Critics’ Picks

  • Tarrah Krajnak, Self Portrait (Holding) with Woman at Hostal, 1979 Lima, Peru/ 2019 Los Angeles, 2019, cyanotype, 8 x 10".

    Tarrah Krajnak
    1133 Venice Blvd
    March 10–April 20

    Tarrah Krajnak was born in Lima, Peru, in 1979. That same year, she was orphaned, adopted by a Czech American family, and brought to the United States. The artist knows virtually nothing about her Peruvian parents, who may have gone missing during the burgeoning Shining Path uprising. Krajnak’s current exhibition, “1979: Contact Negatives,” serves as both a studio and a portal into her ongoing exploration of the roots she lost amid political turbulence.

    At the opening reception, she projected photos of Lima from a 1979 magazine on the walls and photographed herself interacting with the projections as though they were scenes she might actually inhabit. In one scene, Krajnak became part of a crowd; in another, she used a plinth to obscure her body behind a figure who stood facing the camera. The Peruvian environs alternately enveloped, tattooed, obscured, and denatured Krajnak’s body, conveying her wistful desire to reconcile who she might have become with who she is now. By the time of my visit the following week, cyanotype contact prints from that performance had been hung from a clothesline; nearby, the original eight-by-ten-inch negatives lay eerily backlit over light boxes surrounded by photographic gear. Images such as Self Portrait with Woman at Hostal, 1979 Lima, Peru/ 2019 Los Angeles, 2019, are imbued with a phantasmal sense of self-discovery recalling that of Francesca Woodman’s work.

    Krajnak’s employment of found images as surrogates for a personal archive creates an acute sense of unattainability around the more specific referents she seems to want to access. The artist may not be able to capture her genesis, but she has attempted to reclaim it by illuminating the dislocation and intrigue engendered by its absence.

  • View of “Tschabalala Self: Bodega Run,” 2019.

    Tschabalala Self

    Hammer Museum
    10899 Wilshire Boulevard
    February 2–April 28

    New York City’s first bodegas were founded in the 1940s, primarily by Puerto Rican entrepreneurs. Today, approximately thirteen thousand stores dot the city, and the bodega has become “a lighthouse in an ocean of gentrification,” as Harlem-born artist Tschabalala Self puts it—“a relic from times past.” In “Bodega Run,” the artist’s site-specific installation at the Hammer Museum, Self riffs on common elements in these small establishments, welcoming viewers with neon signs that read “ABIERTO/OPEN” and “COFFEE/TEAS,” a convex security mirror, and wallpaper with line drawings of cans and shelves.

    For Self, the goods these vendors sell are extensions of the multicultural communities that bodegas serve and bring together. In Bodega Run Diptych, 2017, two customers browse Udupi-brand plantain chips and a cooler of Ballantine Ale and Presidente beer. Together with the Negra Modelo that sits at one patron’s feet, these products represent India, the United States, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico. The laminate floor—striped in red, black, and green, the colors of Pan-Africanism and the Black Liberation movement—also affirms that “the bodega is and was a space created for people of color by people of color, to serve the needs of communities of color,” as the artist notes. Self has foregrounded black and brown bodies throughout her practice. Here, several portraits focus on women whose bodies are comprised of several cut and sewn layers of fabric that attentively describe the details of hands, feet, and faces.

    Craft notwithstanding, Self represents this locus of metropolitan life with a dose of humor—one sculpture renders a woman bending over, revealing her rainbow vulva. Along with the other larger-than-life essentials, a crate and a cat, the sculptures in Self’s reconstructed bodega comprise an immersive stage.

  • View of “Trinidad / Joy Station,” 2019.

    Beatriz Cortez

    Craft & Folk Art Museum
    5814 Wilshire Boulevard
    January 27–May 12

    If you were migrating to outer space, what would you bring with you? Beatriz Cortez raises this question in three interconnected installations at Craft Contemporary. Visitors first encounter Nomad 13, 2017/19, a portable garden in the form of a space capsule that Cortez created in collaboration with artist Rafa Esparza. Displayed in nearby niches are Burned, 2012, a charred tome from Cortez’s “Books of Memory” series, 2012, and seashells from a suitcase she packed in 1989 as she was fleeing the civil war in her native El Salvador for the US. Elsewhere, in Clandestine Garden, 2012/19, verdant shoots sprout from a poetry book.

    Upstairs, Cortez’s installation Trinidad / Joy Station, 2019, transports visitors to a sci-fi realm modeled partly after Joya de Cerén, an ancient Mayan village in present-day El Salvador, and after Drop City, a 1960s artist commune in Colorado. Here, Cortez has recycled rusty industrial refuse into structures for a communal society. A geodesic igloo and a walk-in hut are modularly fabricated from automobile door parts connected by zip ties, allowing for easy and adaptable reconfiguration. The interiors of these shelters are largely empty; viewers are left to fill them with their own visualizations.

    A neighboring seedling garden bathed in violaceous grow lights provides nourishment and calm, but not all is rosy in this cosmic realm. A silver bedroom set nearby lends the room the austerity of a penitentiary; woven from Mylar and chain-link fencing, it evokes contemporary immigrant detention centers. The most radically transmutative work in the show, Jumbo, 2018, reimagines an atomic bomb silo as a repository for seeds of sustenance. With her ethos of hopeful resourcefulness, Cortez makes a strong case for harnessing the relics of destruction as foundations for a different fate.

  • View of “Spiritual Material: A Survey of Work by Kenzi Shiokava,” 2019.

    Kenzi Shiokava

    Ben Maltz Gallery, Otis College of Art and Design
    9045 Lincoln Boulevard
    January 26–April 20

    Most of Kenzi Shiokava’s sculptures consist of organic matter, like bark and dragon-tree fronds, combined with found materials, such as chicken wire or brooms. In Untitled (Urban Totem Series), 2000, an upright railroad tie narrows into two sharp prongs at the top. Of a similar shape, Untitled (Urban Totem Series), 2005, was carved from a discarded telephone pole. Each sculpture resembles a statuesque humanoid form.

    “For any discarded material that has gone through the process of history and humanization [there] is the potential of presence,” Shiokava wrote for the wall text. Such histories are often violent. Here, his association with other assemblage artists from 1960s Los Angeles—Noah Purifoy, for example, who used debris from the Watts riots in his work—is most pertinent, as Shiokava’s repurposed urban materials are similarly called to represent their past uses and circulation, in addition to the people and communities involved in their transformations.

    In revealing conditions otherwise concealed from the viewer, Shiokava’s sculptures have an almost spiritual function: Belief is often felt as the active presence of an essential absence. This aura can be sensed in five sculptures from his “Elegy Series,” 1994, where netted pool filters gather dead bamboo leaves beneath objects that appear to have been sourced from thrift stores, including painted ceramic flowers. The collected leaves allude to the passing of life; the artist might be the filter, gathering and reinfusing these objects with a latent purpose.