A quickie: Laurel Atwell and Jessica Cook’s “Delicate Machines” at Central Park Gallery

Delicate Machines is a funny title for a performance staged in a small, awkwardly-shaped room in which two women in color-block outfits primarily rub themselves across a dirty floor while making strange kissy-fart sounds, framed by sea-puke-green crepe-paper-looking sculptures draped over ceilings pipes. Also exhibited were curvaceous blobs of plaster poured on the floor with various debris stuck into them (a shoe, an iced-coffee cup, dirt, maybe glass); a few bricks scattered about with thin wires sticking out of them; and a grey felt floor-sculpture/rug/play mat cut nearly into strips, each strip staged with a gentle curve. In a way, this was a space which completely fulfilled the stereotype of anyone even mildly skeptical of dance-y performance art—the almost flippant, random use of crafty materials; the audience crammed together knee to knee; the painfully slow and intangible movements—which made it all the more joyful when Delicate Machines up-ended, without even asking, the silly tropes they had feigned for the purpose of humor, dramatic emphasis, and a quick, peppery dash of art world “made-you-look.”

Tenuous at first, the structure of the performance seemed to begin in the roomy hallway outside the gallery where visitors mingled, some crouched by a cooler mixing white wine LaCroix spritzers, others poking around the gallery, sipping beer and chit-chatting (that would be me), and some wondering aloud when the performance would start. Jared, the director of Central Park, confirmed that a performer was now in the gallery, but we needn’t stop our milling and sipping. Impatient and fixated on achieving a “complete” experience, I sat down against a wall and watched Jessica. She was barefoot, clad in tight, thick-looking burgundy work pants and an off-white long-sleeved top that was either two-tone or in shadow—the kind of garb that looks too blasé to be a costume, but too specific to be unintentional. Laying sort of on her side and her stomach, near the plaster blob in the back corner of the gallery, she pressed her naked foot into the plaster-sunk shoe, pushing back and forth off of it in a way that was both controlled and muscular-looking but also effortless, un-self-conscious. She held her head at a precise downward tilt so that her face was imperceptible—another round blobby thing with ropes of hair swinging and masking her face from every angle. I wanted to see it—badly—and this feeling was the first moment her movement transcended the icky space of blah performance art and rose into a self-aware realm of playing off of audience desire—which is not only the desire to see what the woman looks like, but to know how she’s playing it—in a thrust that may be a cross between waking-up and scrubbing the floor, or if we dare to be so crass, may infer a kind of one-sided, fully-clothed intimacy—without seeing her face, we cannot faithfully interpret her body. The gesture was thrilling.

Soon thereafter, the rest of the audience entered the performance, either sitting cross-legged or standing with their backs to the wall in a lean semi-circle, not more than two deep. Somehow Laurel appeared, it was either sneaky or I zoned out, but there she was on the floor next to Jessica, the two of them doing their slow-floor-writhe, Laurel also barefoot, also positioning her head so that her face was concealed, the two of them eventually folding into a sort of arm-leg knot which they shifted gently by rotating from their heels to the balls of their feet. Laurel’s appearance, too, proposed the same question as Jessica’s: am I composed? This would turn out to be a central question within an impressively long performance (nearly an hour!) which perhaps tiptoed up to the edge of narrative, but never slipped in. A showing of endurance and strength, along with the ability to act in harmony with an other’s body is impressive—it may even be beautiful—but what stood out was the intimacy of the details of their touch—the way Jessica (or was it Laurel) laid her palm flat against Laurel’s back—the way just her pinky moved, spreading slightly away from the rest of her fingers to feel just a little bit further—it was those little gestures that made it hard to take your eyes off of the two of them—that made it feel like time had suspended—yes, “time” (to-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow) didn’t have a lot of clout in the gallery that night.

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Fast forward a little. It would be beside the point, not just inaccurate, to describe every movement that took place in Delicate Machines. The moment when Jessica and Laurel stirred away from their body-tangle and threw back their heads to reveal Laurel’s exaggerated diva makeup and Jessica’s smeared-on moustache (was it dirt from the floor?) was laugh-out-loud funny, but also self-aware and challenging—it shattered whatever imaginary preconception the audience may have had of the earnest or gloomy tendencies of such performance art—and instead offered us lively, idiosyncratic gestures. The brilliance of the smeary moustache is almost inconceivable—just a touch of drag, a little bit of female-bodied-ness mixed up with something messy, goofy, unlikely, liberating, maybe even empowering.

