Appearing simultaneously prehistoric and futuristic, the labyrinthine cave formations presented in MOCA Grand Avenue’s fantastical current installation, Lauren Halsey: we still here, there are bathed in ethereal suffusions of cerulean, emerald, magenta, and violet light. This site-specific showing presents maximalism at its most celebratory and poignant with several diverse sources of inspiration, including Chinese-Buddhist caves, the neighborhoods of South Los Angeles and Watts, the sculptural architecture of André Bloc, and the music of Parliament-Funkadelic. Punctuated with a plethora of tropical potted plants, reflection pools, and found objects, this exhibition exists as a wondrous, whimsical realm, a vision of a just and inclusive society.
As the 2017 recipient of the coveted William H. Johnson Prize honoring emerging African-American artists, Halsey is renowned for her Kingdom Splurge exhibition series. Consisting of four installations to date, these cave-inspired “fantasyscapes” reimagine Los Angeles’s working-class neighborhoods with uplifting, empowering architecture. Halsey began designing these social collages in 2007 as a way of offering the community a revised collective history as well as a glimpse of “a freer, funkier, and more optimistic tomorrow.”
These wildly innovative installations previously exhibited at Yale University and the Studio Museum in Harlem expertly blend ancient and modern imagery. For example, while the cave-like structures framing we still here, there and the Kingdom Splurge series may look prehistoric, they are actually referencing French artist André Bloc’s habitable biomorphic sculptures from the 1960s. Additionally, 2015’s Kingdom Splurge 3 included Egyptian-inspired hieroglyphics depicting Michael Jordan and Malcolm X. Acting as both pharaoh and city planner, Halsey intends these otherworldly realms as representations of the ancient Egyptian afterlife.
Continuing with these Egyptian themes and aesthetics, the artist also recently made headlines for spearheading the much-anticipated Crenshaw District Hieroglyph Project. Raising more than $18,000 on Kickstarter, this public art installation aims to encourage the people of South Los Angeles to share their own stories on the monument’s blank walls. As ancient Egyptian art and architecture typically excluded all but those at the very top of the social hierarchy, this initiative hopes to inspire the area’s residents in making a mark in the community.
Kingdom Splurge (188.8.131.52), 2015
Indeed, social inclusion is a crucial theme in Halsey’s work. In we still here, there, Halsey communicates this need for diversity through the presentation of a wide variety of tchotchkes and everyday items. These enshrined advertisements, newspaper clippings, menus, CDs, flyers, and figurines offer a glimpse of daily life in this often invisible community. Much like fellow Los Angeles-based multimedia artist Mark Bradford, Halsey uses found materials to insert a tangible, sculptural element in her work and celebrate her hometown.
Furthermore, with gentrification threatening to rapidly alter the look and feel of South Central Los Angeles, Halsey’s attempt to document the current community feels all the more urgent and necessary. However, the artist will be consistently updating we still here, there throughout its six-month run with new objects to echo this shift in the area’s local businesses and architecture. With these modifications, Halsey imbues this installation with a sense of dynamism and disproves the myth that contemporary art is somehow removed and static.
Adding to we still here, there’s ambiance of equality and vibrancy, the influence of Parliament-Funkadelic is palpable here. Halsey considers funk music the perfect complement to her message of community and positivity due to its natural gaiety and uncanny ability to unify people. Its elaborate multiplicity mirrors her bold, vibrant colors and profusion of found-objects. Reflecting the neighborhood’s effervescent rhythm of life in her work, Halsey also adores Parliament-Funkadelic’s psychedelic sound, eccentric performance style, and ingenuity in the establishment of Afrofuturism, the synthesis of African-American culture and science-fiction.
Inspired by Parliament’s outer-space-themed seminal album Mothership Connection (1975), Halsey continually builds upon this futuristic aesthetic through her electrifying, ultra-modern colors and forms. For her next project, the artist is even considering constructing an installation resembling an alien mothership.
As an ode to African-American culture, the strength of community, as well as the people of South Central Los Angeles, Lauren Halsey: we still here, there is a testament to the endurance, fortitude, and vitality of this neighborhood. Yes, these residents are still there and ever dreaming of a brighter tomorrow.
Emily Nimptsch is Los Angeles Art Critic for Riot Material magazine. Ms. Nimptsch is also a freelance arts and culture writer who has written for Flaunt, ArtSlant, Artillery, ArteFuse, and Time Out Los Angeles.