“Deana Lawson: Planes”
through February 7, 2019
The Underground Museum
“B. Wurtz: This Has No Name”
through February 3, 2019
Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles
I’ve just moved from NYC to Los Angeles and have been getting to know the city through its far-flung exhibition spaces. In the wake of the Kavanaugh confirmation, the release of the United Nations climate report, and the murder and dismemberment of a Saudi journalist living in exile, I feel unsure of how to look at art any more. The works I’m most attracted to, that make the most sense to me at this moment, are by artists who are looking deeply at our broken world and trying to reconfigure it.
At Human Resources and ONE Archives, Shoghig Halajian and Suzy Halajian have organized the two-gallery show, “A grammar built with rocks.” Its title is taken from Martinican writer Édouard Glissant’s Poetic Intention, which exhorts poets “[t]o experience the landscape passionately.” It’s an urgent yet thoughtful exhibition that looks at place from a relational rather than a territorial perspective.
The section of the show at ONE Archives—the largest collection of LGBTQ historical materials in the world—feels fully integrated into its venue, with works by four artists that explore the relationship between body and place. They include ink drawings from Beirut-based artist Marwa Arsanios’s 2016–17 “Resilient Weeds” series; Park McArthur’s These are questions I would ask (2016); and a cinder block piece by Shannon Ebner. Especially fitting in this venue is Pauline Boudry and Renate Lorenz’s video Toxic, which is accompanied by reproductions of photographs of “sexual deviants”—gay men and women, prostitutes, and cross-dressers—arrested by Parisian authorities in the 1870s. At that time, mug shots didn’t exist, so the police would take the accused to commercial portrait studios, and encourage them to perform their deviancy for the camera. These portraits couldn’t be more timely. What does it mean for the state to create images that outlaw, mark, and kill?
The other part of the exhibition, on view at Human Resources, is much more about land. DAAR (Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency), for example, is presenting their 2011 installation piece The Common Assembly, which takes as its starting point the no-man’s land—as wide as the line on the map—between Israeli and Palestinian territory in Jerusalem. Like the show as a whole, the work breaks down categories between inside and outside, belonging and not belonging.
Deana Lawson’s show “Planes” at the Underground Museum is a slow burn. Lawson creates staged photographs of individuals and families she encounters on the street or on her travels. What emerges is something far beyond a portrait. Lawson’s attention to objects and environments, along with her deep sensitivity to texture, color, and space, charge these intimate pictures with the power of the uncanny. Nation (2018) shows two men sitting on a couch, one of them wearing a dental apparatus that Lawson spray-painted gold for the shoot. At first I accepted the device as an S&M prop, or maybe an extension of the man’s jewelry, but the longer I looked at it the more mysterious and psychically charged it became. Tucked into the photograph’s frame is another photograph—this one of George Washington’s dentures, which were thought to be made out of slaves’ teeth. Her alchemical bringing together of these disparate images is haunting.
In these dark days, I seek wonder and curiosity as a way of reuniting with our common humanity. In B. Wurtz’s almost impossibly cluttered retrospective at the ICA, socks, plastic grocery bags, cheap feather dusters, lids off plastic containers, and other objects speak to the fragmented world we inhabit, and to the materiality and beauty of the waste that encircles us. Here, rather than being transformed by the artist, they transform us. With a light, precise touch, Wurtz reshuffles our values, offering a heterotopic, playful alternative to clamoring monotony.
Anna Betbeze is an artist living and working in Los Angeles. In the last year her work has been shown at the Atlanta Contemporary, the Hessel Museum at Bard, OSMOS, Madragoa Lisbon, and the Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, among other venues.