I performed a selection of poems by William Emboden to activate my installation at the Memories of Tomorrow’s Sunrise exhibition at the Ronald H Silverman Fine Arts Gallery at Cal State Los Angeles on July 6, 2022.
Here is video of that performance, along with the downloadable script of his works. William A. Emboden Ph.D., F.L.S. (February 24, 1935 – May 10, 2016) was a world-renowned ethnobotanist, writer, editor, professor, lecturer, artist, and poet. From 2012-2016 I helped to transcribe thousands of pages of handwritten poetic works and manuscripts that William wrote during the final years of his life. The installation piece “sharing a seat with the poets” was created as a tribute to the concepts of mentorship, spiritual connection, and ideas of LGBTQ and cultural ancestry/kinship beyond blood relations.
Looking forward to the upcoming curatorial project involving Vojislav Radovanovic and Mika Cho at the Ronald H. Silverman Fine Arts Gallery that opens on Wednesday, June 8 from 5pm-9pm.
Memories of Tomorrow’s Sunrise investigates concepts of legacy, personal relationships, family ancestry, cultural identity, and the historical struggles of being human that have moved us in profound ways. A multiform poetic narrative with emotional resonance is woven together based on the assembled artists’ experiences. The exhibition recognizes the role of ancestors, blood families, chosen families, and mentors alongside the traumas, tragedies, and teachings in making us who we are today. The artists create work in part as an effort to survive the challenges of the present moment and with the hope to leave a lasting, purposeful impression behind. Collectively, we are the ancestors of tomorrow’s sunrise and someday we shall all be but a memory.
The exhibition as a whole creates an immersive experience, featuring some site-specific installations, sculptures, photography, interactive artworks, performance art, video, and auditory works. Artists serve as archeologists of sorts, discovering and revealing interconnections and sentiments among the cultural sediments. The individual pieces are layered with personal and universal meaning, inviting viewers to engage in the conversation. Loss, pain, tragedy, and uncertainty are purposely and precariously balanced with concepts of transformation, resilience, hope, and declarations of personal power. Despite the overwhelming issues facing the continued coexistence of humanity and nature, the works of Memories of Tomorrow’s Sunrise examine elements of the past to illuminate possibilities for the future.
Curated by Jason Jenn & Vojislav Radovanović
with Mika Cho, Professor, ART/Director, Ronald H. Silverman Fine Arts Gallery, Cal State LA
a field guide to the timelessness of now Cerritos College Art Gallery October 11 – October 23, 2021
November 20, 2021 – end of January 2022 Monday – Saturday 10am-6pm Loft @ Liz’s – above Liz’s Antique Hardware 453 South La Brea, Los Angeles, California 90036
Indulge your proclivity for pleasurable treasures and curious amusements in A Practical Guide to Parlour Games & Magic. The whimsical exhibition imaginatively and unexpectedly explores themes that are divine and delightful, peculiar and puzzling, mysterious and macabre. With a showroom style twist, works by each artist are installed like a unique boutique to fit alongside the many wonders of Liz’s Antique Hardware and create a most enchanting setting. Whether one chooses to bathe in a moment of refreshing bewitchment away from the outside world or create an ethereal atmosphere at home, the show offers many charms to discover.
Curated by Jason Jenn & Vojislav Radovanovic. Featuring work by: Phoebe Barnum, Brad Davis, Adrienne Devine, Doug Hammett, Orit Harpaz, Jason Jenn, Ashley Kruythoff, Lena Moross, Giovanni Ortega, Vojislav Radovanovic, Nancy Kaye Turner, and Sean Yang.
Hank Willis Thomas needs to be a household name in the realm of contemporary art. I trust it will be soon, thanks to an impressive body of prescient works in recent years that address some of the weightiest subjects we face today. Thomas is a conceptual artist who reframes pop-cultural and historical imagery with a clean, clear graphic aesthetic that tackles themes like racial injustice, gender and racial inequality, gun violence, and corporate branding. There is no mistaking his message’s intent when it’s delivered with such stunning, visceral results.
I experienced a wide breadth of his work in Portland Art Museum’s exhibition All Things Being Equal…, his first major museum mid-career survey just before the pandemic outbreak in January of 2020. Thomas’ principal medium for expression is photography (he received his BFA and MFA in Photography –and his mother is a professional photographer with her own acclaimed career). However, in the past 25 years, he has created an eclectic body of work, including sculpture, mixed media, installation, video, and participatory performances. He also works on various interactive and collaborative projects to inspire public conversations about social justice and civil rights.
