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June 15, 2018

review: Titus Kaphar and Ken Gonzales-Day Reveal the Fictions in Depictions

WASHINGTON, DC — Titus Kaphar’s art career was born from a bad art history class. During a lecture at the National Portrait Gallery, where his two-person show with Ken Gonzales-Day, Unseen: Our Past in a New Light opened in March of this year, Kaphar recalled the art survey class that inspired his practice. When his professor announced that they would be skipping the chapter on African art, he felt insulted. As the only person of color in the room, Kaphar felt an obligation to politely express his displeasure, which was rebuffed.   more

The experience has motivated him for close to two decades of potent art making.

Kaphar adapts classical painting and sculpture to critique the whiteness of art history and create alternate narratives — not just to remember those left out of the cannon, but also to criticize a systemic process of deliberate obfuscation on the part of museums, historians, and institutions. The folded, rolled, cut, and embellished paintings that Kaphar exhibits in Unseen feel oddly prescient here, in Washington, DC. Until recent years, the museum devoted itself mainly to traditional portraiture, featuring grand images of historical leaders and famous Americans with little diversity — in short, white American propaganda.

With the recent addition of official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald at the National Portrait Gallery and a permanent collection in the Smithsonian American Art Museum section that now includes Kerry James Marshall, Jean-Michael Basquiat, Mickalene Thomas, and Mark Bradford, a rush of inclusive energy has arrived. An exhibition like Unseen is the perfect vehicle to continue to push the boundaries of traditional portraiture at NPG through their Portraiture Now series of exhibitions started in 2006 to showcase and encourage contemporary portraiture. Not only does Unseen elevate and promote diverse narratives, starting to remedy a historic homogeneity in portraiture displayed here, it also critiques the role of art museums in the deliberate omission of those other stories.

As Kaphar noted in his lecture: “All depiction is fiction.” When an artist creates an image, the product is never an unbiased or historically impartial account. However, we cannot deny that the grand representation of America’s founding fathers and other wealthy, white historical figures has impacted our nation’s conception of history. Whether we like it or not, the artwork of today becomes the historical record of tomorrow. If the major stumbling block of American history is the negation of the agency of anyone but white men, it is then no surprise that museums, art history courses, and our collective consciousness includes few women and people of color, despite their numerous contributions. It is heartening to see this omission starting to change through the inclusion of works by artists of color at the NPG.

Rather than creating singular portraits, Titus Kaphar problematizes existing art historical — especially propagandistic — images. The best of his works hit like a sucker punch and make you feel history like a phantom limb: an aching, tingling sense of what we have lost, all the omissions of significance from our history books. This lack is felt directly in the work where images are cut apart and portraits are submerged in tar or covered by shroud-like swaths of raw canvas or shredded fabric clusters.

“Behind the Myth of Benevolence” (2014) is the most direct of Kaphar’s works in Unseen. The large painting layers one image over another, with Thomas Jefferson’s face recognizable but partially obscured in an accordion of folding canvas. Like a curtain, Jefferson’s face is drawn to the side to reveal another classical oil painting underneath. A nude black woman meets your gaze with powerful, yet tired eyes. All you can see is her face, shoulder, and knee, and she appears to be exotically portrayed like other “bather” Neoclassical images from Western art, wearing a gold and blue headdress with a serving pitcher in the background.

Kaphar said that this image wasn’t intended to specifically refer to Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings, since Hemmings was much lighter-skinned (as the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife, Martha) than the model he chose for this piece. However, he did want to point out how unlikely it was that Jefferson fathered children with Hemmings only, that it was a common practice for plantation owners to rape enslaved women.

The idea of “benevolent” slavery, which is becoming more and more common in revisionist white supremacist history, is handily attacked in this piece, which posits Jefferson as a symbol for all white, slave-owning Americans and the anonymous black woman (whose humanity is palpable) for all enslaved people. Jefferson’s self-satisfied smile and proud comportment, his reputation as an enlightened thinker and co-author of the Declaration of Independence, juxtaposed with this mysterious woman is searing, her namelessness next to Jefferson adding to its power. Her lyrically painted figure, similar to an Ingres bather, places her squarely into an art history that deliberately forgot her and transformed Jefferson into a holy deity.

