Interviews

California Artists Address Coast-to-Coast Political Struggles

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Detail from Futurefarmers (Amy Franceschini, Joe Riley and Audrey Snyder), “Flatbread Society: Provisioning” (2014), sculpture, documents, and printed material (all images courtesy Nadiah Fellah unless otherwise noted)

What goes West must always return East because New York is still the center of the American art market. California has gone on a cross-country road trip to New York City with the exhibition Left Coast: California Political Art. On view through May 30 at the City University of New York (CUNY) Grad Center’s James Gallery, a space across from the Empire State Building on Fifth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan, the show speaks to a range of contemporary political realities in the Golden State. Curated by Nadiah Fellah, who began her career in the painting and sculpture department at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) before heading back to get a PhD in Art History from CUNY, tells Hyperallergic that she wanted to “take up where past exhibitions that historicized the legacies of radicalism in California had left off.”

The exhibition responds to contemporary political movements and policies from the last 10 years, many of which are known for originating in California. “I was thinking [about the] immigration rights movement, Prop 8/ the anti-gay marriage bill, Occupy, education reform, and the school-to-prison pipeline,” says Fellah. The group exhibition includes work by Andrew Schoultz, the Bay Area-based mural collective Precita Eyes Mural Collective, international artist collective Futurefarmers (which was founded by San Francisco artist Amy Franceschini), Evan Bissell, Jennifer Moon, PERSIA and DADDIE$ PLA$TIK, Lari Pittman, to name just a few.

Since I did not have a chance to see the show in person from where I live in Los Angeles, I got in touch with Fellah to learn more about the California political concepts that she has been investigating in New York.

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Evan Bissell, “Ben and Vonteak” from ‘What Cannot Be Taken Away: Families and Prisons Project’ (2009–10), acrylic and oil on canvas, telephone and audio, 8 x 5 feet each

Alicia Eler: How did the opportunity to curate Left Coast: California Political Art come about? Why is it important for this show to take place in New York and not, say, Los Angeles or San Francisco? Why New York and not a regional, second-tier art city like Chicago, Portland, Seattle, Kansas City or Washington DC? 

Nadiah Fellah: Last year, the Art History department here at the Grad Center received a grant from the Mellon Foundation to mount a show in the James Gallery. I submitted a proposal for an exhibition of contemporary California artists, and was given a chance to realize the show.

When I was initially pulling together a concept for the show, and knew I wanted it to revolve around political art, I realized that several shows like this had already happened in California (here I’m thinking of the 2006 Visual Politics: The Art of Engagement show at the San Jose Museum; LACMA’s Made in California show from 2001; the Hammer’s 2011 Now Dig This!  show). What’s more, many of these shows focused explicitly on the legacies of radicalism and political art in California, but I wanted to do a show that picked up where they left off, so to speak. Something that focused on contemporary political issues, and importantly would introduce some younger artists to a wider audience. When I began looking into artists I wanted to include, I also realized that most of their work — if it showed in New York at all —was shown in commercial galleries, an idea that seemed totally antithetical to their content and the goals of their projects. So that was kind of the beginning rationale of the exhibition.

My venue for the show was a given from the start, since I knew it would be at the James Gallery, but it also factored into the concept. CUNY is a school with a really progressive institutional legacy, which goes back to its founding as the Free Academy in the 19th century, and a mission to serve a diverse, urban population. This is something I was definitely drawing on, and the educational context is also important, since most of the artists in the show are also teachers (e.g. Teddy Cruz, Enrique Chagoya, Libby Black, Judith Baca, and Evan Bissell), or involved with educational initiatives (e.g. Precita Eyes and Futurefarmers).

All this to say that it was important that this show take place in New York, and definitely not California, because it not only underscored connections between political art and artists’ projects occurring on both coasts, but also highlighted this huge blind spot in the so-called art center of the country.

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Jennifer Moon, “Prison Relic #1: CDC ID” from ‘Phoenix Rising, Part 1: This Is Where I Learned Of Love’ (2012), framed photograph, book, cardboard shelf, and chain, 16 x 20 inches (photo) (courtesy of the artist/Commonwealth & Council)

AE: What are some of the differences you see as a curator in the political climate of Northern California, Southern California, and New York City, both historically and in the present day?

NF: This is a great question, and definitely could be answered differently for different political issues or movements, especially in recent years. There are a lot of things that California is way ahead of New York in, like the environmental movement for example. And there are several works I included in the show that represent this, like a large, beautiful monotype print that Favianna Rodriguez made for the Climate March in New York this past fall, and a commission by the Futurefarmers, whose food-based initiatives are influenced by the organic food movement, the sustainability of food sources, and whose members have been active in educating communities around these topics. On the other hand, the Occupy movement was born in New York, galvanized a movement across the country, and we watched it unfold in Oakland in a wholly unique way. Occupy Oakland occurred at a time when tensions around aggressive policing tactics, especially along race lines, had been at a tipping point, especially since the death of Oscar Grant. And the Precita Eyes mural that was commissioned for Left Coast makes reference to these issues, including portraits of Trayvon Martin, and Alex Nieto, who was killed by the SFPD this past year, yet whose death didn’t get as much national press coverage.

