The plight of being an African American woman is the shared thread in the group show SWEET STICKY THINGS currently on view at LaunchLA gallery thru May 6. Lili Bernard, Zeal Harris and Loren Holland have distinct styles and conceptual concerns but share a compassion for and commiseration with what America sees as a second-class race and gender. Each artist, though, exalts the black female amidst these trials and tribulations, making SWEET STICKY THINGS part celebration, part verification.
The exhibit is more a showcase for each of the participants than it is a truly meshed group show. The artists have their own defined spaces in the gallery with no cross-pollination of sorts. The title of the show comes from Sweet Sticky Thing, a song by the 1970s funk group The Ohio Players. Famous for their music, a close second for the group was their infamous suggestive and erotic album covers. No trip to the record store was complete for young men of all ages without a perusal of the Ohio Players albums section. The show offers three different takes on femininity thru an African American point of reference.
Lauren Holland inserts black women in all their SWEET beauty and glory into landscapes that give a conceptual tweak to the Western (colonial) canon. One painting, The Bathers, takes its name from the four Cezanne masterpieces investigating that theme of nude women, isolated in a lake of pastoral splendor. Holland’s vision of the bathing beauties brings in a sad reality. Not only is there a voyeur in the shadows, but discarded binoculars indicate others have been gazing before. Amidst some detritus at the watering hole floats a Greek urn, reminding us that the cradle of the West based its culture heavily on the then long-established African culture. Just beneath the veneer of sweet figurative beauty, Holland challenges centuries of the dominance of the Eurocentric definition of beauty in her oil paintings that show the sweet gorgeousness of black women despite their vulnerability in the culture.
Lili Bernard infuses a STICKY combination of spirituality and satire into her offerings here (full disclosure: I have curated this artist into commerical shows). She is known widely for her paintings of Orishas, the saint-like pre-Christian gods worshipped in the Caribbean by African slaves. She expands on that theme with inventive sculptural altars to hair salons as well as a satirical advertisement for Orishas as natural hair products. But her calling card will always be her fantastic oils and she does not disappoint. This artist paints the battle for souls as a pictorial wrestling between a dragon and a saint in one picture. But the most moving image in the show is her portrait of Latasha Harlins as an Orisha. At the top of her halo is her name and the artist has lettered in “Say Her Name” at the bottom. Harlins was murdered by a convenience store cashier in 1991. In this painting she holds the bottle of orange juice the cashier insisted she was stealing. She gave her life for that orange juice and she carries it into eternity here.
Zeal Harris reminds us that there are THINGS with which African Americans must deal. Things that are best called burdens. Her outsider-styled drawings are belied by the sophisticated compositional rhythm of text passages woven throughout many of the works in this show. Digitally printed on a silk-like material, they tell dramatic stories of police shootings, relationship hurdles, and pining for a better world, all made more emotional by the mundane nature of these tragedies. That they appear to be so ordinary is what makes the subjects of Zeal’s stories so gripping. When the girlfriend tells her man the positives of them moving for a better job, he retorts “What’s the money gonna mean in Redneck, Arizona if you’re Sandra Bland and I’m El Chapo”. A man leaves his lover’s side not when it is time to go but when he is least likely to be pulled over. The artist “gets real” but on silk the work has a glistening presence - are these artworks also handkerchiefs in which to cry?
Most gallery exhibits have a homogenous quality passed off as an aesthetic. SWEET STICKY THINGS is a bold show about excess, about the diversity within a community, about belief, gender, and experience. Narrative painting too often seeks to spoon-feed viewers in the quest for a wider audience. These three artists give aesthetic investigation as much precedence as they do in elucidating their conceptual narratives. There is an inspiration in this show for a wider range of artists than just the storytellers.
SWEET STICKY THINGS continues at the LaunchLA Gallery thru May 6. Gallery is open TUE-SAT 12-6 PM - located at 170 S La Brea Ave, Los Angeles, California 90036.
An Artists Talk featuring all three artists and moderated by Naima Keith, California African American Museum deputy director of exhibits and programs is Saturday, April 15 at 4 PM, free admission.