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Signifying Form

Curated by jill moniz
April 1 - July 1, 2017

Featuring work by:
Elizabeth Catlett, Maren Hassinger, Samella Lewis, Dominique Moody, Senga Nengudi, Alison Saar, Betye Saar, Beulah Woodard and Brenna Youngblood

jill moniz on Signifying Form

Signifying Form is a love letter and a proclamation of the tenacity and creativity of black women artists in and from Los Angeles.  Spanning a history from the 1930s to the present, Signifying Form brings together Beulah Woodard, Elizabeth Catlett, Samella Lewis, Betye Saar, Maren Hassinger, Senga Nengudi, Alison Saar, Dominique Moody and Brenna Youngblood. 

The exhibition assembles a nuanced selection of sculptures by black women artists who defy the Western sculpture canon by making work that equates meaning and form. While the modern and contemporary sculptural trends are largely abstract with a concentration on form, these artists, without sacrificing a mastery of material, signify form with content, much of which is deeply personal if not autobiographical. Catlett’s work, Political Prisoner, 1971, infers the artist’s story. Engaged in political protest in both the United States and Mexico, Catlett was denied entry into the US, then she renounced her American citizenship in 1962, after which time, she would enter California from Mexico under the name Sophie Greenberg. Catlett/Greenberg stayed with Lewis, her former student, working in Lewis’ studio and encouraging artists, collectors and gallerists to support black art in LA, despite her own political struggles for identity and place.

Alison Saar’s Cakewalk is here on display in Los Angeles for the first time. Saar (Lewis’ BFA student at Scripps) created the work with the intention of representing the precarious roles of black women, who are often made to contort themselves to become the many manifestations that are demanded of them. Visitors are encouraged to use the ropes to pull and position Saar’s figure, feeling the weight, tension as well as the desire to control others’ bodies. 

Many of the works exhibited in Signifying Form are being shown in Los Angeles for first time. Cage (In the Beginning), Betye Saar’s prototype for her Cage series is making its LA debut at the Landing, as is Maren Hassinger’s Whirling, on loan from the James E. Lewis Museum of Art at Morgan State University. Lewis’ The Family is on first time loan from Clark Atlanta University Art Museum.  The Cowrie mask by Beulah and Catlett’s El Abrazo are generously loaned by Second District Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, as part of the Golden State Mutual Collection saved from auction by the Supervisor and now managed by the Los Angeles County Arts Commission.

There are multiple connections and lines of inquiry among these artists and the works in the exhibition: teachers and students, mothers and daughters, inspirations and collaborators. Signifying Form is my homage to these artists, who are my friends, my mentors and my heroes for their uncompromising dedication and belief in the power of their practice. I have tried to honor them by creating a compositional lens through which each work is significant, and is in a communal conversation with the other artworks in the gallery. Together, these sculptural works herald a rich tradition in the black arts of Los Angeles, where stories, values, risks and creations structure meaning through abstraction, figures and a variety of media.

The Legend of Betye Saar

The story rings of urban legend: there is a beautiful woman who lives in a house high upon a hill overlooking Los Angeles. She collects junk items discarded by the city and turns them into magical objects. Her assemblages are soothsaying puzzles that connect stories of the past to the present. She brings meaning, wisdom, and humor to all who dare to look. Many who can read her symbols and signs consider her an oracle. Her conjuring offers gifts of insight into where we have been and where we are going. She bore three beautiful daughters who have inherited her many gifts. You may have already met her along your journey but did not know you were in her presence. At once ordinary and supernatural, she is humble and kind and carries a big stick. Is she a witch? Is she a goddess? Could she be real?

She is real. She is Betye Saar—a contemporary artist who has created art in Los Angeles for over fifty years. Through her iconic printmaking, assemblage, and collage techniques, Saar has helped define the cultural aesthetic of the Los Angeles art scene, and has influenced generations of artists across the United States and beyond. With wit, and a sharp feminist critique, she has fearlessly addressed difficult topics in her oeuvre such as racism, colonialism, and genocide. She has been equally adept in addressing deeply personal experiences such as love, loss, and aging. Saar’s interest in the metaphysical world has opened up a space to meditate on the uncanny and mystical in her artworks. Her references to cosmology, astrology, religion and spirituality have persisted throughout her career. Taking inspiration from an eclectic variety of sources from Simon Rodia to Marie Laveau, Saar’s art testifies to the power of objects to tell stories and capture the imagination of the viewer.

