Do I Look Like a Lady? Mickalene Thomas at MOCA

Mickalene Thomas, Do I Look Like a Lady?  at MOCA Los Angeles. Photo Credit: MOCA

“We wear the mask that grins and lies,

It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,

This debt we pay to human guile;

With torn and bleeding hearts we smile…”

~Paul Lawrence Dunbar

Installation View of Do I Look Like a Lady?, Photo:CSA

There’s something strangely familiar inside the dimly lit living room installation of Mickalene Thomas’s latest exhibition, “Do I Look Like a Lady?” at MOCA. The gallery space is embellished in rich tapestries, patterned mosaic wallpaper, linoleum tiles and colorful patchwork upholstered chairs that glow in warm shades of pumpkin, ginger and amber.  Four large scale mirrored silkscreened portraits of black icons surround a living room installation decorated with chairs, ottomans, large stuffed pillows and plants.  You’re invited to take a seat in space which faces a large dual screen video projection featuring a collage of YouTube footage of various black women singers, performers and comediennes. The cozy, sumptuous setting combined with the raucous sounds of singing, laughing and jokes immediately transported me to the days of my childhood and afternoons sitting on large floor pillows in the family room. During Saturday night parties you could find me hiding under tables eavesdropping on the jokes and stories I wasn’t supposed to hear and when I wasn’t hiding under tables or on the stairs, I’d investigate the record and book collections of the homes we would visit.  So I found it funny that my eyes were drawn to the stacks of books and the pillows placed on the floor of Thomas’ installation.  To this day I jokingly say that if you invite me to your home the first thing I notice are the books; hidden within this exhibition you will discover an impressive selection of black literature including Richard Wright, Eldridge Cleaver, Zadie Smith, Toni Morrison, Octavia Butler Jamaica Kincaid and Lorraine Hansberry.  One’s collection of books reveal a lot about the reader and they shatter the artifices we spend so much time cultivating around us.


The theme of the shattered facade is repeated in the four portraits of Diahann Carol, Diana Ross, Pam Grier and Naomi Sims that line the gallery walls. The mirrored paintings take on a holographic quality once you notice that there are multiple images painted onto the surface.  The prints are detailed in mosaic patterns that cleverly reveal the multiplicities of the women featured within the space. The placement of iconic women with fragmented images dismantles the barriers between the women’s public and private personas, but they also reflect the ever-shifting roles that black women must activate to counteract the effects of sexism, racial bias and hostility towards sexual identity.  The physical relationship between the shattered images taking up residence in a safe space that feels like “home” allows women to both remove the social masks worn out of a need for survival and still feel whole within the many roles that define our lives as women.

Mickalene Thomas, Naomi Sims, 2016. Silkscreen ink on acrylic mirror. Photo: CSA

The dual screen video projection on the gallery wall activates the space and the conversations taking place within it.  The installation features segments of musical performances and comedic bits by Nina Simone, Eartha Kitt, Moms Mabley, Whoopie Goldberg and others in a kaleidoscope of images, soundbites, quips and snaps. The women in this room are having a conversation and as they share their tales of love, life and drama, I couldn’t help but feel like I was transported back to the floor under the table listening to my aunties and taking in all that wisdom.  These voices echo the kitchen table conversations among women all around us and in Do I Look Like a Lady?, Mickalene Thomas offers us a seat and encourages us to listen and learn from our proverbial aunties.



Mickalene Thomas, Do I Look Like a Lady? is on view at MOCA Los Angeles through February 6, 2017.

The Ghost in the Machine: Mark Bradford & Robert Glasper Combine Creative Forces

Apollo/Still Shining by Mark Bradford & Robert Glasper.  Photo c/o Christie’s 

Art and music collide in a beautifully explosive Steinway & Sons collaboration that showcases the Spirio piano in a new light.

The Steinway Commission pairs visual artists with Steinway musicians to create unique works of art that reflect their collaborative vision and process.  This three year project makes its debut with a Steinway Spirio piano that has been given the Mark Bradford & Robert Glasper touch.  In Apollo/Still Shining the Spirio (a high resolution player piano) undergoes a physical transformation that leaves the piano with the appearance of an instrument set ablaze, singed with flames that lash at the mahogany.  In lieu of the Steinway’s classic black lacquered gloss, Apollo’s surface takes on rich matte finish with a gilded gold tones.

