Critics’ Picks

David Hammons, Boy with Flag, 1968, body print with silk screen, 40 1/4 x 30 1/4".

David Hammons, Boy with Flag, 1968, body print with silk screen, 40 1/4 x 30 1/4".

Los Angeles

“L.A. Raw”

Pasadena Museum of California Art (PMCA)
490 East Union Street
January 22–May 20, 2012

Curated by Michael Duncan, this exhibition of postwar figurative art from Southern California barrages the viewer with incongruities. Who wouldn’t pause at the suggestion that, for instance, Charles White’s graphite drawings of African Americans from the 1950s, made after his employment with the WPA, and Judy Chicago’s menstruation-themed photographs from the 1970s are part of the same “distinctive aesthetic of figurative expressionism”? But Duncan proposes subtle, complex genealogies to track why these works are part of a shared narrative, in addition to putting the work in more traditional historical context. For instance, he includes works created in the late ’60s by David Hammons—one of White’s students at the Otis Art Institute—who made imprints of his body in margarine or grease on paper, and then filled out the rest of the work with collage materials such as wallpaper and black construction paper, as a play on bourgeois portraits. After moving from White’s photographs to Hammons’s prints, the viewer has to navigate around a wall before encountering Chicago’s 1971 Red Flag, a photolithograph of a hand removing a saturated tampon—a portrait, certainly, but also an argument for menstrual blood as a feminist markmaking tool. In several lateral turns, one has moved from White’s use of the figure to make African-American history more visible, to Hammons’s actual imprinting of the body (he used pearlescent pigments to shade the grease prints, so they look more ethereal than abject) as a strategy for creating presence, to Chicago’s photo of the vagina making its mark. Each uses the body to make difference visible.

Complex matrices aside, “L.A. Raw” provides a long-overdue reassessment of figurative art from the sprawling city. The show’s speculative and sometimes terrifying works chip away at the presumption that Finish Fetish was the dominant L.A. style, and that artists in this region dealt solely in all things slick and perfect. Duncan instead shifts our attention, by way of his catholic taste, to the political and social ruptures that gave rise to objects rough and improper.