If I had one complaint about the Hammer Museum’s PST show “Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-80,” it was that the exhibition was organized by a curator who isn’t on the Hammer’s staff. My concern was that the knowledge related to the development and execution of the exhibition, knowledge that should have become institutional, won’t.
Fortunately the exhibition was accompanied by a fantastic, thorough, photo-rich catalogue (and here’s hoping it’s required reading for every new Hammer curator). The photos in the catalogue are extra-important: I suspect that it’s the first time many (most?) of them have been published. The catalogue was edited by exhibition curator Kellie Jones.
(Also good: The exhibition seems likely to be re-constituted in New York, at MoMA’s PS1 outpost. The deal isn’t finished, but last week a Hammer spokesperson told me that it’s “very likely” the show goes to Queens.)
This catalogue excerpt comes from Naima J. Keith’s essay “Rebellion and Its Aftermath: Assemblage and film in L.A. and London.” It’s related to the excerpt I published from the “Under the Big Black Sun” catalogue.
The [Watts] uprising in Los Angeles led artists to consider the transformative power of art, which was realized in the reworking, quite literally, of the physical ruins of South Los Angeles. As artists crafted works out of the charred remnants of their world, a form of assemblage art was born. Mixed-media assemblage, or the use of actual objects to construct works of art from component parts, became key in articulating the desire to develop new and more complex means to understand and comment upon society. The resulting movement was by no means monolithic, however; rather, artists developed a multitude of ideas about the artistic potential of assemblage. For Noah Purifoy, discarded objects were democratic: they didn’t discriminate against those who could not afford or access “fine” art materials. For John Riddle, assemblage was a clear metaphor for the process of change required of art to “advance social consciousness and promote black development.” As John Outterbridge noted, “What is available to you is not mere material, but the material and the essence of the political climate, the material in the debris of social issues. At times even the trauma within the community becomes the debris that artists manipulate and that manipulates the sensibility of artists.”… [Image: John Outterbridge, No Time for Jivin' from the Containment Series, 1969. Collection of the Mills College Art Museum.]
Many black artists in Los Angeles mobilized the medium of assemblage as a way to comment on the role fo the artist as a social agent. For Outterbridge, art with social commentary evolved naturally from the climate of the times — he came to think of himself as an “activist-artist” whose “studio was everywhere.” Outterbridge’s interest in discarded materials, however, started from a young age. His father ran a business in segregated Greenville, North Carolina, collecting and recycling metal machine parts and farm equipment. The artist also credits his grandmother for inspiring him with the handcrafted necklaces and beaded pouches (asafetida bags) she used in her healing practice. For Outterbridge, artifacts made by healers to ward off ailments and ill will possess a curative and transformative aesthetic power that he aspires to deliver in his own work. Drawing inspiration from Dada, folk art, and African sculpture, Outterbridge translates discarded materials into poetic configurations that explore both social and political themes. Objects in his Containment Series — such as Eastside-Westside (c. 1970) — were constructed from cut and flattened tin cans with charred wood and rusted nails brought together in ways that avoided stereotypical markers of African American identity and were topically loaded wtihout being overtly polemical. By manipulating found materials, Outterbridge excavates personal and cultural histories that have been covered over, neglected, and hidden.