In Saar’s sculpture Indigo Illusions, 1991, two doors of a petite wooden cabinet open to create a blue triptych altarpiece. Above the center panel, a red and blue-eyed mask greets the viewer with a piercing gaze. The smoky mirror inside the doors presents a miniature Egyptian sarcophagus holding an abstract fertility figure. They guard a computer motherboard embellished with Milagros and Chinese jade trinkets. A pair of melted blue votive candles and a wax tower punctured with shards of colored glass mark Saar’s artwork as a sacred space for worship. The combination of ancient and modern components collapses the past and present. The warm glow of blue neon light shining from above electrifies this spiritual place with unknown power.

The assemblage Cage (In the Beginning), 2006, presents an abstract black and blue figure wrapped in chains atop a spindly wooden tower. A sculpture, barely visible between the interlocking pieces of wood, resembles an Igbo shrine figure dressed in raffia. Beside the standing figure is a carving of a man bowed in the fetal position. The tower is reminiscent of a Fijian spirit house, a temple reserved for ancestral gods and powerful priests. Although the figures are both inside and outside the cage, no one is free. Will the men in the spirit house use their powers to free themselves and their captor above? Or will the trio remain connected in bondage, confined and unwilling to help the other?

The large, red Victorian birdcage in Crimson Captive, 2011, encloses a woman’s dress form draped with thick lengths of chains. A rusty ring weighted by Yoruba gong currency collars her neck and five large padlocks secure her immobility. Perched on the stump where her head would be is a black glittery crow with sparkling red eyes. The crow symbolizes the specter of Jim Crow, the keeper of racial segregation and Black disenfranchisement. Paired in captivity, the woman and bird recall the title of Maya Angelou’s poem and autobiography, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” They share a song for liberation that resounds for all who hear.

From Los Angeles, Saar has generously shared her gift of art with the world. Particularly for African American women, she has consistently reflected our challenges and histories back to us providing both validation and wonder. Her restless spirit never ceases to offer potential ways of knowing.

Bridget R. Cooks, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
University of California, Irvine
Department of Art History
African American Studies

Alison Saar

As a young artist taking classes at Howard University I was introduced to work by black artists from the Harlem Renaissance through the Civil Rights era. The artists were creating work that was steeped in the African Diaspora vernacular and repurposed the black image in their work to create a positive affect. The result was a generation of work that documents the African American experience and uses the image of black people within a self-affirming context. It was, and in many ways still is, a radical gesture.

The maelstrom of the last few years has taken its toll on communities throughout the southland as they attempt to see each other’s humanity. It is in these moments that the work of artists becomes critical and relevant to expand the discourse, reinforce particular messages, or challenge conventional norms. This trend is exemplified in many ways in the work of the American sculptor Elizabeth Catlett. Catlett’s life and artwork was, as Dr. Floyd Coleman writes, a “convergence of art, politics, and advocacy for social change that resonated throughout the African Diaspora” . In sharing the African American expe- rience, Catlett created a fuller understanding of the American experience through an African American lens. Her work was uncompromising in reflecting the African American experience. In the late nineties, Catlett visited Howard University to give an artist’s talk and meet students. Catlett encouraged the art students to really support each other to greater successes and to share our experiences through art. The convergence of art, politics and advocacy was palpable as she outlined her own time being blacklisted and living in exile in Mexico.

The work selected for this show, Cotton Eater and Cotton Eater II, are exemplary of the artist Alison Saar’s rigor in merging art, politics and history. Alison Saar, much like Catlett, is a sculptor and printmaker who primarily uses the black female figure to underscore the complexity of America’s racial history thus depicting the black female’s vulnerability, humanity, dignity and beauty. Although the finished artwork is different, Saar’s markings in the wood are raw and bold in contrast to the oftentimes smooth surface of Catlett’s, however, both capture the vulnerability and strength of the black female.

