Given the current political climate in the U.S., it is no surprise that many artists here are choosing to overtly and directly address politics in their work. At Zevitas Marcus in Culver City, their summer group show Cosmic Traffic Jam does just that, welcoming a wide array of artists of color to use painting to explore politics.
Organized by artists Alex Jackson and Umar Rashid, as well as gallery co-founder Steven Zevitas, Cosmic Traffic Jam examines the ways in which painting can tap into a new and different understanding of our current administration. As the press release states, “[p]ainting offers a detour through and/or around language, where the picture may thwart our normative conception of knowing and understanding.” It continues, pointing out that “[i]t is within the slippage of language that we may begin to imagine a freedom decoupled from the notion of Freedom produced under the genocidal regime of the transatlantic slave trade.”
This exhibit is an explicit call for action, both from and for the art world. This group of painters brings together a range of diverse voices and aesthetics to contemplate and challenge the changing climate under the current administration.
In Jordan Seaberry’s Hallmarks, 2018, Seabury uses mixed media to showcase an assemblage of images embedded within his painting. A recognizable photograph of Trayvon Martin stares out to viewers ominously towards the center, surrounded by other signifiers like a white ghost-like allusion to the famous abolitionist “Am I Not a Brother and Man?” seal depicting a black slave kneeling with shackled wrists. Other cultural allusions include an homage to the anti-hero Walter White from Breaking Bad, and a world that appears to be going up in flames…all disturbingly and succinctly capturing, or perhaps predicting, the “hallmarks” of our times. In Seaberry’s artist statement, he explains the impetus for his work, “What does it mean to love a people? What’s it mean to love a neighborhood? A family? A person? A country? Everyday, I sit on couches, in funeral homes, at kitchen tables, working with families who are asking unanswerable questions. Those questions build pictures. The image possesses the power to ask those questions- to change what we call violence and, in turn, what we name justice.” Through his work, Seaberry challenges viewers to see the world differently, through a lens of social justice.
In David Leggett’s four screen prints Young King; Scrape the Plate of Justice, Sis; Got a Bag; and With a Rebel Glare, Leggett challenges viewers to consider many works at once as he depicts of pair of Black Bart Simpsons and a pair of clowns, an homage to In Living Color’s Homey D. Clown character played by Damon Wayans. In a 2012 interview with Abraham Richie for Artslant, Richie describes the anomaly and power of Leggett’s work as he uses a cacophony of seemingly disjointed images to explore the world: “David Leggett’s work is raw, offensive, smart, funny, considered and glorious. Able to address both Lil Wayne and the major German painters of the 1980s, Leggett levels hypocritical art world pretensions and engages popular culture, all while paying respect to the heavyweights of art history and innovating an artistic approach that is uniquely his own.”
This is certainly true of Leggett’s work now too. In Young King, for instance, a trio of portraits appear featuring a hot pink Elvis, a Black Bart Simpson covered in dollar signs, and a hot pink, spread eagle cartoon of someone resembling George W. Bush. Underneath Bart, Legget pens the words “Black male masculinity” followed by smaller print saying, “the Book, the article, the blog, the Photo series, the life time movie.” This could make us explore and ponder a variety of things related to the role and tropes of black male masculinity, as tightly framed by white male masculinity, in popular culture.
Laylah Ali joins the show with her recognizable cartoon-like graphics in her 2014 Untitled (Sky). Here, a figure in a shark-like suit is poised at the top eighth of the gouache painting as if in mid-free-fall into the clustered yellow glob below. Umar Rashid, one of the show’s organizers, displays three paintings, all of which follow his usual biting and satirical humor packed with nods to Afrofuturism, Egyptian cosmology, and our flawed historical past. Rashid’s works like New Axumite Stele or, The death of Ricky I of the Axumite Kingdom of Crenshaw. Codex of correlation between heat and sudden hood death syndrome. Try not to die if you can., mixes his often long-winded and sarcastic titles with a distinct aesthetic mix of exaggerated cartoon ledger style drawings and more intricate portraiture.
Although his work is often political in the way he addresses and even rewrites history, it is more unusual for Rashid to have co-organized such an overtly political commentary on the current administration, as he is often quick to ground the present predicament in the past foibles of history. In an April interview for Riot Material with Pancho Lipschitz, for instance, Lipschitz challenged Rashid’s downplaying of the current administration, saying that everything was “not going to be all right.” Rashid responded by explaining the ways in which he sees history repeating itself. “This is just the continuation of the same politics. I study history. None of this shit ever surprises me. It has all happened before in some shape, form or fashion. You look at the French Revolution, you look at the English Civil War, you look at the reconstruction of Germany and the subsequent annexation of Austria and all the German speaking lands out of the Holy Roman Empire into the German Empire that matriculated into the Nazi regime. There is nothing new under the sun. That maxim bodes true every day, so I don’t get phased out by things. I’m just disheartened that people didn’t realize how complicit they were before. Now everybody’s crying.”
The exhibit includes two of Brittney Leeanne Williams’ bold and ominous paintings, INTERCEDING ROCK and UNTITLED (A LEMON TREE IN VICTORVILLE). In both, she pairs bold and bright colors in distinct compositions that mix an imposing—and yet somehow delicate—human form with fantasy. Williams is known for her works which often interrogate “race, invisibility, and state sponsored violence.” In UNTITLED (A LEMON TREE IN VICTORVILLE), Williams pairs light corals with bright crimson, green, and black to showcase a scenic lemon tree, with detailed foliage and fruit interlaced with less detailed color masses, under which a large nondescript, red person folds their body downward, as if bending over to touch their toes.
Sometimes the ways in which the works are shown in conjunction with one another also set up a politically charged environment and commentary. Steve Locke’s Dylann (bulletproof) features a painted portrait of the white supremacist and terrorist Dylann Roof. Roof’s menacing stare zeroes in on viewers and catches their eyes as they walk through the gallery space. Just next to this work hangs Jarvis Boyland’s “contemporary genre painting” Untitled (Crease in My neck), an oil on canvas depicting a presumed self portrait of the artist’s bust, showing only the back of his head and shoulders from behind. Here, we see a black man with his back turned towards the viewer, while Roof stares out and claims the viewer’s space with his “bulletproof” white privilege that saved his life after his deadly attack at Charleston’s Emanuel AME in 2015. This pairing is creepy, powerful, and most certainly intentional.
Cosmic Traffic Jam is a show for all ages that asks viewers to think, act, and do while appreciating the art. It is on view through August 25, 2018, at Zevitas Marcus.
Featured Image: Ashley Doggett, Dreams and Absolution A Coddled Existence
An LA-born and -based art historian, writer, and educator, Ellen C. Caldwell reflects upon art, visual culture, identity, memory, and history for JSTOR Daily and New American Paintings. To see more of Ms. Caldwell’s work, visit eclaire.me.