Luckily, social media filled up with a relevant smackdown the day I checked out the new exhibit at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing the previous day on the implications of the Supreme Court’s decision to reverse Roe v. Wade, the landmark case that provided a constitutional right to abortion, UC Berkeley law professor Khiara Bridges schooled Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) on the unexpected consequences of the verdict.
Hawley, who gave a clenched-fist salute to the male white supremacist traitors who stormed the US Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, radiated haughtiness as Bridges coolly explained how serious harm, including physical violence, was caused by the refusal is going to recognize these transgender people and there are even non-binary people as both can actually get pregnant. The disgusting effects of reversing Roe don’t just hit women. In the academic clarity of her explanations, she could have written wall decals for ICA LA’s current exhibition, The Condition of Being Addressable.
The exhibition considers a proliferation of art that deals with the marginalized state of being socially and culturally invisible or, conversely, hyper-visible. Works by queer artists, women and artists of color can be seen. Twenty-five artists spanning multiple generations were brought together by Marcelle Joseph, an independent curator based in London, and Legacy Russell, executive director of The Kitchen, an experimental interdisciplinary art space in New York. They collaborated with ICA LA’s assistant curator, Caroline Ellen Liou.
Paintings, photographs, sculptures, installations and videos are included, with one and sometimes two pieces per artist being shown. Things start in the parking lot with a colorful four-panel mural by Argentine artist Ad Minoliti, whose flat but nimble mix of suggestive geometric and organic forms is said to be a “Aquelarre no binario / Non-binary circle.” Loose hints of interlocking limbs, heads, and other human or animal body parts flit between graphic characters, so you can’t be entirely sure what you’re looking at.
The same goes for a Sin Wai Kin video, albeit in a very different way. Presented as a conventional odalisque – a reclining nude – in an unexpectedly static five-minute video recording. The artist, who identifies as non-binary, takes gender performance to the extreme with outlandish makeup, a huge cascading wig, fishnet stockings and prosthetic breasts. Once you know Sin is a born drag queen, the usual drag exaggerations of hair, eyes, lips, legs, and bust size that traditionally satirize the erotic hotspots that catch the gaze of straight men are destabilized. Just who is being addressed here?
Nearby, a vintage 1975 digital print by Lynn Hershman Leeson provides some social and cultural backstories to Sin’s free-floating 2018 personal fiction ‘, a fictional person invented and fully inhabited from 1973 to 1978. Even this chosen moniker, Roberta Breitmore, sheds “more light” on “Roberta,” a feminized male name, and upends assumptions about confident self-portraiture.
Some of the show’s more humble work is among its most compelling. Tiona Nekkia McClodden’s photo, a pitch-black nighttime selfie of the black artist, renders her essentially invisible save for the bright white jacket she’s wearing. In silhouette, she holds up her cell phone camera, the flash of which is aimed directly at the viewer. Since McClodden’s photograph is under glass, her reflection encompasses her body – a provocatively incisive digital exploration of contemporary social and cultural representation.
High in the corner of a gallery, a small plastic dome with a flashing red light hints at the typical surveillance cameras that keep tabs on the comings and goings of art museum and gallery visitors. (Don’t touch!) However, Aria Dean flicked a subtle switch: This is a “dummy cam (icon)”, not a real camera, and all it does is idle blinking.
At least I think that’s all. Should we trust the information on the wall label since museums equipped with surveillance don’t seem to trust us? The tables are being turned as we monitor it now. One also asks oneself: Isn’t that enough for security reasons?
Is the mere threat of surveillance adequate security intimidation by ‘them’ against ‘us’? Dean’s sculpture reminded me of “blp,” those wonderfully odd, often blurry, little black wall sculptures in the shape of a rhombus that the late Richard Artschwager included here and there in his exhibitions to better confuse the otherwise routine event by encouraging visitors to do so to consider the context of the real world outside of his more conventional art objects in the exhibition. Think of Dean’s little sculpture as a jab at today’s ubiquitous electronic eye.
Dummy Cam (icon) sits in a corner between a signature work by an established artist, Lorna Simpson, and a more recent work by Troy Montes Michie, a younger, lesser known. The juxtaposition suggests historical continuities.
A high-quality Zoot suit dismembered and reassembled as a textile collage by Michie is titled “Tacuche #3,” a Mexican slang term for “suit” that also means “rag.” A pair of black dress shoes with glitter insoles tucked in hang from the tacuche hanger. Ignited by the story of violence against Mexican Americans embodied in the zoot suit, the sense of slippage – between elegance and trash, peace and pugnacity, polish and vulgarity, straight and queer – resonates with Lorna Simpson’s sequence of photographs and text . Six fragmentary, cropped images of a black man posing almost as if in a model shoot are underscored by seven text captions—too many for a one-to-one correspondence between word and image. Identity becomes a performance of changing perceptions between the seer and the seen.
Simpson’s Gestures/Reenactments was written in 1985, the year Michie was born. The exhibition makes smart cross-generational points with works by a number of women and BIPOC artists who emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, including Hershman Leeson and Ana Mendieta, represented here by a photo documentary showing how she gave a man the trims his unkempt beard and carefully trims his facial hair down to his own chin.
A downside, however, is a general New York/London curatorial bias in the overall selection. It feels quite narrow, albeit still wisely chosen.
For example, Mary Kelly’s use of compressed laundry fluff, an unusual art material, to create small panels of text is, as the accompanying wall label says, a “fleeting reminder of the never-ending rhythms of women’s chores” — as it was for the missing art of Slater Barron, nicknamed the Lint Lady of Long Beach in the 1970s. The beautifully painted detail of a vigilant Harriet Tubman, fearless abolitionist and social activist, by British artist Lubaina Himid would be interesting to compare with the similarly theatrically painted detail of Florence Nightingale, Tubman’s contemporary, done in 1977 by San Diego-based feminist artist Eleanor Antin , also absent. For an LA show, including artists like Barron and Antin would have made a lot of sense.
The most intriguing work is Sondra Perry’s sculpture, an eccentric office workspace cobbled together from an exercise bike and a rotating trio of flat screens. One reason is that unlike some other video works that require the awkward use of headphones to avoid disturbing other visitors, the transmission of sound is an integral part of Perry’s sculpture.
Put on the traditional exercise bike headphones and a hypnotic AI-made character floating across the screen will guide you through a maze of questions peppered with pointed observations. They begin with the question under what social conditions one could be in an art gallery in the middle of the day. Challenged to explain yourself, you’re eager to know more – the start of a clever workout in more ways than one.
“The Condition of Being Responsive”
Where: ICA LA, 1717 E. 7th St., Los Angeles
When: Wednesday to Sunday, 12pm to 5pm Closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. Until September 4th
Contact: (213) 928-0833, theicala.org