What is most successful about the works in Unseen is how they question specific historical narratives as well as the general practice of portraiture. This double critique can be seen in the twin portraits of Billy Lee and Ona Judge, where each is painted in a classical style but skin and hair are rendered in a lumpy impasto of tar. By using a traditional visual language and showing that it is not a neutral practice, Kaphar extends his ideas to the entire collection at the National Portrait Gallery, infusing historic works with new questions and energy.

Where Kaphar’s narratives focus on African Americans, the other artist featured in Unseen, Ken Gonzales-Day, creates images which center around Native Americans, Asians, and Latinos, that also expose cultural bias and the inadequacy of current historical narratives.

Although it’s described as one exhibition with one title, Unseen functions more like two solo shows, since the work of the two artists are not placed in proximity, but installed in separate, side-by-side galleries. It’s impossible to view them at the same time, which is fine visually, but does not create an opportunity for much cross-pollination to occur.

Theoretically, Kaphar and Gonzales-Day balance out a vital conversation about America’s underrepresented people — each through expertly designed means. However, Kaphar’s images immediately trigger emotions while Gonzales-Day’s require gradual and intellectual processing. Kaphar’s work is a forest fire, while Gonzales-Day’s is a slow burn. In both cases, the work is strong but the timing seems off; the viewer to forced to process each exhibition through exclusive modes that encourage focusing on just one or the other.

In Gonzales-Day’s half of Unseen, elegant, oversized photos feature white classical marble statues, cropped and positioned against black backgrounds. The images subtly offer a commentary on the history of Western art, in contrast with the dominant narratives they were intended to represent. Some feature photos of statues in symbolic poses, like “America,” printed 2017 which depicts the nude female statue from behind, suggesting that she has turned her back on her people or that she has been distracted from her purpose.
Other works depict historic lynching photos, but the artist has Photoshopped the victim’s body out of the scene, leaving just a crowd of white people milling around a tree. The works are understated, and, next to Kaphar, and inside a marble institution, blend in like camouflage rather than demand your attention. In his talk earlier that evening, Gonzales-Day showed images of his photos displayed on giant billboards. Their power in a public environment, especially outside a museum, was immediate proving that context plays an essential role in the impact of his work.

Even from the structure of this essay, it’s obvious that Kaphar’s work is more direct in its message than Gonzales-Day’s, and thus easier to talk about. It can be immediately consumed, satisfyingly Instagrammed, and his images stay with you after you leave. This is in no way a criticism of Gonzalez-Day’s work, but it is an argument for a more careful consideration of curatorial strategy, especially when working with artists of color who specifically engage with an art history that has purposefully left them out.

Although both artists in Unseen critique omissions in the art historical cannon and offer compelling counter narratives, it is not enough to place their work in neighboring museum galleries and call it a show. Each artist here deserves his own title and his own curatorial materials, in order to make sure that each are considered equally and on their own terms. The goal of any two-person show is to enhance the work of artists by placing them in conversation with another artist who can elevate, expand, or challenge their work, but this is not the case here. Differences in the temperament of each could and should have been more carefully considered in order for each artist to benefit from proximity with the other.

As it is, both exhibits are well worth a visit. I suggest coming back more than once in order to allow Gonzalez-Day’s delicate works to slowly unfold within your consciousness after it’s been jogged awake by Kaphar’s dramatic declarations.

UnSeen: Our Past in a New Light, Ken Gonzales-Day and Titus Kaphar is up through January 2019 at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. (8th and F Streets NW). This exhibition continues the National Portrait Gallery’s Portraiture Now series.
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June 10, 2018

review:
Deborah Roberts: Fragile but Fixable / Luis De Jesus Gallery, through June 16, 2018

By Shana Nys Dambrot

Mixed media collages by Deborah Roberts give physical expression to an essential psychosocial phase of human development — adolescence. Her works deftly interpret the time in everyone’s life when we really start to consciously figure out who we are becoming. Roberts takes a special focus on young women and in particular what is unique in such moments to the African-American experience. Yet at the same time, these pictures poignantly unpack the structure of what is also a fundamental human experience.   more

Strong in broad strokes and rich in details, both lovely and unsettling, the works have a self-possession and presence that requires attention be paid.

Roberts constructs hybrid portraits, both fractured and holistic, harvesting meaning from her materials through a mix of found and made imagery. By using an assertively aggregating idiom like mixed media photo-based collage, she both shows and tells how the stories of her characters are the very narratives of acquiring the layers and textures of their personalities, in physical, spiritual, intellectual, sartorial, and literary traits. Her work employs a system for organizing elements of composition which mirrors the way the human brain learns and grows, by a sponge-like process of absorption, mimicry, experimentation, and eventually, decision-making. From many parts, one person.

