We’ve lived in Los Angeles almost all my life, and while much of the city has changed, the “dental” tower on Wilshire and Westwood has not. Between dentists, orthodontists and oral surgeons, I have spent more hours in oral torture in this one office building than anywhere on earth. I have always thought about making art out of my experiences suffering in this 60s tower block, but about a year ago, after staggering out of the dentist office fully numb at the end of the day, I looked up, noticed that The Hammer Museum across the street was now advertising free admission and realized, “Why not just see some art?”
Since then, I try to go to visit the museum every time I go to the dentist, which is more frequently than most people, because I never quite learned how to brush my teeth. (Just kidding). Literally, the visit to the museum injects some pleasure into the pain. (And I’m not just talking physical) And they have a killer gift shop, with the LA outpost of New York’s storytelling concept store, Kiosk. (But I digress.)
It was serendipity when in December, I heard about the work of the Nigerian-American artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby. She was mentioned in passing on the way over to the dentist, then I found out she had a show across the street! How often does one hear about something, then get to immediately see it? (Never!)
I had just returned from Miami Art Week, where I had spent much of my time intrigued by everything influenced by Lucio Fontana and VR. The Italian minimalism of my confused late childhood had returned. I had always loved boldly colored, almost blank canvases, pure emotional color, which was a welcome middle finger to the overly ornate and complicated works we are often force fed in gilded frames in museums. But something stuck with me when I saw a brightly colored painting by Jonathan Horowitz. In lettering below a perfectly yellow canvas, he had printed, “Don’t worry, be happy, support art about nothing and maintain the status quo.”
So it was this thought that nagged at me when I entered the room a month ago, and again when I re-entered it today, still numb from dental surgery.
If there is one thing that is certain about Akunyili’s work it is that it is art about a lot. There is almost endless information to absorb from each piece. It is powerfully detailed, a collaged blueprint into lives that most of us never see, let alone see hanging in a museum.
While in a tiny room at The Hammer, together they comprise a powerful glimpse into the patchwork-like world of a woman and her family.
I was immediately drawn to the stories inside of “Tea Time in New Haven, Enugu,” a work depicting a cluttered dining room table, where the placemats, the chair upholstery and the wall covering act almost as characters, in a room devoid of figures, but full of history. Crafted into a collage from acrylic paint, charcoal, color pencils, xerox transfers, the attention to detail is meticulous, an insight into a family that has adapted some monochromatic mores of Western culture, but keeps their heritage and individuality intact through a vibrant patchwork of tradition. Just looking at this one painting, I have an almost endless array of questions about the details. I want to know the meaning behind everything. Who is this invisible family? What are their names? Where do they sit?
People ask me quite often how does one know when to buy art. I like to reply that buying art, whether it’s a postcard or a painting, is something instinctual, something visceral. But maybe it’s more than that. You can buy art and you can BUY ART. I think the art that is most satisfying is the art that you want to live with the most. That you enjoy looking at repeatedly over different times of day, and your life, that you can stare at without thinking and marvel at the lines and gradations and simply experience joy having it near. Finding art like that is rare and would be to me in the ALL CAPS description. The below piece is one I could stare at for years, in those quiet hours before I speak or after I’ve finished, making up stories about the moments before and after at the table.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby
Tea Time in New Haven, Enugu
2013. Acrylic, collage, color pencils, charcoal, and Xerox transfers on paper. 84 x 111 in. Private collection; courtesy of Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York. Photo: Jason Wyche.
So I guess that is my way of saying GO ON, GO SEE: Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s show at The Hammer Museum through January 10, 2016.