LOS ANGELES – People kept coming back. You bring family members and friends. It’s not often that a gallery show provokes such strong reactions. But this one feels different because every face in every painting belongs to a person of color. Each work of art was created by a person of color. And the exhibition was organized by two young colored people who curated their first big show.
“It felt like a warm family gathered in the park for one day,” said Alysia Cortez, describing the first of her three visits to the Shattered Glass show at the Jeffrey Deitch Gallery in Hollywood. “It’s magical to see black and brown people looking at the walls and seeing themselves. I’ve seen a couple show up with their pit bulls, I’ve seen aunts come over to see what’s going on, and I’ve seen so many kids. “
The exhibition, which runs through May 22, was put together last year when its curators – Melahn Frierson, who joined Deitch in 2018 and became director of the Los Angeles gallery in 2020, and AJ Girard, an art educator – wanted to seek an opportunity to process everything that happened in the country about racial justice and pandemic.
“It was so overwhelming and emotionally overwhelming,” said 34-year-old Frierson in an interview with the gallery. “We really just wanted to give everyone the opportunity to do what they wanted.”
The 30-year-old Girard, who had worked as a public relations coordinator in the Underground Museum and had to be temporarily closed due to Covid-19, missed “safe rooms”.
“It felt like there was nowhere to go,” he said. “Young black men and women were particularly disturbed. The new social meeting place became a protest. “
Jeffrey Deitch said the response to the show has been different from what he’s seen since “Art in the Streets,” the 2011 graffiti and street art survey he co-curated at the Museum of Contemporary Art.
“Melahn and AJ really connected with something,” he said.
In putting together the show by 40 artists, the two reached out to those they knew and those whose work they had been told or seen on Instagram.
That included Raelis Vasquez, who paints the people he grew up with in the Dominican Republic – even blending in sand from the beaches there and from New Jersey, where he now lives. On a canvas, “La Mesa Nuestra”, in a restaurant Vasquez himself is gathered as a little boy who sleeps at the end of the table.
In another, “Mercado en Dajabon”, people gather in an open air market. “I reflect on my immigrant experience in the US and the experience of Haitian immigrants in the DR,” said Vasquez, 25, who is a graduate of Columbia University with a Masters in Fine Arts. “They struggle and experience a lot of disruption and even trauma for this better opportunity.”
Murjoni Merriweathers ceramic busts with their hand-braided synthetic hair and tooth grids show friends and family members.
“I felt immortal,” said Pink Siifu, a hip-hop artist who portrayed Merriweather in one piece. We have been wearing them for generations. It shows the shine; it is a self expression. “
Gabriela Ruiz’s painting “La Lavada” is a huge spin cycle that was inspired by her repeated trips to the laundromat with her mother. “I’ve never grown up with a washing machine at home,” she said. It also includes a security camera that indicates “how people of color are constantly being monitored,” Frierson said.
The artists paint their experiences as well as the people who populate their daily life. “The people are the art,” said Girard.
“Each room is all about a young sculptor,” he added. “You can use the form to tell your own stories. Often you only hear about female sculptors in retrospect. “
“Shattered Glass” celebrates the black body with images like Kezia Harrell’s “Bliss: Americana Hot Mamma”, which show a reclined woman who is comfortable in her size and nakedness, and Tyler Ballons vivid, delicate images of a woman with the hair of one Girl caresses. and a father holding a picture of Dizzy Gillespie next to a child blowing a trumpet.
Given the difficult discussions around issues of justice and the pain after the murder of George Floyd, one might expect the exhibit to feel heavy and gloomy. Instead, there is a joy in the work that affirms the resilience of the artists and the people who represent them; to the human instinct for reparation.
“People expected a lot of grief,” Frierson said. “We gave them the space to show what they were feeling.”
Some artists, like the sculptor Diana Yesenia Alvarado, are just getting started. “If I went to museums as a kid, I would try to find something that represented me,” said Alvarado, 28. “This show is that for a lot of people. I know it will encourage a whole community that has not seen each other in these rooms before. “
Others, like Lauren Halsey and Kandis Williams, have had solo exhibitions and are already gaining attention in the art world.
Mario Ayala, who will also be featured in the current “Made in LA 2020: A Version” biennial, shows his Latino community on the East Side of Los Angeles. He grew up traveling to museums alone by bus to see art.
And Fulton Leroy Washington (aka Mr. Wash), who is also in the biennial, learned to paint in prison, serving 21 years’ life imprisonment for a non-violent drug offense. (President Obama granted him mercy and commuted his sentence in 2016.)
Not only did the show bring these artists public attention, but also an opportunity to bond with one another. Some of them already knew each other: Ayala shares the studio space with Rafa Esparza and Alfonso Gonzalez Jr .; Amani Lewis and Ambrose are partners; Merriweather and Lewis, who make acrylic, glitter, and digital collages, are close friends.
“It feels empowered to see us together in a traditional art context that is not neutral or exempt from the perpetuation of the same institutionalized racism that is anchored in the systems of everyday American life,” Esparza said in an email. “I’m very proud to be on a show that boldly takes into account the aesthetics, questions, and suggestions of black and brown artists.”
In a way, say the curators, the impact of the exhibition is just as important as the art that is in it. “There is still a massive lack of images of self-affirmation and representation of colored people in traditional figurative portraits,” wrote the curators in their prepared material for the show. “The result has forced those outside of this one-sided narrative to perceive their story through a predominantly white lens that is seen as universal. It is crucial that our community members, who have historically felt uncomfortable and undesirable in institutional art situations, finally see themselves represented in these rooms and beyond. “
The curators themselves represent their own progress. Girard was born in Los Angeles, grew up in Dallas, earned his BA in Art History from Howard University, and started out as a tour guide on Broad and the California African American Museum. The Western Arts Foundation recognized him as an emerging leader in colors in 2018.
Deitch said he was impressed with Girard’s tour of the Broad Museum’s exhibition “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963-1983” in 2019, which highlighted the contribution of black artists over two decades. He said he was also impressed with Frierson and decided to make her the director of his Los Angeles gallery.
Born in Pasadena, she studied art history and film at San Francisco State University. She started working as the creative director for her sister’s organic cosmetics company.
The exhibition can’t help but be a kind of correction in the tradition of the Studio Museum in Harlem’s program and groundbreaking shows like “30 Americans,” an exhibition of works by contemporary African American artists from the Rubell Family Collection that has toured museums for more than a decade.
Since society has not questioned shows with only white artists in so long, the exhibition seems to be wondering why not similarly get used to shows with only color artists. “It’s okay that our perspective dominates,” said Girard. “It’s like we’ve dropped our anchors.”
The question for the future is: “Will the art world close again?” he added. “Or will you let that happen more often?”