Mark Bradford’s “Apollo” Photo: CultureShockArt

Bradford extends his artistic process by creating chemical alchemy with paper and pigment that imprints the piano with a sepia toned topography that is reminiscent of some of his late 2015 works.  While much of the work he created between 2014-2015 focused on the body, his innovative use of materials and process takes this work in a new direction.  With Apollo, Bradford leaves behind a mysterious shell of a form that begs to be uncovered.

Steinway’s Spirio piano reproduces live performances by capturing fine details in the pianist’s depressions during play. The grand piano automatically replicates and plays back the performance using a high resolution player piano system.  Photo: CultureShockArt

When I saw this piano I knew it had a story to tell.

Apollo is brought to life and given a voice in a melodic tale composed by jazz pianist and legendary producer Robert Glasper.  In Still Shining Glasper guides the listener on an emotional journey through waves of happiness, melancholy and despair.  The movements vacillate between light moments of whimsy to a manic, middle passage where chaotic chords of dissonance eventually give way to light, melodic notes of promise and hopefulness.  It is a cinematically sharp piece that harmonizes with Bradford’s Apollo to tell a complete story that manages to leave room for individual interpretation.  When I see Mark Bradford’s work my view is always heavily influenced by the cultural context that surrounds me at that given moment.

Mark Bradford, “Scorched Earth”

The first time I experienced Bradford’s “Scorched Earth” (2006), I learned about the Tulsa Race Riots of 1921.  When I last saw the same piece at the Broad in the summer of 2015, I was reminded of the anniversaries of the Watts Rebellion and the L.A. Riots of 1965 and 1992. In many respects, the tragic results following each of these incidents remained the same, yet the circumstances, dynamics and characteristics differ. With Apollo/Still Rising, the two artists tap into universal feelings of turmoil, social struggle and the desire to emerge from those challenges stronger and more resilient.  All of these concepts are timeless.

The inaugural Steinway commission is currently on view in L.A. during Christie’s Post War & Contemporary preview from April 8-13 (at UFO-Space on Highland).  On May 11th Apollo/Still Shining will be presented for auction where the proceeds from the sale will be allocated among three museums chosen by Steinway’s CEO Michael Sweeney (MOCA, the Studio Museum of Harlem and the Walker Art Center).  For those of you in New York, Christie’s will be hosting a special event on May 4th featuring Mark Bradford and Robert Glasper which will be hosted by the Studio Museum Director, Thelma Golden.  That’s a creative trio that will undoubtedly deliver on improvisational entertainment & enlightening artistic insight. For additional information on the L.A. preview, please see Christie’s website.

Artist a Day Challenge 2016-19: Noah Davis “The Imitation of Wealth”

Installation view of storefront: “Imitation of Wealth”, August 29,2015-February 22, 2016 at MOCA Grand Ave, courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, photo by Cameron Crone & Carter Seddon

Noah Davis’ storefront installation titled “Imitation of Wealth” is nearing the end of its 5 month run at MOCA Grand.  If you haven’t seen it, you have 3 days left, it’s free and it’s a fascinating work.  The installation is housed in a small vacant conference room space across from the museum’s gift shop and is visible from the MOCA courtyard.  Peering into the storefront that resembles a diorama of “who’s who” in contemporary art, the installation features 5 recreations of works by Jeff Koons, On Kawara, Dan Flavin, Robert Smithson and Marcel Duchamp.  The exhibit is only accessible by viewing the works through storefront windows.  While the perfectly executed replicas provide some conceptual commentary on the proclivities of the art world and the visibility of a chosen few, my interest in the work lies behind the reason why it was created.

noah_davis-54-Installation View.jpg
Installation view of storefront:  “Imitation of Wealth” August 29, 2015-February 22, 2016 at MOCA Grand Ave, courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, photo by Cameron Crone & Carter Seddon

