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walker

Kara Walker’s art disturbs me.  The first time I experienced her work, I was in Arcana Books in Culver City and I found a catalog from one of her cut out shows (I think it was at the Walker Art Center).  I was drawn by the nostalgic look of the cutouts which on some cellular level tapped into fond memories.  Then I looked deeper…

With every turn of the page the themes grew more disturbing transporting me to a dark place in our history that we don’t like to visit.  On numerous occasions during visits to MOCA L.A. I’ve been drawn to the above sketch by the artist and each time I view it I see something new.  The title in itself is fascinating.

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“Art should disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed.”  ~Cesar A Cruz

This piece shook me out of my comfort level.  I value Walker’s ability to force a deeper conversation and to confront extremely uncomfortable themes of race, sexuality, power, bias and violence in the context of our past while also reflecting the realities of our present.

Kara Walker’s work came to mind when I heard the confounding news today about the Oklahoma legislature voting to ban AP History over some notion that the new curriculum teaches students what’s “bad” about America.

I found this quote by Walker on MOCA’s website, and I think it crystallizes this desire to compartmentalize our history and reframe it in the most positive light.  We want the whimsical, crafty cutouts, but don’t want to peel back those layers to get to the real story.

I don’t know how much I believe in redemptive stories, even though people want them and strive for them. They’re satisfied with stories of triumph over evil, but then triumph is a dead-end. Triumph never sits still. Life goes on. People forget and make mistakes. Heroes are not completely pure, and villains aren’t purely evil. I’m interested in the continuity of conflict, the creation of racist narratives, or nationalist narratives, or whatever narratives people use to construct a group identity and to keep themselves whole—such activity has a darker side to it, since it allows people to lash out at whoever’s not in the group. That’s a contact thread that flummoxes me.”

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Of the hundreds of songs that are in regular rotation on my iPod, I am willing to bet that Nile Rodgers had something to do with over half of them.  There was a period of time as a child when every record or tape I owned carried a Nile Rodgers producer credit.

The man is a musical genius.  I’m watching the Stevie Wonder tribute right now and am so touched to hear current artists pay homage to a legend who influenced their art.  I feel the same way about Nile Rodgers.  With a career spanning 40 years Rodgers inspires new generations of artists and has a musical sound that is the aural equivalent of Midas’ touch.

I’m not kidding when I say that much of my music collection bears the Nile Rodgers sound.  (Grace Jones, David Bowie, Diana Ross, INXS, Depeche Mode, Duran Duran, ABC, Jody Watley, Daft Punk, Disclosure…. I could go on and on).

2015 is going to be a big year for him as Chic is going to be coming out with a new album (the first single will be released in March).  Today I decided to go down memory lane listening to tracks produced by this legend in music, and I love this video because it is iconic in so many ways.  Frankly anytime I can see Grace Jones in a Keith Haring dress is a win win.  It is a bonus that Rodgers’ magic was on the track (love his hi-top fade in the vid too).

I am also both touched and inspired to hear about his battle with prostate cancer a few years ago.  He jumped head first into projects during his battle which really appeared to be a cathartic way to manage his fight.  This blog post by Rodgers has convinced me to snag a copy of his memoir. Can’t wait to read it.

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                 Confrontation, Samella Sanders Lewis. Photo Credit: Artnet

Artist and historian Samella Sanders Lewis does not shy away from confrontation.  As a child she found her voice through artistic expression and she was staunchly protective of her voice, fighting any force that tried to intimidate her into silence. Her career, particularly her art history education in the 1940’s was fraught with hostility and confrontation, but these challenges only sharpened her resolve.

I read through a series of interviews between the artist and Richard Candida Smith in 1997, and one excerpt was particularly interesting as it relates to the idea of identity politics.  It certainly has current day relevence when I think about millennial celebrities who struggle with their fame and their identity. Reading through the volumes of this in-depth interview showed me that there is an art to confrontation, and it brings to life the old adage of “iron sharpening iron”.  Here’s what Lewis had to say about identity, as she relays a conversation she had with her former teacher/mentor Elizabeth Catlett.