The part where they stick their faces together, bodies pressed almost flat, standing upright but shifting their weight around as if balancing on the deck of a ship in a storm—again, their faces are obscured, and you can’t quite understand what they’re doing, but they’re making a cringe-worthy sound, it’s abject, like a cross between a wet kiss and a long fart—at one point I was sure they were kissing while blowing air through their lips, the next moment I was sure they were doing some kind of circular breathing. The unwillingness of Delicate Machines to give the audience a simple aura to grab hold of—it was at once silly, sexual, platonic, dramatic, stage-y, throw-back-y, and just plain dirty—it made me want to roll around on the floor and do something weird.

In yet another fourth-wall breaking gesture, Jessica and Laurel, bent at the waist like dolls, step-stuttered their way out of the gallery door, through the audience, and toward the adjacent stairs (at which point Jared yelled, follow them!). We did follow—all of us hanging over railings on various floors, bending this way and that to get a good look at them as they slapstick roll-walked down the raw, drab stairwell. Their last movement was to stunt-fall down one step onto the third-floor landing, ending in a heap reminiscent of a road-runner silhouette, faced-down, arms splayed out—dead, or perhaps faking.

Thinking of it now, I remember the little grunts that Jessica and Laurel made as they shifted their two-person ball over the gallery floor—maybe they were speaking, or exerting, or grumbling—but just to hear their sounds, the immediacy of them, the quiet rawness of them—it was so different, so perplexing. I think of the moment when Jessica ran her cheek down the side of a wide, floor-to-ceiling pipe—the way her face bounced against it, like a sweaty hand sliding down the pole of a metal jungle gym. For me, Delicate Machines does precisely what machines can’t do—they breathe, they touch, they fake, they roll their eyes, they share intimacy, they joke, they rub. Like the garbage-dotted plaster-pools, and the shredded felt rug prop, and the sea-weedy drapery, the title of Delicate Machines is a bait-and-switch—it is profoundly about our un-machine-ness, a celebration of the potential of communicating through bodies, of being fixated on and surprised by and grossed out by bodies. Delicate, perhaps; machine, certainly not; a little tonic to inject complexity back into a space where we feared there was none; absolutely.

Delicate Machines was a performance by Laurel Atwell and Jessica Cook which took place on October 30, 2018, at Central Park Gallery in Los Angeles, CA. This performance coincided with Laurel and Jessica’s residency at PAM in Los Angeles, CA.

All images courtesy of Central Park Gallery.

Thank you to Sarah for editing this text!

Georgia is an artist and writer in Los Angeles. For more information on her projects, please visit www.georgialikethestate.net

Scramble: A quickie on Charles Williams’s “SUN + Light” at Residency Art Gallery

Two weeks ago, Sarah and I set out to see “SUN + Light” by Charles Williams at Residency Art Gallery. A commercial gallery located on E. Queen Street in Inglewood, it was on the periphery of our collective radar, but not a space we had ever seen in person. The show was brought to my attention by the artist himself, who contacted us through our “want to get unpublished?” web form, requesting a review. Needless to say, the only other requests ever made for unpublished reviews were blatantly unethical (I won’t go into it), and could not be accommodated. This, however, was rather straightforward; after all, didn’t we have a web form where you could request to get unpublished? I think it’s a kind of poetic justice for my lack of web skills, and my over-delight in the non-specificity (aka possibility) of language.

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Yellow (Freedom Riders), 2018 (Set of 17) Oil on Mylar 9 x 11in (Residency)

But this is a quickie, and I’m not being quick. Let’s get to the point. “SUN + Light” is a show for people who like beautiful things, and find meaning in that beauty—for the most part. As Alessia Cara sang, much, much too profoundly for her genre: “Beauty is pain, and there’s beauty in everything.” What am I trying to say? As art, it’s amongst the prettiest works I’ve seen, ever. Charles is the kind of artist where you look at their work and say, yeah, this guy knows what he’s doing. A “master” of the figurative, and faces especially, his paintings capture expression in an almost implausible way. Take, for example, Yellow (Freedom Riders), a series of 17 oil on mylar paintings; the faces here occupy a strange figurative space between rendering and smudge; they look simultaneously effortless and incredibly specific, but also as if they could be wiped away in an instant.