As powerful as Saar’s work is, it has sadly not been adequately recognized in the Los Angeles area. Neither Catlett nor Saar has had a solo show at a major museum in Los Angeles and only recently has there been a renewed interest in their work outside of the African American diaspora. It is through exhibitions such as Signifying Form curated by jill moniz, the work by black female artists is able to participate in the larger conversations that are happening within micro and macro art communities. The challenge for all of us is how to sustain these conversations beyond the exhibition dates.

Isabelle Lutterodt
Art Center Director
Barnsdall Park
Department of Cultural Affairs City of LA

Notes on Sand and Stockings: the graceful movement of Senga Nengudi

I remember the first time I saw Nengudi’s work in person at the Hammer Museum’s Now Dig This group retrospective of Black Los Angeles Artist 1960 to 1980. I remember being mesmerized by her work’s simplicity, its strength, its...tension. It registers as sculpture; abstract, yet familiar and politically charged. Her choice of material- nylon stockings and sand- normally polar opposites, balance each other beautifully. I loved her use of the wall and floor as willing participants, dance partners, light and dark, form and function. Amazing. Many artistic heroes came to mind that night: John Outterbridge, Eva Hesse, Louise Bourgeois and my favorite artist, David Hammons. Imagine my surprise and shame upon learning that Hammons and Nengudi had come up together during the black artists’ movement in Los Angeles, as part of Hammons’ loose collective Studio Z. Why wasn’t Nengudi part of my general arts education? Because she’s a woman? An abstractionist? Because she’s black? The possible answers to this question are endless.

That night at the opening, I stayed with Senga’s work, and then returned to the museum on a quiet weekday so that I could really be present with it. I wanted to ponder the layers of thought I was witnessing where suggestion of movement was so strong. Upon researching, I learned that she had started out a dancer. Everything fell into place for me. Nengudi grew up in Los Angeles and Pasadena. By the time of her graduation from California State University, Los Angeles where she studied dance and art, the Civil Rights Movement was well under way. When the Watts Rebellion broke out, she was right up in it, working as a teacher at the Watts Towers Art Center. It was there that she met her peers: Hammons, Barbara McCullough, Purifoy and Outterbridge. A short while after the riots, Nengudi spent a year studying aboard at Waseda University, in Tokyo, Japan, where she adopted the stark, minimal elegant style of the Japanese culture that strongly influenced her work.

I also started off as a dancer and ended up expressing myself as a fine artist. Senga Nengudi often performed with her sculptures, weaving her arms and legs in and out of the nylons, exploring her body with collaborating artists, dancers and musicians. She often appeared as a genderless being, as a spirit communing with the participants. These collaborative performances explored social and political structures in our society that were equally impacting men and women at the time. Her work affects me deeply as an artist and as a woman of color.

When the work stands alone at the Landing, the tension created by the weight of the sand, and the elasticity of the stockings also suggests motion, a slow migration of time, perhaps moving so slowly that we can’t see with the naked eye the continuing droop. The viewer cannot and should not ignore the fact that the artist is working with panty hose. Are the hose a metaphor for skin? For me, the transparency of the stockings speaks to sensitivity and resilience. Stockings are thin but strong, much harder to tear apart than one might imagine. I am curious about a young generation of female viewers, many of whom have never even worn a pair of hose. Do they miss the obvious connection to women’s work, lives and the women’s movement?

In Nengudi’s sculptures, the stockings are pulled, tied and hung in ways that resemble body parts and sexual organs. The mesh is contorted, filled with varying amounts of sand, echoing sagging breasts and hanging ball sacks. The shapes also cast interesting shadows on the wall that dance behind the work. These structures were sometimes worn during her performances as masks, headdresses, tribal coverings and even hair. I am impressed with her ability to manipulate the material, particularly her execution of shapes. I believe these abstract works tell stories about women, about men and women and their interactions - the sometimes beautiful, but often chaotic dance of the sexes. Nengudi signifies everyday life all while exploring the difficult boundaries of race and gender.

