To signify means, “to make a sign or signal”. In a NYT book review penned by professor John Wideman in 1988, the writer explains how the practice of “signifying” assumes a more nuanced connotation within the black community. “In black vernacular, Signifying is a sign that words cannot be trusted, that even the most literal utterance allows room for interpretation, that language is both carnival and minefield.” The linchpin to slavery rested on dehumanization of enslaved Africans. The institution could not exist without a justification for subjugation and as a result this linchpin was forged from the systematic stripping of the culture, family structure, religious traditions and identities of Africans during the middle passage and beyond. It stands to reason that the adoption of new language codified through a system of brutality would be met with resistance, yet its acceptance became a necessity for survival. Signifying ultimately became a way for African-Americans to create a coded language that enabled encrypted communication and artistic expression in a manner that maintained oral tradition that’s not easily deciphered by the untrained ear. Folk tales and the ring shout are examples of this.
This spring two L.A. galleries debuted shows featuring the work of black women who are highly lauded and yet woefully underrepresented within the art world. One gallery titled their group show POWER, which was an ambitious intergenerational display of various styles, mediums and artistic points of view. The use of the word power was a deliberate one as a universally understood term that offers the written currency required to navigate the insular, exclusive world of commercial art. Meanwhile, across town at the Landing Gallery, Signifying Form highlights 9 black women sculptors who either hailed from Los Angeles or established their career here. POWER at Sprüth Magers opted for gravitas in producing a show that featured 4 times the number of artists resulting in an overstimulating extravaganza that felt like the artistic equivalent of a stadium concert. By comparison, Signifying Form felt like an acoustic performance in a small jazz club– it was intimate, thoughtful and special.
While POWER generated buzz, Signifying Form had something to say, and as a result this is the show that I’ll remember. This is not only due to jill moniz’s careful curation which was limited to 9 artists that have personal relationships with one another, but the show also included text from scholars and fellow curators that provided more depth to the theme’s narrative. The common thread among the chosen artists is that they represent a city that has been in a constant artistic flux. This provides a historical foundation for a theme that pushes beyond the obvious commonalities of gender and race.
In POWER the individual works stood on their own, but if I could attribute sonic characteristics to the show, the art felt like it was shouting and pieces were competing with one another for attention– there was simply too much to take in. By contrast, Signifying Form felt like a private conversation among friends moderated through moniz’s curation. Her choice of visual language is sculpture and as such, the viewer is party to a visual dialog between the work and the artists.
Samella Lewis’ mournful father, mother and child cast in white plaster in “The Family” sits across from a wood carving of a hopeful man and woman gazing upward in Elizabeth Catlett’s “El Abrazo”. The two works were created 30 years apart from one another yet evoke the memories of shared experiences and circumstances that portray the emotional complexity of fortitude, strength and love. In accompanying exhibition text, Catlett’s commitment to collaboration, community and advocacy served as an inspiration and example to artists including Alison Saar.
Saar’s contributions to the show include a heavy wooden marionette suspended from the ceiling that looms large in front of a lapis blue ceramic head in repose with raw cotton flowing from its open mouth–both are haunting examples of some of her best work. The playfulness of their titles, “Cakewalk” and “Cotton Eater” are signifiers that belie the seriousness contained within the subjects. Meanwhile, we see Betye Saar’s influence in the show through her commentary on life under Jim Crow in the south in Crimson Captive, a red birdcage assemblage that contains a dress form shackled in chains and a lock with a black crow resting on top of the form. Saar’s influence extends to Dominique Moody’s Sweat Equity, a wood and colored glass bottle assemblage fashioned into a dwelling on wheels that faintly reminds me of Alison and Betye Saar’s “House of Gris Gris” at CAAM. Both works feature dwellings festooned with colored bottles which are signifiers. When placed outside of the entrance of a home, the colored glass is a symbol or signal for protection.
Meanwhile, Sega Nengudi’s pantyhose and sand work titled “RSVP” hangs on a gallery wall across from Maren Hassinger’s ground based, whirling dervish haystacks fashioned from wire. They are two very different material compositions that both manage to visually harness the kinetic energy of the body.
The youngest of the artists in this group is Brenna Youngblood, whose reclaimed wood sculptures form the letters “I” in one installation in the front of the gallery and an “X” in the back. The works book-end a show that sits at the intersection of disparate forms of visual language.
Finally, Maren Hassinger’s Pink Mandala submerges the eye in a sea of inflated plastic bags that contain hidden “love” notes within each one. As much as this gesture is an affirmation of love among the women represented in the show, it is also a message of love for the city that influenced and fostered the artistic practice of these incredible artists.