Critics’ Picks

John Outterbridge, Case in Point, ca. 1970, mixed media, 12 x 12 x 24".

John Outterbridge, Case in Point, ca. 1970, mixed media, 12 x 12 x 24".

Los Angeles

John Outterbridge

Art + Practice
3401 W. 43rd Pl
December 12, 2015–February 27, 2016

“Packages travel like people” reads a luggage tag affixed to John Outterbridge’s sculpture Case in Point, ca. 1970. A flat piece of brown painted canvas is buckled around seven stuffed oblong objects whose limb-like dimensions suggest the reverse of the tag’s claim. The work embodies a thinly veiled metaphor for the representation and treatment of black people as objects, and encountering it today insinuates an unsettling continuity between the eras of Black Power and Black Lives Matter. It’s a fitting point of entry into Outterbridge’s incisive and socially conscious work.

This artist’s practice is often contextualized in light of the 1965 Watts rebellion and his subsequent work as director of the Watts Towers Art Center, as well as his uninhibited synthesis of artistic movements such as Dada, junk, funk, and assemblage. His survey exhibition at this community-oriented space puts forth a compelling argument for the inextricability of these narratives from the reception of his work and for art as a natural platform for activism. It features a progression from dark palettes and hard materials toward the brightly painted fabrics of his 2012 “Rag and Bag Idiom” series. Yet the evocative presence of textiles throughout the show—for instance, I Mus Speak, 2008, incorporates a small American flag and knots of human hair—conveys a consistent through-line of deeply personal stakes.

Many of the sculptures on view evoke portability and transience. Case in Point literally takes the form of luggage while others incorporate small satchels that might be tied to sticks and carried by down-and-outs, as in Bags, 2011, or filled with herbs and used in folk rituals, as in Healing, 2011. This dual implication of being on the move or treating ills stimulates an intense awareness of art’s vernacular potential to gather, absorb, and—in the best of cases—transform.