Rosalyn Myles
Artist & Curator

Maren Hassinger

When I first became visual arts curator at the California African American Museum in Exposition Park, I found Maren Hassinger’s work in the permanent collection. A small, but powerful wire piece entitled Lean, 1981. I remembered that Hilary Clinton together with Marcia Tucker selected an excerpt of Hassinger’s In a Quiet Place to be installed in the White House garden. I wanted to know the breadth of this artist’s work, as well as build a relationship with the artist herself.

I think part of what made my mother such an effective curator and then arts administrator was that when she could, she built relationships with every artist whose work she admired, displayed, promoted and collected. For her, there was a level of understanding that came with friendship. It is something that David Hockney has described to me in his long art career as well. “Love,” he once told me, “is the only serious subject.”

Only recently, in the last year I spent developing a series of exhibitions with my mother (including Signifying Form) did I realize what an impact David’s and my mother’s love practice had on my own ideas and relationships in the art world. Including Maren in this exhibition was organic, both because of her seminal work in sculpture in the multiple media she commands, and because I have a great respect for her as an artist and a friend. When I think of sculpture, I think of Maren -her wire, her newspaper, her twig gardens and her “Love” works. That I could include examples of nearly all of those bodies of work is such a pleasure.

I also enjoy locating Maren’s work within the arc of local history and national practice. She graduated from UCLA, the first MFA in fiber sculpture in 1973. She was part of a Los Angeles collective of black artists pushing multiple boundaries, collaborating on performances and building friendships that would endure. She had a residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1984, and a Brandywine Fellowship in 1994. She is the director of the Rinehart School of Sculpture at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore.

Maren Hassinger’s work reminds me of the tradition of call and response. She gives viewers the framework to engage her work, and she expects something in return. Her abstractions make room for questions posed and answered, the conversations about space and place, race and gender. She is telling stories with material, form and intention. These narratives are not often easy, but they are vital.

jill moniz
Signifying Form Curator

Brenna Youngblood

Layered and full of texture, Brenna Youngblood’s work has given me many hours of satisfied looking. Her work is characterized by fullness and accumulation; sometimes incorporating photographs (both cut up and multiplied), bits of ordinary objects and swirling with dynamic associations and possible narratives. Her early object photographs and collages (2007-2010) offer an abundance of materiality as well as meaning. Her textured, painted and collaged surfaces were sometimes moody and ex- pressive, shot through with references to everyday life lived in urban America in general, and Inland California specifically. The artist grew up in the high desert city of Victorville and tuned to photography to capture her surroundings. Cars, lightbulbs, folding chairs, food containers and domestic furniture mingled on the surface of these early works, or emerged through veils of paint. As she moved towards painting and experimented with mixed media, she combined partial figures, wall paper, cardboard, flooring and paint in ways that pushed the boundaries of the individual media she employed. Brenna’s work continues to elude strict categories as she has ventured more into the realm of sculpture and installation, the fullness of her work continues to mesmerize.

Her use of the photograph, as material to be experimented with was a clear departure from modernist image-making but she still maintained photography’s ability to act as a type of evidence – proof of a thing, a place, or possibly an experience. Her lens based imagery is always added to, divided up, multiplied and made to represent more than what is pictured. With her later paintings and sculptures, the artist continues to make ever more complex objects accumulating common materials of her im- mediate environment and using repetition to create an expansive visual field.

In Brenna’s series of liminal sculptures representing math symbols, built up from bits of shaped wood pieces, she created pluses, minuses, exes to denote multiplication and horizontal bars representing equality. In Signifying Form, moniz’s display of these refined and minimal wood signs reflects the uni- versal language of mathematics, demonstrating that Brenna Youngblood continues to move beyond boundaries, adding to associations even as the newest elements of her artistic equations look ever more simple and refined. Brenna gives us both minimalism and abundance, both math and poetry.

by Rita Dove

I prove a theorem and the house expands:
the windows jerk free to hover near the ceiling,
the ceiling floats away with a sigh.

As the walls clear themselves of everything
but transparency, the scent of carnations
leaves with them. I am out in the open

And above the windows have hinged into butterflies,
sunlight glinting where they’ve intersected.
They are going to some point true and unproven.