One of the first works on view was an immersive installation that created a shrine-like circle of long, dark blue banners embroidered with 14,719 stars evoking the American Flag, referencing thenumber of people shot and killed by gunfire in the United States in 2018. The work reflects one of the most shocking statistics of American culture that continually avoids being addressing by serious solutions. Thomas experienced a devastating loss firsthand. In 2000, his cousin (also his roommate and best friend) was killed by gunfire in a robbery outside a nightclub in Philadelphia. Like most of his works, he finds a way to resonate with everyone because he deals with such culturally pervasive issues.
“But all you have to be is alive in America and you can fall victim to gun violence.”
– Hank Willis Thomas
Thomas uses the language and design of advertising to communicate his message – he does not go for vague or subtle, and he does not pull his punches. He frequently explores how commercial/consumer brands exploit and profit from stereotypical images of the black experience.
He frequently critiques commercial sports, and in recent years it has become more apparent how the industry can use black men while being indifferent and hypocritical to racial issues. In his series B®anded, Thomas transforms the iconic Nike swoosh logo into a literal brand scarring the bodies, referencing the branding of slaves by their owners. He created quilted versions of Picasso’s Guernica and Matisse’s The Fall of Icarus, made out of bright, colorful familiar sports jerseys from teams like the Lakers and Knicks. It forces the viewer to question how the ideas of war and sacrifice in the original works relate to the challenges faced by professional athletes and the conditions they must endure to entertain the masses.
His sculptural work takes iconic imagery from historical photographs, isolating the most potent elements that stood out for him and transposing them into three-dimensional works that crop out everything but the essential focus. The results are chilling and monumental.
While nothing compares to the reality of visiting a museum in person, digital media becomes even more critical during shelter-at-home. The Cincinnati Art Museum created a gorgeous exhibition video walk-through, narrated by Thomas that is worth checking out:
Featuring works by Nica Acquino, Joseph Carrillo, Jeff Frost, Anita Getzler, David Hollen, Jason Jenn, Ibuki Kuramochi, Rosalyn Myles, Vojislav Radovanović, Alison Ragguette, and Kayla Tange.
Curated by Jason Jenn and Vojislav Radovanović
Art and spirituality have been intertwined since their origins. Sanctuary of the Aftermath affirms the sacred role of art and redefines the gallery as a place to experience solace during troubled times. The exhibition presents artworks demonstrating a strong spiritual component in their creation while addressing some of the challenges of contemporary existence. Site-specific installation art, video art, and auditory art are highlighted within an immersive atmosphere, which invites safe engagement to explore the issues and make personal discoveries.
After our prolonged period of physical separation and quarantine, the exhibition investigates how art can create new channels for connection. Hailing from diverse backgrounds, the exhibition artists take inspiration from various timeless practices and historical approaches. They employ meditative, introspective, interactive, and sometimes visionary techniques in pursuit of the numinous. During a time of intense socio-political injustice, environmental disaster, rapid technological changes, prolonged physical isolation, and anxiety — art can be a remedy.
STUART TIMMONS’ CITY OF WEST HOLLYWOOD LGBTQ IMMERSIVE HISTORY TOUR
The popular tour is back – this time as a virtual tour you can experience from any location! It was a pleasure directing and designing the tour between 2015-2017, and I’m pleased to have the opportunity to recreate and reimagine the event for an era of prolonged social distancing! We’re going to have fun exploring the sensational, sordid, and surprising LGBTQ history of WeHo – and this time, EVERYONE’S INVITED TO JOIN IN!
EVEN SPARKLES HAVE SHADOWS – curated show at Torrance Art Museum
The artworks of Even Sparkles Have Shadows dazzle the viewer with beautiful, colorful, playful images – at least on first glance. Closer examination reveals a curious undertone of hidden meaning that reflects our current culture’s social media savvy of glossy presentation and the need to put our best foot forward in spite of the daunting realities.
Curated by Jason Jenn.
Featured artists: Michael Craig Carrier, Zära Monet Feeney, Chuck Hohng, David Hollen, Stevie Love, Haleh Mashian, Ken Gun Min, Alison Ragguette, & Colin Roberts.
Art provides many functions in contributing to the overall health of a community, including the thoughtful critique of its various systems and institutions. It can reflect the harsh realities of complex situations and offer up a new vision of possibility. That’s part of what makes the works of Alex Donis, like Officer Moreno and Joker among my all-time favorites. Donis is known for his portrayals of peaceful, playful comradery and/or love between typically historical adversaries. It’s a beautiful, timeless concept; imagining what could be if humanity could set aside their differences.