“I like the idea of bringing a high-end gallery into a place that has no cultural outlets within walking distance.” Noah Davis, 2013, Art In America

Davis and his wife Karon opened the Underground Museum in a converted pupuseria located in Arlington Heights/West Adams in 2012 with the goal of bringing “museum quality art to a traditional African American and Latino working class neighborhood.”  By embracing accessibility,  the Underground Museum challenges the perception of the exclusivity of art.  The concept is a noble one, however according to MOCA, when Davis reached out to museums and galleries he quickly found that institutions were unwilling to loan works to his new space. “Imitation of Wealth” was a response to that rejection and stands as a critique of the subjective standards of an art establishment that relies on exclusivity and perpetuates “otherness”.  It was the first exhibition shown at the Underground Museum.

What I particularly like about “Imitation of Wealth” is that it encapsulates many of the themes I discussed in my Artist a Day Challenge posts this week.

In Ruckus on the Runway I explored adaptation.  Black models featured in the Versailles runway show in 1973 show faced discrimination, racism and institutional bias in an industry that favors European aesthetics as the sole standard of beauty.  The models in the Battle of Versailles challenged those limited notions of beauty and brought a level of individuality and energy to the runway that forever changed the game in fashion.  Similarly, Davis flipped rejection on its head and created his own venue that not only provides exposure to new artists and “museum quality art” to the broader community, but he also exposed some of the vulnerabilities inherent in the art world today.

In Double America”, Glenn Ligon challenges society’s penchant for flash and style over substance in much the same way that Noah Davis challenged the art world’s universal embrace of a chosen few.

Jefferson Pinder’s “Invisible Man” addresses visibility and value in the same way that Davis uses these well known contemporary art decoys in “Imitation” as a device to provide a commentary on visibility/invisibility in the art world.

Lastly, David Hammons questions wealth and accessibility with the works created in his Basketball Hoop series.  Davis’ work compliments Hammons to the extent that both artists address questions of wealth, accessibility and disguise.

Installation view of storefront:  “Imitation of Wealth”, August 29, 2015-February 22, 2016 at MOCA Grand Ave, courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, photo by Fredrik Nilsen

It’s worth noting that Noah Davis’ body of work beyond “Imitation of Wealth” commands additional exploration as he has been widely celebrated in his own right in the art world. His figurative paintings are dark, emotional, and expressive.  In a subtle way “Imitation of Wealth” ultimately encourages us to explore art created by artists who may be invisible to the art world, but whose work and stories are equally relevant and important.

Sadly, around the time “Imitation of Wealth” was installed at MOCA in late August 2015, Noah Davis passed away at the age of 32 from cancer.  “Imitation of Wealth” is part of a multi-year partnership between the Underground Museum and MOCA where the two organizations will collaborate on additional shows. Future exhibits featuring MOCA works curated by Davis will be on view at the Underground Museum in partnership with his surviving family and wife, fellow artist Karon Davis.  The Underground Museum’s next show, “Non-Fiction” will open in March.

The “Artist a Day Challenge” celebrates Black History Month by highlighting Black artists and diverse forms of cultural expression across the African diaspora.  

Seeing Double at MOCA

Kahlil Joseph: Double Conscience

It’s a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” ~ W.E.B Du Bois


For me, a great litmus test for a good piece of art is if it remains on your mind long after you experience it.  Last Friday I saw Kahlil Joseph’s “m.A.A.d” a short film featured in Double Conscience, which is the music video director’s debut exhibition at MOCA.  The film takes viewers on a visual journey of the lives of residents of Compton.  Instead of sticking to a plot, dialog and story arcs, the film is an ethereal montage of moments that invite viewers to connect to the featured subjects on visceral level.  The film was presented on dual screens which allowed Joseph to creatively toggle between images. Kendrick Lamar’s, “Good Kid, m.A.A.d City” accompanied the piece as the soundtrack, my favorite being “Sing about me”.

Joseph’s background is in music video and short film production and he has a distinct dream-like style featuring stunning kinetic underwater sequences overlayed with audio that plays between the conscious and subconscious mind.

