Gallery  April 28, 2020  Paul Laster

Social Studies: 5 Artists Addressing Communal Concerns

Courtesy the artist and Charlie James Gallery, Los Angeles

Narsiso Martinez, In The Fresh, 2020.

Longing for social interaction during this time of isolation and lockdown, we looked to Los Angeles—the City of Angels—to find solo shows exhibiting artists who deal with communal concerns from a variety of individual angles. Exhibitions that had opened to the public before the eventual nationwide quarantine went into effect, these shows continue as virtual displays online.

Ranging from Josh Callaghan’s use of concrete building blocks as interactive seating and Elizabeth Huey’s painterly pursuit of a group of women artists and thinkers exploring the spiritual in their work to Alex Anderson’s poetic porcelain sculptures addressing racial issues, Narsiso Martinez’s drawings on cardboard boxes that celebrate farm laborers and Aline Kominsky-Crumb’s self-confessional comics and illustrations exploring her ethnic roots, these five artists touch on contemporary concerns that affect us all.

Narsiso Martinez: Superfresh
Charlie James Gallery

Immigrating to the United States from Mexico when he was 20 years old, Narsiso Martinez attended a community adult school to earn his high school diploma while working at apple orchards in Washington State. Step by step he gained his Associate of Arts degree, a BFA, and finally his MFA from California State University Long Beach in 2018. Making drawings on cardboard produce boxes to commemorate the migrant experience and farm laborers for the past several years, Martinez presents a sensational selection of new works in Superfresh, his inaugural exhibition with the Charlie James Gallery.

Courtesy the artist and Charlie James Gallery, Los Angeles

Installation view of Narsiso Martinez: Superfresh.

Magic Harvest offers two life-size farmworkers realistically rendered in charcoal, ink, and gouache spread down seven stacked, logo-laden fruit boxes, including such recognizable brands of produce as Chiquita bananas and Sunkist oranges. In the Fresh, which captures laborers in the field on flattened squash boxes, and Superfresh, depicting a couple holding cash in hand while surrounded by an abundance of fruit on a collaged background of compressed produce boxes, show recognition and appreciation to hard days of work. 

Martinez also presents striking close-up portraits of masked harvesters in shallow, gold-leafed berry boxes, telling drawings of pickers with cartoon-like collages of fruit on linen and a massive glazed tile piece of workers gathering together in the field to share thoughts—a magnificent ceramic mural, which shows even more potential for an already developed talent.

Courtesy the artist and Night Gallery, with special thanks to the LA Project Dancers

Installation view of Josh Callaghan: Social Block at Night Gallery's outdoor viewing space.

Josh Callaghan: Social Block
Night Gallery

The inaugural exhibition in Night Gallery’s new outdoor space, Josh Callaghan’s sculptural installation Social Block punningly takes the common concrete block as its point of departure. Fabricated at 2.3 times the normal scale, the blocks look slightly surreal scattered across the gallery’s gravel lot. Stacked in seemingly random groupings and partially buried to simulate an archeological site, they look like the remains of a collapsed building—but that’s not the artist’s intent.

Courtesy the artist and Night Gallery, Los Angeles

Josh Callaghan, Social Block, 2020.

Inspired by William H. Whyte’s book The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, a study on how people interact in public parks and plazas, Callaghan created Social Block as a contemporary playground, where people could communally frolic and chat. Envisioned by the artist as a “John Carpenter theme park meets Isamu Noguchi garden,” the illusionistic installation cleverly continues Callaghan’s use of Pop Art scale, which includes the giant Used Box Cutter Blade stuck in the concrete courtyard of Los Angeles’ 2016 ARTBandini fair and a gigantic, broken Two Dollar Umbrella playfully plopped outside the tent at Frieze New York in 2012.

Courtesy of The Pit, Los Angeles, Photo by Jeff McClane

Elizabeth Huey, Winged Creatures (Af Klint), 2020.

Elizabeth Huey: Divine Intervention
The Pit

Focused on the influential lives and work of five female spiritualists—artists Hilma af Klint, Emma Kunz, Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington and occultist Helena Petrovna Blavatsky—Elizabeth Huey presents an engaging new series of paintings and ceramics in the aptly titled exhibition Divine Intervention. In her first solo show at The Pit, the Yale MFA grad offers allegorical mashups of inspirational muses in idyllic settings. Gathered in forests and grottos, by bodies of water and around enchanting architecture, her figures harmoniously inhabit dreamlike domains.

Courtesy of The Pit, Los Angeles, Photo by Jeff McClane

Installation view of Elizabeth Huey: Divine Intervention at The Pit.

