By Nadia Sesay
Los Angeles, a city most associated with celebrity and movie-making, will assume a new role this week as the home of the newest edition of Frieze art fair. Now in tow with art hubs New York and London - the other host cities of the fair - the new LA outpost could help the city take on a new art identity and become a destination known for entertainment as well as contemporary art (in keeping with LA’s Hollywood pedigree the fair will be held on a lot at Paramount Studios).
While LA’s museums, like Hammer Museum and California African American Museum, and veteran homegrown artists like Mark Bradford, who represented the US at the 57th Venice Biennale, testify to the city’s solid art scene, its prowess as an international art hub is to be proven. The city’s young artists, who claim roots to LA but have already exhibited throughout the US some even abroad, are key figures in adding to the momentum of Frieze. (One could even argue their momentum inspired the prospect of the fair taking root in the city the first place).
Here, take a look at five Los Angeles-based emerging artists who are elevating their city’s profile on the global contemporary art stage.
At the core of EJ Hill’s body of work is endurance performance and installation to explore the difficulties of living in a black, male, and queer body. As part of the 2018 Made in LA exhibition - the Hammer Museum’s biennial of contemporary art - Hill stood on a tiered platform every day, for the duration of the exhibition, in total, 78 days. The platform resembled the three-level pedestal used in Olympic medal ceremonies. Hill stood on the highest level, the space reserved for the victor. The project also included images of him running laps around each of the schools he attended, one lap for each year, calling to mind the term ‘victory laps’. His performance was titled ‘Excellentia, Mollitia, Victoria’, a phrase in Latin which translates to ‘Excellence, Resilience, Victory’. Hill’s elevated body championed voices that have long been oppressed by social structures. His practice pushes his physical and mental limits as a way to expand the conditions, parameters, and possibilities that determine a body.
Photo credit: Brian Higbee / Interview Magazine.
Los Angeles-based Martine Syms is a self-described cultural entrepreneur who works in publishing, photography, video and performance. Her 2015 video, Pilot for a Show About Nowhere, gave a pastiched history of African Americans’ depictions in television through Syms’ imagined and semi-autobiographical sitcom, ‘She Mad’. The 25-minute-long reel incorporated images from a number of television sources, including The Cosby Show. Her video and performance work explores representations of blackness, queer identity and femininity in visual culture, in particular within American sitcoms. Black sitcoms in the United States hold a potential to undermine television conventions and can spark unpredictable and radical impulses. At the same time, they often erase the struggles and realities of the people they represent. Syms appropriated found video footage from talk shows and sitcoms and incorporates her own commentary creating a new fictional world.
Photo credit: New Museum.
Surrealism holds a place in art history where the juxtaposed pairing of reality meets the illogical. Artist Janiva Ellis’s brightly colored, cartoon-like aesthetic brings comfort to her canvases of distorted human-like figures - some even decapitated. Her darkly humorous and visceral tableau is a satirical framework for exploring racial discrimination and her own personal traumas. Although Ellis’ imagery may come off as slightly unsettling, the artist attests the unrest in her work is no more violent than many everyday interactions. She tells Artsy, “The unrest in my work represents a release, a shared sardonic moment of tension and amusement.” Embedded in this moment are careful depictions of whimsy that confront anti-black violence and black pain.
Photo credit: University of Georgia.
Paul Sepuya deconstructs images of the male nude and self portraits to create new collage. By presenting mostly nude and often male figures as subject (himself, as well as friends and lovers), Sepuya references art history and portrait photography, and homoerotic culture. He cites portraiture by American painter Barkley L. Hendricks as inspiration. Sepuya told Artsy, “I want these queer, black photographs to exist within historic and contemporary conversations about photography as a whole, affirming the medium and my personal investment in its possible futures.” The artist’s Los Angeles studio serves as a platform for exploring the interplay of intimacy in photography. In the resulting images viewers explore the relationship between intimacy and photography; identity and desire.
South Central LA, Lauren Halsey’s home and the place where her family has resided since the 1950s, is the inspiration and backdrop for her artwork portraying the everyday black experience. Her sculptural installation Crenshaw Hieroglyph Project, shown in 2018 at the Made in LA exhibition resembled the interiors of an Egyptian temple. Mixed in with hieroglyphs were storefront logos, graffiti, and other images of “scenes of African-American Angeleno life.” Occupying an artistic space at the intersection of architecture, nostalgia, and Afrofuturism, her work critiques gentrification and racial capitalism. The installation in Hammer Museum was a prototype; in 2020 she plans to install the piece in a public space in her South Central neighborhood, on Crenshaw Boulevard at the site where an African market once existed.
Her first solo exhibition, we still here, there, was a also a public installation. Shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, the piece was an immersive space resembling a series of grottoes where viewers could enter and immerse themselves in the iconography of Halsey’s Los Angeles neighborhood. Mingled within animal-print rugs, fake plants and shattered CDs were relics of pan-African history, including Ghanaian Kente cloth, the Mafundi logo (which was painted on a building in the Watts neighborhood by artist Elliott Pinkney following the 1965 rebellion there), and Black Panther. Halsey’s pride in family and community roots is apparent.