I always find figurative works like this challenging; maybe even frustrating—we know from the title of the series that the paintings depict “freedom riders,” but not their names, or the freedoms they rode for. I would guess, though I have no way of knowing, that these portraits are meant to honor, or play a kind of homage, to those figured; that I am unable to identify them speaks to their obscurity within my field of recognition, and likely points to my lack of knowledge of important political figures (they appear to be all female, and a mix of races, as far as I can tell). Either that, or they represent the freedom fighters in Charles’ own life, and I am lost searching for a point of recognition in something that is fundamentally unrecognizable, aka, “personal.” The yellow mylar, the “SUN” part of “SUN + Light,” is operating as a color with positive connotations, or connotations of positivity, and is therefor acting as a “sunny” stage on which the portraits are presented—a golden hue to what could otherwise be interpreted as a police line-up. Wait a second. Is that what they are? And do I consider that possibility because they’re mostly unsmiling? Or because they’re called Freedom Riders? Or because they’re in a row? Or because they’re all potentially non-white? It’s interesting to see the way Charles reduces his portraits to simply yellow and black; the color of the sun, and conversely, the sunless sky. If I like this series of paintings, it’s because of that intermediate space I mentioned; between being a smudge, and being a painting; between being an abstraction, and having personhood. If I don’t like this series of paintings, it’s because I wish I knew who I was looking at, which would help me understand how to interpret that looking. Alternatively, the inability to recognize the faces serves as a kind of content, challenging me to acknowledge my lack of Freedom Rider historical knowledge. The problem with forming a cohesive interpretation of Yellow (Freedom Riders) is that so much of that interpretation hinges on the knowledge of the onlooker; and knowledge, as we know, can be dependent on one’s position. But the more I think about it, the more I like this turn; I know that Charles wants his work to inspire positivity, and in this regard, I am not only inspired to learn the names of those in the portraits, but to imagine the way in which I would construct such an artwork—my own line-up of Freedom Riders—art as an aspiration, reflecting not ourselves, but the heroes of our better nature.

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Power + Love, 2017 Oil on Gesso Watercolor Paper 30 x 38in (Residency)

Power + Love shares some of these qualities in terms of recognition, but none of the smudgyness. The composition of the figures, which is Statue of Liberty-esque, gets very much like a painting—what I mean by this I don’t quite know how to explain. There is a straightforward quality to Charles’s work—the directness of the media and the image; it’s rendered in the style of a trained hand, and more or less thoughtfully blended with that more abstract, painty-scratchy-watercolory thing that paint does when it’s not being refined into a figure, or other identifiable object. Power + Love lands firmly in the plane of Fine Art, as opposed to that ill-liked plane of “illustration,” which Charles certainly does well within all his work; but his nuanced application of color, and his slightly left-justified composition infers an artist who is interested in paint and painting, and combining it with his interests and making it both narrative and personal; in this case, as the press release says: “juxtaposing Williams’ own encounters, past and present, with the civil rights movement of the 1960s.” I don’t know about you, but this description alone sounds ghosty, and I think that hangs in the air at “SUN + Light.” Honestly, when I look at this painting, I see something that looks a lot like a Francis Bacon (Study after Veláquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X??!!), which would be a fascinating reference, albeit much freakier than I sense Charles wants to get.

