Los Angeles

Kori Newkirk

Rosamund Felsen Gallery

Looking at Kori Newkirk’s show, “Midnight Son,” two things kept bouncing around in my head: John Ashbery saying (I’m paraphrasing) that art shouldn’t be confused with the Salvation Army and Richard Prince’s essay “Bringing It All Back Home” (“I read what Sontag had to say about how art and politics can and should mix. Maybe they already do mix, but she says this as if any question about their separation could only occur to the Man from Mars.”). These ideas do not necessarily contradict one another; in fact, they converge around what might be called the politics of beauty, always existing in that old chestnut, identity politics.

Engaging the aesthetics of the personal-become-political, Newkirk considers what it means for any thinking person to ask “Who am I?” in a society that seems, at times, hell-bent on preventing anyone from considering much of anything. In his most finessed work, he rarely lets his conceptual, theoretical, or political investigations overwhelm or detract from his inventive, formal deployment of materials. In fact, it is his idiosyncratic media (small plastic pony beads, encaustic, and LiteBrites) that reveal the cogencyand pitfallsof his interrogation of masculinity, race, and class via cultural stereotype and autobiography.

In Jubilee (all works 1999), Newkirk presents a curtain painting, a close-up of a raging fire (flaming orange, mustard, white-hot white) against a serene (?) blue sky, all made of pony beads strung on a cord hung from an aluminum support. Across from this work was another pony-bead “painting”—blocks of different bead lengths creating a sinister outline of downtown LA buildings. The beads allow Newkirk to suggest elements of fashion and interior design (cornrow hair braiding and swank room dividers, equally at home in a swinging bachelor pad and a blaxploitation flick) without ever disavowing the referential impact of the body on such elements. The works’ materiality, as much as their subject matter, makes their meaning: Who uses pony beads today? What sections of LA have in recent years burned? (The fact that one could answer young Bo Derek imitators and homegirls to the first question, and Malibu and South Central to the second, neither confuses nor concludes the issue at hand.)

In Channel 11, the pixelated face of the portrait (a carefully gradated––midnight to baby blue to cocoa––encaustic grid) gives pause. The painting is purposefully connected to the pixelated face in the enlarged photo hung on the opposite wall, in which a black man stands next to a graffiti-covered, locked-down urban building. While the photographic image immediately points to moments familiar from true-crime TV, the painting suggests this and more (e.g., Jasper Johns’s very different use of encaustic). Newkirk is trying to test the potential of his materials rather than apply the veneer of alterity onto already overarticulated forms.

Sadly (if predictably), where Newkirk loses his careful balance of meaning and material, things go awry. Sometimes, Always, Never, and Perhaps a series of four separate works in which pony-bead curtains forming enclosed columns hang awkwardly from drilled-hole outlines of handguns on Plexiglas panels—looked forced, archly “arty.” Even more frustrating was Midnight Son (Horizon), a piece made up of seventeen mostly blacked-out LiteBrite boards perforated by a cone of clear, illuminated pegs suggesting a police-helicopter searchlight on a night horizon. LiteBrite boards may be an auspicious medium, but by lining them up and displaying their mechanics and circuitry, Newkirk abandoned his caring attention to his materials and their formal constraints. Despite these misfires, what Newkirk aspires to is challenging and worthwhile, and if he can trust the referential possibilities (and limits) of his materials, exploring how personal concerns intersect with, and diverge from, sites of societal conflict, he may produce something intellectually and visually unsettling.

Bruce Hainley