Filled with referential symbols and patterns, Winged Creatures (Af Klint) features a mystical deity sending a cosmic ray to the thoughts of a reclining female nude, The Oval Lady (Carrington) shows a sleeping woman having a hallucinatory vision, A Seance for Secret Doctrines (Blavatsky) reveals strange rituals in American and Russian realms, Penta’s Grotto (Kunz) exposes an outstretched female nude observing a mountainous landscape from a cave and She Who Was Called (Varo) depicts a dreaming woman surrounded by an angel and cherubs. The accompanying ceramics capture the spirit of the heroines in bright colors and abstract forms, while two additional canvases pay homage to the Christian mystics Saint Francis of Assisi and Hildegarde von Bingen in equally fantastical ways.

Courtesy Gavlak Los Angeles

Alex Anderson, Disposable Light, 2020.

Alex Anderson: Little Black Boy Makes Imperial Porcelains
Gavlak

A painter and ceramicist of African-American and Japanese descent, Alex Anderson makes art about the black experience using aesthetic styles historically related to western imperial power. Depicting America as the pretty landscape where blacks are seen as the stain on it, Anderson references Japanese pop culture’s use of the emoji as a universal language for emotion in his allegorical, glazed earthenware works. The self-descriptive title of the show, Little Black Boy Makes Imperial Porcelains, hits the nail on the head, as the artist expresses a variety of observations of his life experiences.

Mixing a minimal use of a white and gold palette with moments of more colorful and theatrical actions, Anderson creates metaphoric sculptures and reliefs to convey his anxieties, desires, and dreams. “The white and gold aesthetic references the opulence of capitalism and the stark perfection of fascism, which captures a lot of what goes into the complex cultural aspects of America today," Anderson said via phone interview. “It’s also the language of luxury and desire, which brings up consumption, and capitalism is all about consuming.”

Courtesy Gavlak Los Angeles

Installation view of Alex Anderson: Little Black Boy Makes Imperial Porcelains at Gavlak Los Angeles.

Pearanoia shows an anxious black pear about to be picked and consumed by a reaching white hand, while eyes in the flowers keep it under surveillance. Don’t Touch My Hare, which shows a hand tapping a standing rabbit on the head, references the uneasiness of a black person having someone wanting to feel the texture of his hair, while White Rabbit I and II, which portray the animals surrounded by snakes, referencing the rabbit as prey, which is hunted, runs, and is then killed. And Disposable Light depicts the exploitation of black bodies and black ideas as metaphorical light, where black culture is used by white society and sold at will. In it, the black figure is lit, used, burnt out, and discarded, which perfectly encapsulates the artist’s chilling observations on racial concerns.

Courtesy the artist and Kayne Griffin Corcoran, Los Angeles

Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Queens for a Day, 2012.

Aline Kominsky-Crumb
Kayne Griffin Corcoran

Best known as a cartoonist, Aline Kominsky-Crumb received a BFA from the University of Arizona in 1971, but after being introduced to underground comix she relocated to San Francisco and met celebrated cartoonist Robert Crumb, who would become her lifelong partner. One of the first contributors to the all-female anthology Wimmin’s Comix, co-founder of the comic series Twisted Sisters and a former editor of the alternative comics’ collection Weirdo, Kominsky-Crumb returned to painting, while continuing with comics, when she and R. Crumb moved to the South of France in 1991.

Courtesy the artist and Kayne Griffin Corcoran, Los Angeles, Photo by Flying Studio

Installation view of Aline Kominsky-Crumb at Kayne Griffin Corcoran.

The artist’s initial exhibition with the gallery features a selection of autobiographical ink on paper comics and colorful mixed-media drawings from the 1970s to the present. The drawings humorously embrace past times and recall significant women in her life, such as Joan Rivers, née Joan Molinsky, while the self-confessional comics include Grief on Long Island, Deep Thoughts From My Kitchen and Dream House, a thirty-page story that follows her journey from a suburban tract home in the Five Towns of Long Island to a medieval dwelling in the South of France. 

“All of my work is autobiographical,” she said in a 2017 interview. “I don’t know how to make anything up. I once did a comic about a friend and her two-timing boyfriend with her permission and when she read it she never talked to me again. When you come from a Jewish family that’s constantly fighting and bickering, there’s so much material.”

About the Author

Paul Laster

Paul Laster is an artist, critic, curator, editor, and lecturer. He is a contributing editor at ArtAsiaPacific and Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art and writer for Time Out New York, Galerie Magazine, Harper’s Bazaar Arabia, Architectural Digest, Cultured, Garage Magazine, Ocula, ArtPulse, Observer, Conceptual Fine Arts and Glasstire. He was Artkrush’s founding editor, started The Daily Beast's art section and was art editor of Russell Simmons’ Oneworld Magazine, as well as an Adjunct Curator of Photography at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, now MoMA PS1.

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