What was particularly powerful for me was when I saw m.A.A.d at MOCA which happened to be the week of the 23rd anniversary of the L.A. Riots.  Many of the images from the film were set in 1992 juxtaposed to current day Compton.  It was an emotionally resonate piece that speaks to Los Angeles’ history and the reality of our present time.

Double Conscience is also a nod to the W.E.B. Dubois’ concept of Double Consciousness which is the theory that explores the double bind African-Americans experience between who we are and how we are perceived by the rest of the world.  I was acutely aware of this theme as the only black woman present during the showing thinking about whether the individuals featured in this piece have seen themselves captivatingly shown in this format at MOCA.

Sturtevant:  Double Trouble

Sturtevant’s take on Andy Warhol and Felix Gonzales-Torres at MOCA

Perhaps I was too overwhelmed with my thoughts after m.A.A.d that I really didn’t give Double Trouble enough of a chance; I wish I had known more about the enigmatic Elaine Sturtevant prior to seeing the exhibit.  This is the first full museum exhibition of the artist since 1973 and her 53 year career features interpretive re-productions of top flight Abstract Expressionist artists. By re-creating these works she attempts to challenge viewers’ notion of art and the broader context under which it is created, consumed and popularized.

While I understand the concept, I struggled with MOCA’s ability to guide viewers through this process.  I think that the common criticism during the Deitch years was that he catered to the superficial trendy whims of what the world expects of Los Angeles and as a result curatorial rigor took a back seat (or was kicked to the curb depending on who you talk to).  With this exhibit the pendulum eerily swings in the other direction by showcasing these reproductions without guiding viewers through the interpretive process, so it became a confusing foray into sussing out what’s real and what is a copy.

The L.A. Times’ review of this show touches on the idea of mass knock offs which got me thinking about handbags.  In the 1990’s when Kate Spade handbags were the “it” bag, I visited a friend in New York and we scoured the streets for the perfect replica.  Just as we were about to give up on our quest, a woman sitting on a small mountain of concealed boxes spotted us and lifted her veil of blankets to reveal contraband handbags including a Kate Spade.  After closely inspecting them, I snapped one up.  Despite it being a really good copy, there was a slight flaw in a stitch that I discovered after I bought it.  I never wore that bag.  Admittedly it was not the only knock off I would purchase in my twenties, and over time I came to learn the importance of the proverb, “buy cheap, buy twice”.  The moral of this digression (and glimpse into my love for bags) is you have to study both to appreciate the value in the real thing.

According to the L.A. Times‘ review of Sturtevant this perhaps was the point the artist was trying to make but was her motivation out of contempt for the art world or in reverence of it? For me, the experience of viewing this exhibition left me with the same empty feelings of regret and disillusionment that I felt when I bought that bag. I think this personifies what many find so alienating about Contemporary Art.  Instead of building a bridge, this show created a cultural divide between those that “get it” and those that don’t.

Artist a Day Challenge No.5: Retna

One day, I will crack the code to Retna’s personalized alphabet that is a skillful fusion of Old English, Hebrew, Asian and Arabic calligraphy.  In the meantime, I enjoy his work in abstraction.  I love the symmetry and repetition in his murals. This particular one was painted for Jeffrey Deitch when he was at MOCA circa 2013.


Shadowplay: Behind Andy Warhol’s Shadows


I didn’t know what direction I should go into to describe Andy Warhol’s Shadows series.  This single work composed between 1978-1979 is comprised of 102 paintings designed to take the viewer on a journey of light and space.  While it is easy to simply write off this ambitious work as a single image painted 102 times, I found it to be an interesting self referential piece that shines a light on the man behind the artist.

When I look at things, I always see the space they occupy. I always want the space to reappear, to make a comeback, because it’s lost space when there’s something in it.”

Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol from A to B and Back Again

IMG 8317 from CultureShockArt on Vimeo.