I just talked to Elizabeth about an hour ago, and I remember something that we used to go around and say to artists who didn’t see themselves as black artists. We used to propose these questions: Were you an artist first, or were you a human being, a person? If you were a person, what were you? When you became an artist, did you lose your identity? It’s still going on, that controversy, and I guess that’s why some artists still want to divorce themselves. I don’t think you ought to go around saying, ‘I’m a white artist,’or, ‘I’m a black artist,’ necessarily, but you can’t hide the fact that
you’re a black artist, and you don’t have to hide the fact that you’re a white artist, because in this country that’s who the artists are, and that’s who the citizens are. So that’s still a controversy.”

Compelling questions and a dialog that needs to continue in the arts today.

One day I was sitting in my hair stylist’s studio where she has a small table with a dish of candy on it.  A man in the studio, displeased by the offerings in the dish lamented, “Why don’t you have any black candy?”. “Black Candy?” A playful argument ensued, but I found the question absurdly random.  Why must every facet of our existence be compartmentalized and consumed along racial boundaries?

When artist Lorraine O’Grady was confronted with a similar, albeit deeper question about avant-garde art and whether or not it had anything to do with black people, the artist set out to prove her naysayer wrong.  In 1983, she took a team to the Harlem African-American Day parade and attempted to shatter the barriers between art and subject.

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In “Art Is” she turned the parade audience into the art, shattering the notion of experiencing art a static context and transforming the experience into a dynamic, living, cultural phenomenon.  The smiles and excitement captured on this day are absolutely beautiful.

To view the sideshow from “Art Is”, click here.

Admittedly, one area of conceptual contemporary art that I infrequently explore and struggle to comment on is Performance Art.  In 2014 the Walker Art Center curated a performance art exhibition that showcases black artists and their contributions to this unique creative medium. Radical Performance was the first large-scale retrospective of its kind. Curator Valerie Cassel Oliver stated it was more than a retrospective, it was a living history documenting the process of artistic creation.  The show presented an interdisciplinary representation of performance art from light, sound, dance, and sculptural performance that provided a unique commentary on the creative process. What I didn’t realize is that performance art is often used as a catalyst for developing concepts that are used in more traditional artistic expression.  Think of it as a kinetic brainstorming session.

The Walker show ended in January, but this video featuring Valerie Cassel Oliver explains the evolution of this exhibition and the impetus behind Radical Performance.

I don’t know how it is possible, but each picture I see of Naomi Sims is simply flawless.

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Designer Zac Posen posted some pictures of Naomi Sims today on Instagram, and this one was truly gorgeous.  An original street style artist if there ever was one.  Bonus:  I am obsessed with capes but I live in Los Angeles so long for cape weather…*sighs*.

Naomi Sims, New York Times Magazine, 1967.  Photo:  Gosta Peterson, Credit: The Cut

Naomi Sims, New York Times Magazine, 1967. Photo: Gosta Peterson, Credit: The Cut

Alas, just when I thought that first picture was the ultimate, I stumbled on this Naomi Sims 1967 photo from the New York Times Magazine. The cover was legendary and this shot by GÖSTA PETERSON shows that when an artist and muse work well together it is hard to know where one ends and the other begins.

For her ability to work a camera and some boss capes, I am dedicating my artist a day post to a legend.  Naomi Sims was a stylish artiste in every possible way.

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The music of my youth.  Perhaps it’s the memory that is pristine, but the music is as old as dirt.  This piece comes off as cheeky, but it got me thinking about some very personal issues.

How much is memory shaped by the cultural touch-points that define our lives?  For the elderly suffering from dementia and memory loss, how do we unlock memories that are so far hidden?  Severe memory loss and Alzheimer’s is a disease that hits extremely close to home in my family.  I am amazed when I read stories and see videos about how music has a unique way of unlocking certain events that were otherwise deeply buried in the mind.  Somewhere swirling around is the answer to this extremely debilitating epidemic; the abstraction in this piece by Oakland born artist Sadie Barnette forced me to think about how our memories of music shape our memories of life events.

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