Each young woman is shown to be a mix of aspects culled from several figures, often with extra limbs and adult-sized hands, as if suggesting the scale of what they still have to grow into in their lives, the promise and potential, the pathways of those who’ve gone before. It’s like a high-minded literary analogy to playing dress-up, tracing the acquisition of heroes. The empathy of works like these is universal, as the cusp-of-womanhood age-range is emblematic of adolescence as a time of transformation. But with Roberts’ compositions, the vernacular of the details in the iconography, as well as the race of the actual young women, speaks to a specific set of experiences to consider on its own terms.

The use of abstract patterns as textiles both deviates from and conforms to visual expectations, operating like Op Art but functioning pictorially as an essential part of the portraits, the garments. In fact, every element in Roberts’ pictures does at least two things. For example, the found photographs, painting, text, and drawing, including images of girls, radical and historical figures, and contemporary female role models like Michelle Obama and Gloria Steinem. These source images are both visual elements, often manipulated or obscured or transformed, and also they inhere in themselves content references that frame and move the story of what the work is doing.

The several pieces included that are lists of names rather than figurative portraits evoke 20th-century classics of word-art, but they are not just any names. Within the idea that list-making performs a visual function in the realm of painting and drawing, the thing with these particular names, is that those aren’t the names the nice white lady reads at the end of Romper Room. Susan, Jenny, Amanda…not so much Skarkesha, Shonique, or Latifah. That is but one way in which Roberts’ choices of source materials and augmented imagery interrogate the prevalence of whiteness, in face and name, as an accepted “universal” standard of beauty which leaves everyone else out. Ultimately Roberts’ visually stunning work succeeds by examining what is both unique about her girls, and also what their experiences can teach us all.

www.luisdejesus.com
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 https://artandcakela.com/2018/06/10/deborah-roberts-at-luis-de-jesus/

May 30, 2018

L.A. Times Review: Deborah Roberts' powerful statement of black female identity

Deborah Roberts’ black girls are beautiful in their incongruity. The artist from Austin, Texas, has her first exhibition in L.A. at the Luis De Jesus gallery, and the collages and text works explore preteen awkwardness and the syncretic nature of black female identity. The images celebrate what it means to contain multitudes.

Their most obvious precedent is the collage work of Romare Bearden, who documented African American life in the 1960s in dynamic compositions that channeled the energy of music.   more

Roberts’ portraits also feel musical, incorporating bold prints, bright colors and dramatic shifts in scale and perspective, but her eclecticism is much quieter. Her girls appear isolated on white grounds, the center of attention.

Most of them gaze out at the viewer, although their visages are amalgams of several faces. In “Political Lamb #3,” the girl gazes in two directions: one eye trained on us, the other in profile. Two of her four arms hold a numbered card up to her chest, as in a mug shot. The gravity of this detail belies the perky bows in her braided hair.

The arms and hands of older women appear throughout. In “Here before, here after,” a sweet girl wearing a tiara has hands that are startlingly wrinkled and gnarled, suggesting wisdom beyond her years. The outstretched, outsized hand in “The step back” is also clearly a grown-up’s. The subject’s other hand is clad in a bright red boxing glove. These girls, incorporating the experience of their elders, are not to be messed with.

Eclecticism also appears in text works that are simply lists of names. Monikers like “Sharkesha,” “Raeschell” and “Shonique” fuse and twist various linguistic traditions in the same way as the collages. They are creative refusals to be contained by any one culture or category.

Roberts’ works capture perfectly what it feels like to have assumptions and expectations foisted upon you, to feel like a collection of pieces instead of a person. If you are lucky, you will also be buoyed and strengthened by the traces of those who came before, in the creation of someone unprecedented.