The singular video in the show, UNTITLED (son), is really, really good. As a time-based media, I think it has the kind of immediate impact that Charles is looking for in his graphic work; but the thing about videos is that they speak, literally; and speak can be awfully inspiring. Untitled (son) is technically simple, but not simplistic; at under five minutes, the video follows a young boy as he travels through what appears to be a natural landscape (the video is hued yellow, of course—the overarching and heavy-handed color metaphor that won’t leave us alone); through the headphones comes the booming, impassioned voice of Killer Mike, questioning the notion that his community is really “ready for war.” “How many boys are currently enrolled in a martial arts class?” he asks; “how many people grow their own food? How many people practice shooting, and how many times a week?” What’s powerful about Killer Mike’s address is that he’s reminding his community that there is a realm of the real, and a realm of the imagined; while he appreciates that rhetoric is inspiring, representation is not enough—in fact, it’s naive. While his address is a call to action, it’s also a call to transcend ideas with actions; while this may be ubiquitous when talking politics, Killer Mike is really making a fundamental request: let us transcend abstraction, and do something real, that’s within our power, to nourish and protect ourselves; to survive. I would argue that in the context of this show, Killer Mike is arguing for an action that transcends art—and the irony that his address has become art is the crux of the work; it’s the tension between the importance of representation versus action; what we want to be, versus who we are; how we see ourselves, versus how others see us. See this video.

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Scramble, 2016, triptych (panel 2) Oil on Gesso Watercolor Paper 90 x 38in (Residency)

The last artwork I want to mention is Scramble, an alarming triptych in which Charles photorealistically renders the unfathomable encounter between a teenage girl at a pool party and the police officer who tackled her (while she was in her bathing suit) and drew his weapon against those who sought to come to her aid. This particular example of police brutality, although not unique in function, was certainly a formal nightmare; twelve police officers responded to the scene, which was literally a pool party at a private pool; the black teenage girl tackled by the police officer was wearing a bathing suit as she was forced to the ground; and those that would try to help her were in swimwear, too. That a trained police officer could so misunderstand the human beings in front of him, wearing bathing suits, as potentially armed and dangerous, presents a grotesque abstraction of human life; instead of a party, he saw a mob; instead of bare, vulnerable skin, he saw indestructibility; instead of seeing a body, he saw a color. For anybody that sees contemporary art on a regular basis (and I don’t mean Contemporary Art, I mean art-being-made-right-now), there are too many artworks to count that draw political images directly from their sources; and a passive onlooker could mistake Scramble for one of these well-meaning, political artworks that serves as a platform for activism; but that is not what Scramble is. Because Charles is an artist deeply invested in the tension between representation and abstraction—between a line used to render, and a brush used to stroke—he understood this image to be just that—the sublime image of racism, and, I would argue, the inverse of love. So, why am I so floored by the brilliance of this particular artwork? You see, Charles has taken this image, rendered it in this most photo-realistic, un-Modern way imaginable, and placed it on a plane of concentric squares, brushed almost randomly, but certainly abstractly, with that yellow metaphorical paint. Scramble is the place where worlds collide; where the racist and generally completely problematic and fucked up history of Modernism bears its destructive legacy. Art is an ideology, people, and it can be evil.

Now, I know what Charles wrote about his work—about God, and divine love, and his grandmother telling him: “Stay in the light. Stay positive.” Stay positive is a powerful message, and an important one. But I think there are moments where Charles has gone so far beyond the realm of positivity—far beyond it, and into the realm of complexity. When an artist tells you that they want you to be inspired—let’s just say I brace myself. Not because artwork can’t inspire—on the contrary. An artist that wants to inspire others through their work really cares about others; I value that. It’s a weirdly pure gesture for art, which is a thing I see as usually being so much more corrupt than that. Charles, I don’t know if I’ve been inspired in the right way by your artwork, but I am invested in your expression; what I see as your conflation of Modernism with the very contemporary fallout of its racist and sexist ideology speaks deeply to me. Thank you for drawing me to your work—I hope you find the sunshine that you’re looking for.

“SUN + Light” is on view at Residency Art Gallery in Inglewood, CA, from January 20 to March 10, 2018. There will be a closing reception on Sunday, March 11th from 4:00pm to 6:00pm. For more information on Charles Williams, please visit his website:  http://www.cewpaintings.com

The featured image at the top of this post is American Dream, 2017 Oil on Gesso Watercolor Paper 30 x 38in, courtesy of Residency Art Gallery

Thank you to Sarah for editing this text!

Georgia is an artist and writer in Los Angeles. For more information on her projects, please visit www.georgialikethestate.net