sept/oct 2016


Sometimes it takes a while to get noticed. A case in point is the story of sculptor Kenzi Shiokava, whose forest of carved wooden totems made him one of the breakout stars of this year’s "Made in LA" biennial at the Hammer Museum (and earned him the show’s Public Recognition Award). Brazilian-born to Japanese immigrant parents, Shiokava came to LA in 1964 and studied at Chouinard, then later worked as a gardener, counting among his clients Marlon Brando. Now 78, he had determinedly maintained his practice out of a Compton studio when Hamza Walker, the show’s co-curator, discovered his work online while researching another artist. As displayed at the Hammer, his works combine an outsider’s dogged, tactile immediacy with an insider’s mastery of material and form, and a joyous cultural hybridity that’s through the roof. Yet the exhibition overall is best defined by its dematerialized aesthetic, focusing on projects favoring transitory events and ephemeral gestures; in fact, Shiokava is one of the few invitees who makes object-oriented artworks. To any visitors perplexed by the objectlessness of the whole endeavor, his hand-carved totems offer a welcome oasis of solidity; one clings to them gratefully, like to the shards of a life raft.

That disparity points to both the paradoxes and benefits of inter-generational aesthetic dialogue. If pluralism is the anti-ism-there’s no dominant style, so you can do what you want!-that doesn’t mean that there aren’t dominant trends. So it’s always a relief to engage artists who came of age in another era, whose struggles span decades, who are not beholden to the latest art school tendencies: especially those idiosyncratic pioneers who carved their own path. In this issue, writer Robin Dluzen looks at three such trailblazers: all female artists based in Chicago. Barbara Rossi was a visible figure with the Imagists during their 1970s heyday; Phyllis Bramson blends influences, drawing special inspiration from household kitsch; while Diane Simpson was a hard-edged sculptor in a city known for figurative painting, who has arguably come into her own in the past decade. This year all of them have been taking their turn back in the spotlight, with a spate of solo shows over the last year. Meanwhile, in the Bay Area, textile artist Kay Sekimachi, also the subject of a recent museum survey, has been weaving her own innovative path through fiber art, engaging and expanding a regional legacy that has had a global reach.

Whatever lame puns about golden years or silver citizens (which I blame on the Olympics) aside, it’s a treat to consider these artists in the present tense, as contemporary practitioners. Happily, there are numerous examples. The 2012 edition of "Made in LA" featured Channa Horwitz, whose notational works have only grown in stature, while the 2014 exhibition featured monochrome painter Marcia Hafif and photographer Judy Fiskin; the current show includes Huguette Caland, whose fascination with eroticism, and the sensuality of line, has spanned six decades. Then there are figures like sculptor Claire Falkenstein, who blazed her own path out of the gate, who received a posthumous spotlight just this year. During the 1990s, I had the chance to interview a number of outstanding older (mostly female) artists who had forged notable long-term careers, persevering through thick and thin, while still pushing forward in their later years: among them painter Grace Hartigan, textile artist Lenore Tawney, lithography pioneer June Wayne, and sculptor Louise Bourgeois. Bourgeois was that rare exception who seemed to get more ambitious, provocative, and popular with every passing Whitney Biennial, but all of these artists were creating significant work late into their lives. Nothing against social practice, obscure performative collectives, or data-driven digital artforms, but not all artwork need be cutting-edge to be relevant. For that, and many reasons, I’m always happy to see the adjective "multi-generational" applied to an exhibition. And to a contemporary art magazine as well, for that matter.