How to Give a Shit No 8

Back when I first had the idea for this series, I had only been in Los Angeles for about a year, and I was having trouble finding art with what I call “spirit”. Because I didn’t know much about the scene, I didn’t really know where to look for work that felt as if it could possibly matter to anyone other than a handful of cool kids and art flippers. I guess it was the last hurrah for zombie formalism (although it’s still here too), and I couldn’t figure out whether I was just getting old and burnt out from years of running the rat race or whether too many of the galleries and collectors were just vapid and spineless. Honestly? I think it was both.

I doubted my own work as well, wondering whether this world–the Capital A Art World–is something I really believe in, whether I wouldn’t really be happier pumping gas in some mountain town in Oregon where they still do that, carrying on my own little invisible studio activity in an abandoned barn. How To Give a Shit succeeded for me in two ways:

it gave me an outlet to speak freely, and it made me take greater responsibility for how I see.  It forced me to give a shit for my own sake. It was a self-imposed education as survival strategy.

Then the election happened (see HTGAS No. 7). Then the photos and videos of murdered and demoralized victims of war and violence kept spilling into my Facebook feed. Then my hero Leonard Cohen died. Then the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland happened. Then my car died. Maja and I continued to struggle financially. Then I visited family during Christmas in the areas surrounding Phoenix.

My mom and her overweight dachshund in her trailer. My dad and his wife in their RV. My ​sister, her husband, their three kids in their rather massive house with its movie theater downstairs, mounds of plastic and electronic Christmas presents piling up to what soon will be landfill sold to an impoverished country that kids my niece’s age will mine for pittance. My brother, his self-made business stolen out from under him by shady investors and con artists who understand better than he how business in America really works, now presently without permanent address.

​What does my giving a shit about art have to do with what the Age of Trump has in store? How many people even know who Leonard Cohen was? Will anyone remember the cultural contributions of those who died in the Oakland fire? How many artists on a shoestring budget will now be forced out of their makeshift studios in cheap parts of town, and who in the mainstream will care or notice? I reflect on a teenage Syrian refugee we met a couple years ago in the camps in Jordan asking us what we planned to do to help them and us knowing the answer was approximately jack shit.
Has anything improved for her since then?  What does the art world have to offer her? Will it save my mother from chronic illness and financial insecurity? Can contemporary art reach through and into my dad’s conservative Christian outlook? Would he benefit if it did?  What does it have to offer the insular suburban contentment of my sister’s family? They seem to have everything they need and it doesn’t include art. Even if my brother has curiosity enough to appreciate art, what does my level of involvement have to do with his current predicament?

What if I didn’t have access to or know about the arts institutions nearby in order to write this column? What if they ceased being funded? What if they vanished?  Would it matter to anyone other than the few of us who dwell within?

​I manage to sneak into the California African American Museum near USC about an hour before it closes. This is toward the beginning of December, before the holidays, before the trip to Arizona. The museum is a destination for me because the group show “The Ease of Fiction” features paintings by Meleko Mokgosi, an artist I first came across in an earlier Made in L.A. Biennial a couple years before I moved to LA. I rediscovered the work in a deeper, more patient way when I stumbled by accident into his solo show at Honor Fraser in 2014.  It was the first show at a commercial gallery in Los Angeles that I was genuinely convinced wanted more than simply to be bought. When anyone asks me who my favorite contemporary artists are, Mokgosi is always on that list. I reserve a special place in my internal hierarchy for artists who face various histories squarely and systemically, and from that research and fully personal involvement develop a present-tense language that can move back and forth between analysis and poetry. Mokgosi’s work does this. Anselm Kiefer does it. William Kentridge. Marlene Dumas. Ann Hamilton. Shirin Neshat. Dario Robleto. To name a few.

​When I enter the gallery, the sight is familiar. Six large canvases of varying dimensions are ​aligned, in his signature way, edge to edge, suggesting procession, a left to right, or, I suppose, a right to left reading. There is at first what seems like cool detachment in these restrained depictions of everyday life in Botswana and southern Africa. Although, since I’ve never been, how do I really know? There is a deceptively plain conspicuousness to the objects and figures in the way they are articulated economically on the bare canvas. The economy of the mark tells me that there is a long period of deliberation before the brush reaches the surface. It’s precisely in this deliberation that a quiet confidence can be felt emanating from the overall rhythm of the paintings. This one specific mark  with that amount of paint loaded on a brush of just this width is all that is needed before the next mark is made. This is how he can situate the fact of what is seen directly between the symbolic and the real.  I sense that everything I am looking at was thought about before it found its way on the canvas, and that the artist can anticipate a number of responses I might have. I wonder what is hidden by what I see. Why do I sense a colonial presence imbricated within African settings even if I can’t quite point to it? I sense my own ignorance is common among viewers, a byproduct of my American upbringing and therefore available medium to the artist for the poetry that throbs within the resulting ambiguity of these pictures. I am offered an invitation and a challenge.
​I remember two things distinctly from his 2014 show at Honor Fraser. First, I remember the way in which he unpacked and utterly exploited the racism present in historical museum wall didactics and put them on display in his own show, as if to say, “what you see here is a history that doesn’t belong to those who wrote it, and it only takes one person to point it out.” Second, I remember the canvas in which, over a solid black background, several heads float, tilted upward, mouths agape as if singing. This canvas hung directly next to another canvas in which a few figures, one being a horse, were oriented upside-down, the ground being the top of the canvas. Because everything else I had seen up to that point had been so restrained, this provided what felt like an ineffable sort of ​dramatic irony or plot twist, or, better, the way in which good poetry lulls a reader into its particular sound so effectively that one almost doesn’t notice the ending is wildly different from the path it took getting there.