Lisa Henry
Independent Curator

Samella Lewis

I met the esteemed artist, art historian, curator, editor, filmmaker, publisher, museum-founder and extraordinary woman, Dr. Samella Lewis, Ph.D., in 1978 at The Gallery Tanner exhibition opening for her former teacher and friend, Elizabeth Catlett. I have many impressionable moments with her going back 35 years.

The first time I was introduced to the work of African American artists was during a visit to Los Angeles 1976. I had the opportunity to see the landmark exhibition, Two Centuries of Black American Art, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). I had no idea when I saw this exhibit that I would one day professionally interact with some of the artists represented, including Romare Bearden, Richard Mayhew, Lois Mailou-Jones and last but not least, Jacob Lawrence, who I met through Samella.

The exhibition and symposium that Samella curated at the Museum of African American Art (MAAA) in the early 1980s was at the beginning of my art career. Artists of the ‘30s and ‘40s had a tremendous impact on my commitment to bring the work of African and African American artists to the attention of those I knew closely; and eventually the general public. Among the artists included in the exhibition were Lois Mailou Jones, Gordon Parks, Elizabeth Catlett, Jacob Lawrence and Claude Lewis---all have now passed. I met almost all the artists at the symposium; and made lasting connections with Lois Mailou Jones and Gordon Parks until their passing.

All this was an opportunity Samella Lewis created, which has enriched my life and furthered my career in the art world. I couldn’t have wished for a better mentor. I also met Jacob Lawrence through an exhibition Samella curated of his work at what was once the Gibraltar Savings Bank located on La Brea and Coliseum in Los Angeles. The first artwork I ever sold was the silkscreen by Jacob Lawrence titled Harlem Street Scene, 1975. It was made possible through the contact Samella created for me to meet the artist. Jake, as he is lovingly called by many friends, including Samella, was known to be a very humble human being.

Humility is one of the qualities I have seen repeatedly in Samella. She often calls me Ms. Alitash and I jokingly call her Dr. Samella because she is one person who does not make too big of a deal of her doctorate. In 1951, she became the first African American woman to receive a Ph.D. in art history and cultural anthropology from Ohio State University.

I have learned a tremendous amount from Samella, not only about art and artists, but also about the civil-rights movement, which took place during the time I was a young girl growing-up in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I heard stories first hand from a person who faced many professional and personal struggles, including from the Ku Klux Klan, who in the mid 1950s fired shots through the window of her Florida family home because of her activism and leadership in the NAACP.

Samella and I became neighbors in 1998 when I moved my private live-work art space south of the LACMA, about three blocks from her home and studio. She told me she used to walk to work during the time she was employed at LACMA in the late 1960s. Our close proximity gave me the chance to spend more time with her.

Since her retirement from Scripps College in 1984, Samella and I have spent lots of meaningful and memorable time together. I visit her almost every week, sometimes with my homemade soup. As of late, we have become meditation buddies, we go to the Hammer Museum’s meditation time on Thursdays at noon, and we often attend openings and lectures together.

It is remarkable and inspiring to me that her sharp mind and creative capacity is as strong as ever. She still remembers stories from when she was a little girl in New Orleans, as well as the people who made an impact in her life from the wealthy white woman, Mrs. Ruth Roane, who was one of her first supporters, to Elizabeth Catlett, her art teacher and friend. She regards Catlett as the person who opened her mind as an artist. She said, “I would not have observed on my own what she taught me to see. She taught me how to look at nature...She looks at the sky and took it beyond being a sky. She was a guiding point in my life.”

The Samella Lewis Papers, 1930-2010, are housed at the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives and Rare Books Library at Emory University in Atlanta. Samella is the first tenured African American professor at Claremont Colleges, where she taught art history at Scripps College from 1969 to 1984. Scripps launched the Samella S. Lewis Contemporary Art Collection in her honor in 2007. The collection focuses on contemporary artists with an emphasis on art by women and African American artists. In honor of Samella’s 90th birthday celebration at Scripps, I had the opportunity to donate the work of the artist Dominique Moody to the collection.

