteristic of a section containing dozens of works by a number of different artists, are pieces fashioned from the debris the 1965 Watts riots. Originally exhibited in a 1966 show organized by Noah Purifoy and Judson Powell entitled 66 Signs of Neon, these assemblages are difficult to parse in the context of a museum exhibition some forty-six years removed from the event. The metaphorical underpinnings of John Riddle's use of a broken cash register to suggest a human form in his 1965 Ghetto Merchant, pictured below, seem obvious enough, for instance, but there is a defiance involved in the use of stolen and destroyed property as material that is perhaps less apparent. Even more to the point, Noah Purifoy's piece Watts Uprising Remains, 1965-66, which consists of a stack of melted books crowned by a still-legible though charred pocket bible, is a readymade, presented as found without any intervention on behalf of the artist. Given that the work, as a part of 66 Signs of Neon, was debuted in Watts to an audience that may well have included former rioters, Purifoy's designation of a byproduct of violent collective action as art is perhaps the most radical gesture to be found in all of Pacific Standard Time, fulfilling his statement, in the show's catalogue, that “art of itself is of little or no value if in its relatedness it does not effect change.”
John Riddle, Ghetto Merchant, ca. 1965, Mixed media. Collection Claude and Anne Booker, Los Angeles.
Unfortunately, the third section of Now Dig This!, “Los Angeles Snapshot,” is something of a misstep. Aiming to show that black artists based in Los Angeles were part of an art scene that extended beyond the city and involved artists of other races, the room features, to cite the most frustrating example, a John Altoon painting, on the grounds that he hung out with Fred Eversley. The problem is that this information adds little to our understanding of the work of either artist, and too much of the space here is given over to people whose reasons for being included in the show are matters of social or professional connections. Moreover, the inclusion of Eversley is itself troubling, since his work has nothing in common, either formally or thematically, with any other artist in the show. That the mere fact of his race, reflected nowhere in a practice given over to questions of energy and perception, has qualified him for inclusion here underscores the show's ethnographic focus, belied by a curatorial architecture that is neither wholly upfront about its grounding in social history, nor willing to make the case for the significance of the work of a particular group of artists on its own terms.
The exhibition's final room, “Post-Minimalism & Performance,” is likewise disappointing. From the outset, of course, there's something of a curatorial challenge posed by the fact that a number of the most prominent black artists working in these genres—specifically David Hammons, Senga Nengudi, and Maren Hassinger—divided the 70s between LA and New York, and that their work from this period is less than ideally documented. The solution adopted is the inclusion of works from outside the strict time period under survey, including a Hammons piece from 1983 and new sculptural installations by Nengudi and Hassinger that reflect on their earlier experiences here. Unfortunately, this approach almost entirely sidelines the role of performance in these artists' work, save for those few who were able to attend Nengudi and Hassinger's opening night performance, Kiss. The exclusion is particularly vexing, as it occludes a trajectory that arguably builds on the interest in place evident in earlier black assemblage artists' use of found materials through the creation of site-specific works.
Senga Nemgudi, Ceremony for Freeway Fets, Performance Photograph, Photo: Roderick “Quaku” Young
Hammons, for instance, has enthusiastically embraced public space in pieces like his famous Higher Goals, 1986, where he mounted basketball hoops on the top of telephone poles covered with bottle caps in Cadman Plaza, Brooklyn. Because the overwhelming majority of this kind of work has been done in New York, it may well be less familiar to a Los Angeles audience. Nonetheless, a number of early and significant experiments with site took place here, beginning with his Spade Series, 1971-74, which included performances in which he buried a spade in the ground. Likewise, Barbara McCullough's video Shopping Bag Spirits and Freeway Fetishes, 1979, shows Hammons, on one of his return visits to LA later in the decade, working on what he refers to as two “doodles... or earth-works sculptures” in an empty lot, ably highlighting the role played by the possibility of unpremeditated public dialogue that is as integral to these works as the finished product itself.
If Hammons has been the most committed and radical in his work's attention to place, it may have something to do with the fact that his Studio Z, located on Slauson Avenue, was the epicenter of a number of artists' experimentation with these issues, including Nengudi and Hassinger, a meeting-point where they would converge before and after spontaneous performances enacted in the streets, parks, and abandoned buildings of Los Angeles. For instance, Nengudi's first major performance work, Ceremony for Freeway Fets pictured above, was a direct outgrowth of these activities, taking place in 1978 on a freeway underpass on Pico Boulevard. Here, Nengudi drew upon West African ritual as a means of reinventing her relation to place, investing a dystopian urban environment with a sense of community. The exclusion of this work and, by and large, work like it from Now Dig This! effectively obscures some of the most radical and interesting elements of these artists' LA legacy, and the exhibition suffers from this lack.
Though containing a number of excellent pieces by a number of underrepresented artists, Now Dig This! ends up feeling undecided about what kind of show it wants to be, and this uncertainty ends up diluting its image of a particular current of LA art-making that may well be more vital than the exhibition itself seems to believe.
—Jared Baxter, a writer living in Los Angeles
Top Image: Charles White, Birmingham Totem, 1964, ink and charcoal on paper, with, Melvin Edwards, The Lifting X, 1965, welded steel. Credit: Robert Wedemeyer.