Review: Lauren Halsey Mythologizes a South Central L.A. Community

This post is part of a broader series I will be doing over the next few weeks highlighting the work of black artists in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Stop everything you are doing and go to the online viewing room for Lauren Halsey’s exhibition at David Kordansky Gallery. In this time of pandemic, the artist and the gallery have done an excellent job of creating an artistic experience on the internet.

This digital show features works created as part of an ongoing project to create a new multi-use structure in the South Central L.A. community where the artist lives and works, having been born and raised there. The music that plays when you arrive and the layered jumbled collage in the background make this feel like a living space similar to the streets and buildings of the community itself, which, after all, is the focus of Halsey’s work.

Halsey refers to the gypsum carvings in the show as “wall works,” encouraging the viewer to see them as more permanent aspects of the surrounding architecture.

I have always admired artists who excel at the poetry of line, who can breathe life into an image with just a few eloquent, economical strokes. Lauren Halsey is such an artist. Many of the slabs depict heads with an emphasis on hairstyles. Others record signs from the neighborhood advertising different businesses and services along with hints of graffiti on bricks.

I could see these slabs of gypsum (also used by the ancient Egyptians for carving) serving as monuments to the past lives and vibrant culture of this community thousands of years from now. Halsey’s choice of medium is reminiscent of hieroglyphs telling a mythological story, “this is how we live… this is who we are.” It is an Afrofuturist gesture seeking to offer a different way of understanding a community by inviting fantasy and alternate futures and pasts, rather than the tired tropes and stereotypes we have used to describe disadvantaged neighborhoods for decades.

(I think we also need to see these slabs, which speak with such permanence, in the context of the resurfaced debate about Confederate monuments. They are a slap in the face to that kind of symbolism.)

The online descriptor states Halsey’s work is concerned with the intimacies of her community, and the “hopes, dreams, concerns, and tragedies that course” through it. She says her work deals also with gentrification and the concerns of the LGBTQ residents, being one herself.

The online exhibition ends with a video of the community space “Summaeverything,” which the artist founded and operates with the goal of providing fresh fruits and vegetables to the community. “In this way,” the artist statement reads, “aesthetic experimentation becomes a catalyst for an entire ecosystem of exchange.” In other words, art and action go hand in hand to recreate and reimagine.

In an interview with the New York Times, Halsey commented on the impact of the pandemic lockdown on art in general and for herself in particular:

“I feel like I’ve been resetting my pace. The art world has slowed, and I hope the slowness continues. I think it’s really cool that online viewing rooms can democratize the platform for artists.”

This show seems to be especially of the moment in the way it comfortably occupies the intersection of several different ideas: honoring and mythologizing black lives, reimagining community in the face of a pandemic that is literally physically distancing people from one another, and making art accessible during times of closure. I wonder how more far-reaching this work will be because it has been curated so effectively online due to the current real-world strictures.

This is the future, after all.

This exhibition will also be on view at GalleryPlatform.LA, June 17 – 24, 2020. 

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