In Shadows, Warhol took photos of two images in his studio at varying light levels.  From those pictures Warhol painted 102 panels representing how light and shadow distinctly influenced each painting.  It’s a moody piece that reads as a pictorial diary of the factory studio.  If these walls could have talked they would regale us with tales on the legendary “happenings” that took place among the bevy of artists, musicians, drag queens, drug users, socialites, shady hanger-ons, bankers and bums that were a part of the Warhol Superstars;  instead, we have an abstract work that invites us to imagine the circumstances that inspired the individual works.




Looking at the intricate differences among the panels it became easier to see how physical and emotional environments could have shaped their artistic variance. In some the acrylic paint forming the base of each piece is the focal point, in others the silkscreened process is dominant, and in many there is a harmonious balance.  Similarly, the colorways, brush strokes and paint layering assume an energy that appeared to be either influenced by or reflective of the psyche of the artist and his environment.  There were distinctly Warholian pops of saturated color amidst muted tones and grey/black paintings.  One panel shows the hazy diffused light reminscient of an overcast day but the next panel featured the same haze but the brush strokes were decidedly more manic.  The three categories of color wove their way through the entire work in a decidedly un-patterned pattern.

The work is considered an important bridge between the two poles of his career in pop art transitioning into the abstract.

That’s why I think this work is probably more important than it’s surface view suggests. As Warhol’s work pivoted to abstraction during this time, the meaning behind the piece is veiled leading many to distill this work into a study of light, but to me the shadows hide more than they reveal.

Leo Castelli (w/ Warhol in the background) at the opening of Shadows in 1979. Photo Credit: Archives of American Art

They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.”

Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol

Warhol carefully curated his public persona as the free wheeling ring leader of his own circus, and I think his foray into abstraction was a way to harmonize his public persona with his inner self.  By turning a light onto his figurative and personal shadows, he breathed life and emotion into them.  Whether or not that served as catharsis to the artist is completely unknown.

Andy Warhol’s Shadows are on view through February 2, 2015 at MOCA Grand in Los Angeles.

Cinderella Complex: The MOCA Gala and Zac Posen

Zac Posen, Fall 2014. Photo Credit: Vogue
Zac Posen, Fall 2014. Photo Credit: Vogue

So I’m kind of having a Cinderella moment.  The MOCA Gala is this evening and I’m not going.  To be honest the MOCA Gala hasn’t been on my radar since 2011, but I do love fashion, art and any opportunity where culture vultures can be viewed in their unnatural environment.  This year’s event is lacking the hype machine’s fervor this year, and there’s a pronounced lack of controversy (no rotating heads on tables, or live cadavers a la Marina Abramovic).  However in classic MOCA fashion, the 2014 Gala is sponsored by Louis Vuitton and will undoubtedly showcase the creme de la creme in Hollywood and the arts.  Absent are my favorite arts writers which I find curious, but I digress…

If these two weren't so fierce I would cast them as my step sisters in CultureShock Art's rendition of Cinderella.  Liz Goldwyn and Dita Von Teese.   Photo Credit: Liz Goldwyn, Instagram
If these two weren’t so fierce I’d cast them as step sisters in CultureShock Art’s rendition of Cinderella. Liz Goldwyn and Dita Von Teese.
Photo Credit: Goldilocksg, Instagram

In an attempt to assuage my feelings of ennui over not being Hollywood enough to attend a gala, I am watching Andre Leon Talley and Zac Posen talk fashion.  If I had a Cinderella moment, these two would show up with a glam squad and 3 gowns from Posen’s INCREDIBLE Fall/Winter 2014 collection and send me happily on my way. I adore how the simple, restrained tweed dresses and the impeccably constructed evening wear evoke Hitchcock’s femme fatale of the 50’s. Let’s not even mention the Opera Coat, it’s beyond words.

My obsession with this collection was immediate once I laid eyes on Posen’s Instagram video of Anna Cleveland in this show-stopping stunner of a gown last month.

I loved that Andre Leon Talley got a “behind the scenes” look at this amazing dress moment and also had an opportunity to chat with Zac Posen about his influences with this particular collection.

The entire collection is fantastic down to the fabulous shades, and of course anytime I see a cape, I’m delighted. Here’s the collection. I couldn’t agree with Posen more, “Elegance is timeless.”