So I was interested in calling attention to the fact that change goes both ways, and it wasn’t about asserting California as the origin of all things progressive.

AE: I am curious to hear your thoughts on the social, political, and aesthetic differences between Southern and Northern California artists in this exhibition. I really like how you drew parallels between Bruce Connor’s assemblages that used materials from junk dealers in San Francisco’s Mission District in the ’50s and ’60s to communicate a “fundamentally disordered society,” as you put it in the catalogue, with PERSIA’s epic 2013 music video “Google Google Apps Apps” which of course uses found Google Maps footage to discuss the gentrification of San Francisco. Do you see a parallel historical pairing in LA artists, perhaps a contemporary like Jennifer Moon and another LA artist?

NF: Absolutely, and Jennifer Moon is a wonderful example to think of in terms of drawing on historical precedents in Southern California. The first work of hers I encountered was a self-portrait that was a direct reference to the portrait of Huey P. Newton from the Black Panthers, which circulated as this iconic poster. So there is this deliberate way in how she ties herself to past revolutionary movements in California, and also the accessibility of political images or ideas as they circulate in popular culture. At the same time, her projects, and especially the This is Where I Learned of Love series that’s included in Left Coast, are so eclectic, which is an aspect that drew me to her work. There’s certainly an archival impulse in the series, with the photographs of her Prison Relics, but she also draws on elements of fantasy, humor, and really personal responses to larger political issues, which she discusses on a her radio show called “Adventures Within” on KChung radio. I think her work will continue to evolve in an unbounded way — which is a factor that makes her a fun artist to keep watching.

Still from Persia Daddies Pla$tik, "Google Google Apps Apps" (2013)
PERSIA and DADDIE$ PLA$TIK, “Google Google Apps Apps” (2013), three minutes, video on monitor

AE:  There is a continued romanticization — even escapist fantasy — of California in the eyes of New Yorkers, especially as evidenced by that recent New York Times article about New Yorkers relocating to LA. At the same time, we see the endless wave of articles about the California drought. How does both the fantasy of California, the reality of its impending waterlessness, and the gentrification of the Mission in San Francisco and Highland Park in LA further politicize the Left Coast, in your opinion, both for your exhibition and generally speaking? 

NF: Thank you for this insight! I think this romanticization absolutely exists, and was something that I didn’t even realize did until I moved to New York. But as I became aware of this complex, it was something that I wanted to push against with the exhibition. I also realized that many of the artists I was working with were also frustrated by this complex, and the idea that California artists weren’t producing work with enough weight or seriousness to warrant being shown in the ‘center’ of the art world. In order to make some of these political realities more tangible and present in the James Gallery, I organized a whole calendar of programming that would bring the artists, scholars, and thinkers to New York to talk about issues that are present in the projects and their circulation. For example, we had Favianna Rodriguez here recently to talk about her art and activism, particularly as it relates to immigration reform and gender equality. Favianna spoke alongside Lincoln Cushing, who is a writer, curator, and archivist of political posters (of which there are several in Left Coast, on loan from the Interference Archive in Brooklyn). For that event, Favianna and Lincoln’s powerful talks made the saliency and urgency of a lot of the movements coming out of California both accessible and compelling to a New York audience in a unique way.

In addition, we had the Oakland-based artist Evan Bissell come and talk about his What Cannot be Taken Away: Families and Prison Project that’s on view in Left Coast, and his strategy of using participatory elements in his own art and process. For the program, we drew a connection to aggressive policing tactics that were being practiced in the South Bronx, and how participatory research strategies can be a way to empower communities, and not let policies like “Stop and Frisk” or “Broken Windows” define them. We invited a community group based in the South Bronx, the Morris Justice Project, and the Graduate Center’s Public Science Project, which does participatory data collection in support of social justice movements in the neighborhood — and who Evan had produced paintings for, which then became posters that were put up around the neighborhood, with messages like “We are not a Broken Window.” The event became a really productive forum, and helped to connect similar struggles taking place on both coasts, and highlight who the people are that are working towards political change.

So its been opportunities like those that have given me a chance to combat the ‘escapist fantasies’ that one might bring when seeing a show about California art.

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Precita Eyes Muralists Association, “And The Earth Did Not Swallow Them” (2015), site-specific mural, 12 x 12 feet, mural designed and executed by Max Allbee, Fred Alvarado, Suaro Cervantes, Marina Perez-Wong
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Andrew Schoultz, “Armored Horse Illuminati” (2015), site-specific wall painting (courtesy the artist)

Left Coast: California Political Art continues at the James Gallery (365 Fifth Avenue, Room 5103, Midtown Manhattan) through May 30. 

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