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LOS ANGELES — A lone protestor currently occupies one of the rooms of a former apartment in Koreatown. It’s a bronze bust by LA-based artist Jemima Wyman, on view at the gallery Commonwealth and Council.
The bust sits at the center of Wyman’s installation, enclosed by colorful floor-to-ceiling fabric panels draped like shower curtains. It rests directly beneath a skylight, evoking a sense of religious or idol worship. Each fabric panel contains figures or icons taken from the artist’s archive of protest-mask imagery, printed repeatedly on colorful fabric. The panels hang in an oval shape, forming an intimate space for the viewer to move around in while being enveloped by the images, whose eye-catching repetition draws on Russian Constructivist posters and socialist propaganda.
The bronze head is formed from intricately molded folds that resemble a T-shirt covering a face, with its collar stretched to surround the eyes. Yet there are no eyes — the space where they should be is empty. These visual cues point to the widespread use of the mask in protest as a mimetic gesture for all those who have made themselves anonymous. Masks are often used as a power device in conflicts (think of the Zapatistas) because of their ability to provide an anonymous, collective face of dissent. This bronze bust captures the protestor of our current social imagination, as seen in the media and filtered through Wyman’s interpretation.
The negative space of the bust creates a sense of presence and absence at the same time. What does it mean to be both present and absent — to be active in a protest but to avoid identification? The panels add levity, despite their serious iconography, and bring the work to life: they move as the viewer moves. They also add historical grounding: we can’t run away from the past, and we are reminded of how it unavoidably helps construct contemporary narratives of struggle and resistance.
The bust is disembodied of its context. The anonymous protester has come in from her active role in public space to the sheltered, privatized space of a gallery, where viewers can safely participate in the social imaginary. This incongruity provokes pause to consider what forms of protest galvanize our imagination and how visual codes are used to subvert or support power.
On a ledge in the corner of the room is a book with fabric swatches of 40 propaganda textiles taken from Wyman’s personal archive. This format allows her to showcase the range of her collection as well as fabric types (faux suede, minky) and styles (tie-dye, keffiyeh, paisley, camouflage) on which visuals motifs could be printed. Each swatch contains a label that designates the location and date of the protest from which it came. The swatch book provides another avenue for Wyman to explore the idea of the “social fabric” — literal patterned fabric used by collectives to link bodies and express visual resistance.
The relationship in the installation between space, fabric, and bronze helps us to imagine a propaganda textile for our time. It also makes for an immersive experience in which the patterned curtains become a background for the viewer’s body, enclosing her in a small domestic space that encourages identification with the protester. Wyman’s sculpture commemorates the collective face of resistance as we witness protests with more and more frequency, at the same time tapping into a desire for change and transformation.
The feeling isn’t entirely solemn, though — there’s playfulness here, an idea of revolution as a beacon to which we are drawn, poignant now as we approach the 16th anniversary of the Seattle WTO protests. Conjuring Radical Openness asks us to look out beyond ourselves to this revolutionary horizon, all the while remaining rooted in the historically shaped present.
Jemima Wyman: Conjuring Radical Openness continues at Commonwealth and Council (3007 W 7th Street, Ste 220, Koreatown, Los Angeles) through December 19.
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