John Outterbridgeby John Yau
Tilton Gallery 8, East 76th Street, April 7-May 16, 2009
This was the first solo show in New York of the innovative sculptor John Outterbridge, who, at 76, is well-known as an artist, community activist, and arts teacher in South Central Los Angeles and Compton. Outterbridge moved to Los Angeles in 1963 from Chicago, where he had painted, helped open an artist-run gallery, and drove a bus for the Chicago Transit Authority. He began moving into sculpture around the time of the Watts riots in 1965. Shortly after the riots he began teaching at the Compton Communicative Arts Academy and the Watts Towers Art Center, as well as working part-time as an installer (1967-74) in the Pasadena Art Museum. In an interview done in 1973, Outterbridge remembered installing large survey exhibitions detailing what happened on both the East and West Coast from 1944 to 1968: “It was a fantastic show. It really took a lot of work to install it. A lot did happen in California from 1944 through 1968. But nothing happened with black artists or with any black individual, who was an artist, according to what was installed in that show.” Recognizing the erasure of an artist such as Romare Bearden, Outterbridge responded by working within the black community, becoming the Director of the Watts Towers Art Center (1975-1992), and making reverberating assemblages out of detritus.
The relationship between race and the avant-garde has long vexed mainstream institutions, from museums and galleries to magazines and the collecting class. Having once been accused by an Asian American writer of trying to be white when I wrote about Jasper Johns, and having been indicted by a white critic of avant-garde poetry for supposedly calling attention to the fact that I am Chinese American when it was advantageous to do so, I am deeply moved by Outterbridge’s sculptures for many reasons. He has resisted the pressures to essentialize his identity according to the familiar tropes dangled before him by mainstream culture, but he has not forgotten where he has come from or what he has directly witnessed, ranging from his childhood in segregated Greenville, North Carolina, where his father was a “junk man,” to the Watts riots and the long but finally successful attempt to preserve Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers.
Long before it was fashionable to do so, Outterbridge recognized that identity is a construction, not a given, and certainly not something to be defined by succumbing to external pressures. In this regard, Outterbridge’s philosophical-aesthetic position has affinities with Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (1951-1982), Ed Clark, David Hammons (whom Outterbridge mentored in L.A.), Martin Puryear, Alma Thomas (1891-1978), and Stanley Whitney, artists and writers who do not utilize any of the familiar and ultimately reassuring racial markers to make quickly readable work that announces their identities. Rather, Outterbridge’s relationship to art history, including non-Western art, and personal history (Rodia’s monumental assemblage, for example) is complex, and does not fit into any of the overarching narratives used to categorize all art. The death of the artist and originality, as well as the emergence of deskilling and art that is supposedly anti-market, are not only irrelevant when it comes to Outterbridge’s work, but they are also exposed for their repressive nature—they too are manacles.
One of the central subjects in this exhibition is Outterbridge’s belief that art has the power to heal and to curse. In two otherwise very different wall pieces, Asafetida Yoke (2008) and Hinged Window with Asafetida Bags Branded (2009), the artist includes a tiny bag or bags tied tightly at one end. In African American Hoodoo, which should not be confused with voodoo, asafetida can be used for magic spells as well as for protection. By introducing these and other elements into his work, Outterbridge reminds us that in some cultures the function of art is not purely aesthetic or formal. Moreover, in his work, which often incorporates a wide range of detritus, from pieces of wood, wire, rags, tool parts, unrecognizable things, and hair, Outterbridge both uses and fashions his materials, all in the service of transforming them into something more than what they once were.
Formally, Outterbridge’s unearthings echo the subject of his work, which is the excavation of different histories that have been covered over, neglected, and hidden. He possesses a masterful ability to join delicate things (a tiny painted bell) to larger, sturdier things, which are often rusted, patinaed by time. Their power to endure time’s corrosive vagaries, to survive and become transformed, is the eloquent testimony suffusing all of the work.
In Ragged Bar Code, the artist wrapped twigs with brightly colored scraps of cloth and mounted them vertically in a horizontal line across the wall. A form of identification, barcodes compress data into a visual abstraction; as the poet Christopher Dewdney has advanced, one recent manifestation of them is tattoos. Ragged Bar Code is dense with data, all of which we have to translate. Inviting intimacy—I was tempted to touch the bits of cloth as if they possessed talismanic power—Outterbridge’s work conjures complex, multilayered narratives that are viscerally and visually enchanting. Having made a real and important place for himself in postwar American art, he continues with unparalleled grace to implicitly challenge many assumptions regarding the proper place and meaning of art in postmodern culture.