Luis De Jesus, 2685 S. La Cienega Blvd., L.A. Through June 16; closed Sundays and Mondays. (310) 838-6000, 

May 26, 2018


MOLLY LARKEY FEATURED: "NEW CRYSTAL BRIDGES EXHIBIT PAIRS GEORGIA O'KEEFFE WITH CONTEMPORARY ARTISTS"

BENTONVILLE, Ark. — The works of Georgia O'Keeffe, the mother of American modernism, will be on display in a new exhibit that opens today at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

The exhibit, "The Beyond: Georgia O'Keeffe and Contemporary Art," brings together sculptures, murals, photographs and paintings by the American artist, whose life spanned from 1887 to 1986.   more

A total of 36 of her works, including sketchbooks that will be on public view for the first time, will be arranged in galleries by themes most often found in her pieces: "Flowers," "Finding the Figure," "The Intangible Thing," "Still Lifes," "Cities and Deserts" and "The Beyond." [ READ MORE ]

May 25, 2018


Molly Larkey featured: "Georgia O'Keeffe omnipresent in 'The Beyond' exhibition at Crystal Bridges"

BENTONVILLE -- Georgia O'Keeffe's iconic painting, Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1, is one of the first pieces visitors will see when they enter the exhibition gallery at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art over the next several months.

"It's a real cornerstone of the history of American art," Alligood said Thursday.

The piece also is a cornerstone of "The Beyond: Georgia O'Keeffe and Contemporary Art," a temporary exhibition that opens at the Bentonville museum this weekend.   more

The Crystal Bridges-organized show takes a broad look at O'Keeffe's career, which produced works like Jimson Weed, Lake George, Coat and Red (1919), Radiator Building -- Night, New York (1927), Flying Backbone (1944) and The Beyond (1972). [ READ MORE ]

May 25, 2018


MOLLY LARKEY FEATURED: "'The Beyond,' works by O'Keeffe and others, to open at Crystal Bridges"

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville goes above and into "The Beyond" with an exhibition of 36 works by Georgia O'Keeffe spanning her career and works by contemporary artists whose sensibilities hearken to O'Keeffe's. The show opens Saturday, May 26.

The O'Keeffes come from CBMAA's permanent collection — including works it shares with Fisk University in Tennessee — and public and private collections. The title of the show is taken from an abstract painting on loan from the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe.   more

The museum once contested Crystal Bridges' arrangement with Fisk to co-own the collection from the estate of Alfred Stieglitz that O'Keeffe donated to Fisk; apparently, the two institutions have buried the hatchet.  [ READ MORE ]

May 23, 2018


DEBORAH ROBERTS FEATURED IN THE PARIS REVIEW

FRAGILE BUT FIXABLE: THE COLLAGES OF DEBORAH ROBERTS

“Fragile but Fixable,” Deborah Roberts’s Los Angeles solo debut, is on view at Luis De Jesus Los Angeles through June 16. In her collages, Roberts takes found images of black women and girls and alters them with pigment and paint, manipulating the optics of advertisement to create new fictions of beauty. “My art practice,” she writes, in her artist statement, “takes on social commentary, critiquing perceptions of ideal beauty.   more

Stereotypes and myths are challenged in my work; I create a dialogue between the ideas of inclusion, dignity, consumption, and subjectivity by addressing beauty in the form of the ideal woman.” [ READ MORE ]

May 12, 2018


DEBORAH ROBERTS FEATURED IN THE LOS ANGELES TIMES DATEBOOK

Deborah Roberts, “Fragile but Fixable,” at Luis De Jesus Los Angeles Projects. Based in Texas, the artist is known for creating collages out of found photographs, paintings and drawings. These often depict black girls entering adolescence, evoking moments of drama, strength and joy. It is Roberts’ first solo show in Los Angeles. Opens Saturday at 6 p.m. and runs through June 16. 2685 S. La Cienega Blvd., Culver City, luisdejesus.com. [ READ MORE ]

May 01, 2018


KEN GONZALES-DAY FEATURED ON KCRW ART TALK

AMERICAN & RUSSIAN MUSEUMS EXPLORE PAINFUL NATIONAL HISTORIES

...And talking about lynching – this time, an even less explored chapter of America’s history. I am reminded of Los Angeles photographer Ken Gonzales-Day, who showed powerful and heartbreaking photos at Luis De Jesus Los Angeles in 2015, where he recreated scenes of the lynching of a Latino in California as part of his series, Erased Lynching. Gonzales-Day hopes this series will bring greater visibility to the presence of Latinos in the history of lynching in the US... [ READ MORE ]

April 30, 2018


Deborah Roberts FEATURED ON ARTSY: "Getting Their Due"

In the past few years, the art world has begun to more graciously reward artists who have honed their practice over previous decades, while remaining inexplicably under-the-radar. Artists like these 10 members of The Artsy Vanguard—a new, annual list of the 50 most influential talents shaping The future of contemporary art practice—are finally getting their due, with museum retrospectives, representation by major international galleries, and surging collector interest. [ READ MORE ]