With Serpentine Fire, now at Quotidian, curator and gallerist Jill Moniz has assembled an astoundingly innovative, resonant show from artists who have pushed the limits of their materials and subjects. The title of the show is taken from an Earth, Wind, & Fire song, and just as the band offered a breath of exciting fresh air with its early music, so does this exhibition.
The show is filled with the power and breadth of artists working in the city of Los Angeles. It seems almost infused with the surge of Santa Ana winds, the cataclysm that our rain storms can bring, iconic landmarks from Santa Anita to South Central, and the everyday rhythm of our streets. Exhibiting artists include Mel Edwards, Henry Taylor, Ed Love, Kori Newkirk, Umar Rashid, Lyndon Barrois, Glen Wilson, and Duane Paul.
Some of the works are current, others historic in nature; all of them are bold and fresh. The lay out of the show is galvanizing from the moment visitors walk in the door. The gallery’s rough-hewn quality of exposed brick, beams, and worn tile makes the perfect setting for art that is intensely from the heart; there is nothing ephemeral here.
Lyndon Barrois (photos courtesy of Genie Davis)
A personal favorite was Lyndon Barrois “Untitled,” a prototype praxinoscope work. A rotating cylinder rotates rapidly, creating a visual effect that is similar to stop-motion animation. Amazingly, the 12 small jockeys on horseback spinning around at the artist’s touch are created from gum wrappers. The diminutive figures are taken from images in Barrois’ own digital film, They Were the First to Ride, also on exhibit at the gallery. The film takes a long look at the eleven black jockeys who won the Kentucky Derby from 1875 to 1902. Barrois has a long history of creating gum-wrapper art; here the medium looks rich and bright, the lightness of his medium contributing to the sense that the spinning figures on horseback are galloping. Barrois is a respected animator, and his gift is obvious. But it’s his use of such defiantly unconventional material, and the way in which it fuses with his narrative of virtually unsung heroes, that makes these works not just beautiful but transcendent.
Kori Newkirk’s “Black Letter Day” is a visceral grabber. The sculpture of upside-down umbrella shapes takes up a center space in the gallery; they’re disconcerting, both wrong and wonderful. As an artist, he’s known for his reconfiguration and transformation of everyday objects. He uses them as a palette of sorts, to explore race, gender, and place. The artist terms his work “ghetto-fabulous conceptualism,” and whether he’s using umbrellas as a sculptural form or creating city landscapes from a mosaic of plastic hair beads, his work re-makes common images and materials into something deeply thought provoking.
Henry Taylor creates boldly figurative painted work that offers a wonderfully personal look at life in Los Angeles. Each work is a slice of life, but one which addresses both cultural and racial themes. Using minimal environments, he depicts his subjects in simple ways that nonetheless alter a viewer’s perception of that individual. The narrative works are layered and dynamic images. In his recent work, “Green Light,” Taylor offers an image of a black man in profile, a green light in the far-left corner seeming symbolic of opportunities accessible but limited in nature – that light could change at any time. Behind him, a minimalist silhouette of the LA city skyline in a shadowy grey serves as a contrast to the vivid colors of the man’s clothes – red, white, and blue – and the deep black of his skin. It’s a memorable work in aesthetic and as a social statement. Taylor’s “Couple on a Couch” are basically featureless, but the pair are relaxing on a small gold sofa; the man is black, the woman curled with her head on his lap has pink and white skin. The simplicity of the piece is gorgeous: it’s the softly moving poetry of a relationship; the language of their bodies is all that matters, and anyone who cannot see that is excluded.
Glen Wilson’s, “Other Suns” is a work that feels deeply cinematic, a front and back view of a child, whose frowning expression is galvanizing and universal. The artist intertwines photographic images of Angelinos within the diamond pattern of chain link fences or gates, attaching them to a central pole and pairing images. There is a sense of both the child and the viewer here watching each other through that fencing, and the suggestion that we are separated, that the people he is depicting in his work are imprisoned or caught up in their lives. His “Brooks Avenue” gives us a group of people in the sea and by the shore, backs turned to us. With each of his works here, the effect of the chain link patterns on photographic art bisects them, makes them appear as strips, diamonds of film, or pixels. Where Taylor’s work seems to transcend time and place, and the restrictions of society, Wilson tackles the social and political culture head on. He is rooted in it and he challenges us, to look beyond the fences that we ourselves have erected; he exposes the dichotomies and discrepancies in life around us, specifically life in Los Angeles.
Ed Love’s “Mask for Mingus” is an example of his fascinating use of chrome bumpers as material. The shiny, robot-like shape of this piece is both futuristic and somehow quintessentially human — as if a spirit had transcended form.
Mel Edwards’ welded steel works, seem dark and brooding in his “1966” piece, which looks like a shield, something to be carried into battle. This work is a part of a private collection, an extra treat to see here, one of a seminal series of works that were instrumental in the shaking up the art scene with their literal and figurative weight.
Umar Rashid’s, also known as Frohawk Two Feathers, “Victory or Death” evokes images of a hieroglyph or a cave painting. It is an image that transcends time with its sword-carrying, skeletal-faced white figure on a long-legged steed. That the figure is looking back says everything. The piece seems to be asking us what would he see, and would he need that sword, if he looked ahead. Rashid’s vividly colored, intricate, almost quilt-like patterns in “Waters of Flint” gives us a contemporary reference to inequality in a rich imaginary world that combines historic cultural references with folk art depictions of a tribal world, a kind of reimagined history from the 18thand 19thcentury. It’s a whole new world to take in, from a mystical, large, serpent-like creature to brilliantly attired human beings, a winged horse, a basketball player hooded in Aztec gear.
In Todd Gray’s “Support Systems,” we have a combined and textured piece of photographic works that gives us a flying fist and a crumpling monolith; the frequent music photographer turned photographic artist is presenting a work from his protest series created and displayed throughout LA during the 1984 Olympics. His once-guerilla art piece here offers a potent attack on the power elite.
And Duane Paul’s textile work here takes on sculptural forms both sensual and subversive. His “Sexual Awakening Cut Short With a Glance” is somehow both shocking and graceful; a part of his Vestments & Allegories series, it represents just one of many mediums the artist works in. The physical manipulation of his material is what matters to him, he says, as he literally tears through artistic boundaries to uncover his themes of desire, sex, decay, and loss.
A breaking through – or a break-through – is what each of these artists have in common. They are blazing with the originality of their own Serpentine Fire, going beyond standard form and material, beyond traditional image, to upend, expand, and create a whole new way of seeing for themselves and for viewers. Their work, and the exhibition itself, will burn its way into your memory, and sear many of the images there.
Featured Image: Todd Gray’s “Support Systems” (photo courtesy of Genie Davis)
Genie Davis is a multi-published novelist, journalist, and produced screen and television writer based in Los Angeles. Publisher and writer of www.diversionsLA.com, she also writes for a wide range of magazines and newspapers.