“Places of Validation, Art and Progression” opened at the California African American Museum last Thursday as part of Pacific Standard Time , the museum-wide collaboration highlighting the birth of the Los Angeles art scene. The exhibit displays art by African-American artists in Los Angeles from the 1940s to the 1980s.A video of interviews with the artists plays at the entrance of the gallery and sets the tone for the exhibit.“It’s our art. It’s not anybody else’s art,” says painter Samella Lewis. “We have to validate ourselves if it’s going to be authentic. White folks tend to only validate in terms of their vision.”
The artists in “Places of Validation” define and express themselves in a myriad of eclectic styles and media. Over 65 artworks are displayed, including bronze sculptures, portraits, conceptual art, assemblages and abstract paintings. Even posters, opening invitations, photographs and letters have a place in this revealing portrayal of the Los Angeles art scene among this small but prolific community.
Some of the most compelling pieces were by David Hammons, a multimedia artist that went on to win the MacArthur Fellowship (also known as the “Genius Grant”) in 1991.His featured art is from the 1940s to the 1970s and is characterized by black pigment body prints, reminiscent of Yves Klein’s blue body paintings. But Hammons’ choice of two-dimensional surfaces communicates a provocative message about race and opportunity, or lack thereof. In “The Door (Admissions Office),” the black imprint of a face, hands and torso pressed up against the glass references the lack of access to higher education in the black community. A smaller, more abstract body print lays on top of a page of job classifieds in “Chronically Unemployed,” conveying a similar message of inequality.
Another artist that stands out is Betye Saar, an artist known for her assemblages, three-dimensional artworks using found objects. “Nine Mojo Secrets” has a mystical quality with symbols from different sources and cultures - a star of David, a lion for the zodiac sign Leo and a National Geographic photograph of an African ceremony. The layers of this engaging work will conjure up different associations and stories for each viewer.
“Places of Validation” undertook the difficult task of representing African-American artists in Los Angeles from 1940 to 1980. The breadth and variety of works shown illustrate that there is no stereotypical black artist. The eclectic nature of the exhibit can be hard to sift through, and the design doesn’t necessarily group works into easily identifiable themes. But I suggest finding the works that speak to you, then stepping back to look at the whole of the exhibit. “Places of Validation” in its entirety provides a greater understanding of the history, progression and significance of African-American artists.