​If there is anything here with the kind of unexpected visual moment that the 2014 exhibition had, it would be in the singular white canvas, deliberately clouding its seated subjects. But if I were to describe it here, it would give a false sense of what I was actually paying attention to in the gallery at the time.

In fact, I was having some trouble focusing. There seemed to be something off about the lighting in the gallery. Examining the tracks on the ceiling, it looked as if there were plenty of cans, yet the canvases seemed dim and the light bizarrely reflective at the same time. Even if it were the case the lights weren’t perfect, it was odd to feel so distracted by it. I wondered how old the lighting system was. I thought about how few people were here at the museum. How I never really hear about CAAM. Who funds the museum? What if it wasn’t

here? Why couldn’t I just concentrate on the work itself? Was I failing to give a shit?

​​​​It’s worth noting that in one of the other galleries in the museum is an exhibition documenting the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany, featuring, among other non-white, non-European athletes, Jesse Owens. I wonder what it would have felt like watching him sprint for nine seconds across a finish line and win the gold medal, then to leave the arena, and step immediately back into the Nazi world. Do the Olympics have more or less meaning when they are staged within the Galactic Empire?​

I am sitting next to my nine-year-old niece in the multiplex theater with several other members of my family taking up a good chunk of the row, passing popcorn back and forth, and watching “Star Wars: Rogue One.” She laughs when a droid conks a storm trooper over the head with effortless slapstick flourish. She shifts around a lot in her seat because it’s a long movie. She asks a few questions along the way. “Who is that?” “Is he a good guy or a bad guy?” Good questions since the divide between the Empire and the Rebellion has been complicated in a more real-world way here for the first time in the Star Wars mythology, or at least within the films themselves. There is even a character in the Rebellion played by Forest Whitaker called Saw Gerrera, which sounds an awful lot like Che Guevara. And as for the Empire, we learn that the character Galen Erso, one of the scientists responsible for building the Death Star, played Mads Mikkelson, designed it with a deliberate flaw. This flaw explains why it was so easy for Luke Skywalker in “A New Hope” to destroy the whole thing with one shot from his X-Wing. I explain this connection between Erso’s design and Luke’s attack to my niece, and she gets it, in part, I’m sure, because we had just watched “A New Hope” at my sister’s the night before.

My niece is at that age when kids start to get good at imagining worlds and depicting them. When parents and teachers feel safe celebrating the use of their imagination for a rather brief time before the push toward conformity of thought becomes the most important organizing principal in their teens. An artist like myself hopes that this unselfconscious always-on notion-producing imagination valve might come to the fore before it goes into hibernation. Might even remain somewhat intact in their teens, and hopefully, in adulthood, comes into sharper focus after years of consumer-centric suburban sameness–that it is embraced, valued, and put to use.

We spend time going through her drawings and hand-made books. She shows me a favorite. “I had ideas NO ONE ELSE HAD!” she claims with pride.

And I believe it. An underwater volcano. The largest sea turtle I’ve ever seen. She’s looking at Manga now, so the eyes of her characters have more highlights and reflections than even the glassiest glass eyes could ever reflect. That’s her next big project, she says. To learn how to draw in the Manga style.

​Then we look at some objects she made. She made a paper maché dachsund for my mom. And something using popsicle sticks and yarn. I ask her what it is. She doesn’t know. She did it for school. “It’s an Indian thing,” she says. The Indian thing in question is a God’s Eye, and after looking it up, I learn it originated with the Pueblos as a way of blessing the home of someone receiving it. I don’t know whether there was any explanation or context given when she made it, but either way, my own experience in the Phoenix suburbs tells me that even if there was, in general, a troublesome gap exists between the experiences of living within the beige stucco-walled, red-roof-tiled sprawl and that of living on Indian land. Troublesome because the Gila River Indian Reservation is separated from where we used to live—pretty much where my sister lives now—only by Pecos Road. In fact, it wasn’t infrequent that I, as a teenager, would jump the wall of our backyard, cross the street, and do something like bring the BB gun and some cans to shoot on the vast empty dirt land belonging to the tribe. In those four years, I never once came into contact with a single Native American person living there, yet we had kachina dolls as decorative objects in our house, and some of our neighbors used faux pottery shards mixed into rocks and tiles as an aesthetic solution for landscaping.

​​I wonder: Would Adalyn understand if I told her the Galactic Empire is fundamentally a colonial power? That, like us, it spreads its influence across the world (galaxy) and seeks to impose its way of life onto other planets? How old should she be before she wonders who the rebels are if they aren’t us. And as for the Jedi, the best of the good guys, who are they? What is the Force? What does the God’s Eye of the Pueblo see? What can the Jedi Force and the Pueblo God’s Eye teach us about being able overcome our learned gullibility to passively accept negative illusion, to not see what exists all around us?
The shadows on the wall [of Plato’s cave] are a procession. Not just people moving across space, but a procession of people carrying objects. They have no specific origin or destination, they pass across behind the viewers. The flickering projections we see in the news of people fleeing floods, civil war, refugees, migrations, refugees returning, displacements—still, two and a half thousand years later, so largely on foot, individual human power still the central means of locomotion, handcarts, wheelbarrows, shopping carts the only aids.

…There is a pre-history of cinema, the darkened hall, the flickering image…

It is in the very limitations and leanness of shadows that we learn, in the gaps, in the leaps to complete an image, that we perform a generative act of constructing the shape—recognizing a horse, a box, a bed roll, a crutch, a typewriter. The very leanness of the illusion pushes us to complete the recognition—and this prompts an awareness of the activity, recognizing in this activity our agency in seeing, and our agency in apprehending the world.

William Kentridge, from the Norton Lectures, Harvard University, 2012.