A close friend of mine once referred to her, as “my spiritual mother.” Samella Lewis is a “creative and inspirational powerhouse who has touched the lives of countless African and African Americans involved in the visual arts” and I have the good fortune of being one of them.

Alitash Kebede

Dominique Moody

Dominique Moody is a self-described nomad. She was born into a military family in Augsburg, Germany that peripatetically hopscotched from place to place. She was one of nine children who enjoyed collecting discarded objects. Moody finished high school when she was fifteen and enrolled at Pratt Institute. In 1991, she graduated UC Berkeley, Phi Beta Kappa in Fine Arts. At the age of twenty-eight, she succumbed to legal blindness due to genetic macular degeneration, which weakened her central eyesight. Moody’s work shifted from two-dimensional realistic illustration to three-dimensional sculpture. After years of sharpening her peripheral vision and memory, Moody has established a vigorous assemblage/collage practice in Los Angeles

Over Moody’s lifetime, she relocated forty-eight times. Her roving life became the foundation for crafting her most narrative work to date; a tiny home called The Nomad, 2014. The 160 square foot dwelling doubles as a compact public art piece. It is assembled out of repurposed materials and designed with architectural precision, clean lines and attention to detail. Audiences that follow the emerging tiny house movement connect deeply with Moody’s process. In late fall of 2014, during a bustling night in Leimert Park, an African American cultural hub in Los Angeles, The Nomad was parked on the street across from the Vision Theatre, where Moody was having an open house. She welcomed everyone into her mobile conversation piece. She spoke passionately about the tiny house, the function and process, and the sweat equity required to bring the concept to fruition.

What comes to mind when we think of sweat equity is the unpaid labor that individuals contribute to increase the value of a project or real estate. Moody’s, Sweat Equity, 2005 is a three-dimensional mixed media artwork. Sweat Equity contains remnants of newsprint, found objects, corrugated metal siding, twigs, and a slot wall with gaps functioning as windows. Small images of houses, trailers and other personal effects are deliberately displayed. Moody inserts her photograph that confidently stares out of the window to signify that she is finally in possession of her own home using her sweat equity. Multi-colored glass bottles are placed around the dwelling as allegories, to convey that they not only carry the phrase “sweat equity”, but also function as containers that hold metaphoric sweat. The bottles are signifiers with an ingrained spiritual connotation. Based on African diaspora folklore, tinted bottles were talismans placed in trees outside the home for protection. This custom “originated in the kingdom of Kongo on the West African coast as early as 1776...and was adopted in southern states as a Creole origination”.1

Moody’s allegorical piece, Life Cycles, 2009, explores the notion of eternity, regeneration and the cycle of life-from birth to death. Existence is itself a state of perpetual motion. Life Cycles is a wooden female figurine clothed in a short beaded red dress. An African mask-like headdress crowns her. A staff topped by a crescent moon in one hand stabilizes her, and in the other hand is a divining rod with a cylindrical disk that circumnavigates what appears to be a lunar eclipse. Central to this piece is the link between the color red, monthly menses, fertility, procreation and the power of women.

Moody is consistent in her approach to details using her inventory of found objects, employing the process of elimination and making art historical references that reflect these rational choices. The overall aesthetic and construction of Life Cycles is reminiscent of the work of Oskar Schlemmer, a German designer, painter and sculptor. Schlemmer worked in association with the Bauhaus school in Weimar, Germany, and is known for elaborate spherical and cylindrical costumes that transformed dancers into artificial statuettes for the Das Triadisches Ballett (Triad Ballet). Schlemmer took live performers and transformed them into sculptural form, while Moody takes sculpture and suggests movement by placing this figure on a wheel, which rolls around the universe representing existence itself.

Sweat Equity, 2005 and Life Cycles, 2009, places Dominique Moody among the giants of African American artists working in assemblage, Noah Purifoy, Betye Saar, John Outterbridge, and David Hammons.

1 Joe Cialdella and Enid A. Haupt, Fellow. The American Bottle Tree, 2013 https://smithsoniangardens.wordpress.com/2013/02/28/the-american-bottle-tree/

Chelle Barbour
Interdisciplinary Artist, Curator, Entrepreneur