However, transforming enemies into friends and lovers is a daunting task – as we surely understand in this day and age. The concept is easier said than done, and easier portrayed in art than actualized in reality. But the hope and effort to make it possible matters. It’s only by pushing the cultural boundaries of expectations that we make progress and expand our collective understanding, but there’s often a lot of push-back. The creation and exhibition of such artwork can attract a lot of ire in the process of sharing.
Since “toppling societies’ conventional attitudes…influenced by a tri-cultural (Pop, Latin and Queer) experience” is part of his artistic statement, Donis is no stranger to controversy in his career. His exhibitions have often been subject to vandalism and/or threats. His 1997 exhibition at Galeria de la Raza in San Francisco portrayed iconic same-sex figures kissing each other, like that of Che Guevara with Cesar Chavez and popstar Madonna with Mother Theresa. The installation was vandalized twice within two weeks of its opening. In 2001, his exhibition WAR at the Watts Tower Arts Center was pulled down/censored a mere three days after its opening by the LA City Cultural Affairs Department when members of the Watts community threatened vehement protest. The gay thematic tones coupled with the tense history of gun violence hit a sensitive spot in its depiction of LAPD officers engaged in same-sex dance poses with gang members. It’s hard to know which of the two controversial issues was more difficult for the community to see on view in the art, but one can certainly speculate.
Twenty years later, Donis’ works are as relevant as ever. They remind me what it could be like if more people in the world were lovers, not fighters. Dancing certainly looks more fun.
“My work for many years has been to understand hatred in society and how, as an artist, to dissolve it by bridging vast social divides.” – Alex Donis (WAR Press Release, September 27, 2001)
After the shocking events of the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol Riots, I compiled this highlight list of facts about the Art of the Capitol for the Torrance Art Museum. This personally helped bring some peace of mind to reflect upon the art rather than the domestic terror and political ramifications of that day – and I think you’ll also enjoy find out some fascinating details about some of the over 300 works of art it contains.
All eyes have been keenly upon the US Capitol since the shocking events of Jan 6, 2021, and the ramifications of it all are yet to be seen. It’s worthy of note that in addition to the building as the seat of Congress, it houses a collection of over 300 historical works of art. This edition of Please Don’t Touch the Art includes links to various articles and resources to explore more.
ARCHITECT OF THE CAPITOL
TheArchitect of the Capitolstaff preserves and maintains the historic buildings, monuments, art and inspirational gardens on the Capitol campus. They have a great deal of information on each work accessible online here:
A detailed assessment of damage caused to those works is still underway, but it appears that some of the most significant works did not suffer any serious harm. For more about that process, read:
There’s been a lot of buzz about some of photographs from the riots relating in some manner to events within the works of art portrayed at the Capitol. National Geographic recently posted this article by an art curator that details some of those uncanny connections.
Recently, the removal of controversial art at the Capitol made the news as efforts are being made to include more Black, Indigenousand People of Color in the Capitol collection, particularly among the statuary.
The Hall of Statues features 100 statues (two from each state). In December 2020, Virgina removed the confederate general (and notable insurrectionist) Robert E. Lee and is replacing it with a statue of Barbara Johns, a civil rights pioneer.
While located in the Hall of Statues, a statue of Rosa Parks is historically significant as being the first full-length statue of an African American person in the U.S. Capitol. Recently it made the news as some troops brought in to defend the capitol posed for pictures with her.
The Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol is where the most eminent citizens are given the honor to lay in state. The dome ceiling features a very Zeus-like image of George Washington surrounded by 13 female figures that represent the 13 original states/colonies and Greek gods along the side.
The Statue of Freedom (originally titled Freedom Triumphant Over War and Peace and also known as Armed Freedom) rests atop the U.S. Capitol. While not as well known as the Statue of Liberty, this icon of Columbia (the personification of America) shares an equally iconic pose. Of note is her military helmet adorned with stars, and an eagle’s head and plume. She wears a Native American blanket strewn across her shoulder.
It was designed by American sculptor Thomas Crawford at a studio in Rome and shipped as 5 plaster pieces in the mid 1800’s to the United States where it was to be cast in bronze. Interestingly, it was the work of a slave, Philip Reid, who helped make it possible to properly create and install the final version. By the time The Statue of Freedom was raised atop the Capitol dome in December 1862, Reid had been declared a free man after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation executive order in September 22, 1862.
For more about the history – watch:
THE TINY DOORS
The Capitol building features a series of tiny, odd-looking doors in the walls, which actually house a unique engineering achievement by Captain Montgomery Cunningham Meigs. He helped design the Washington Aquaduct, an elaborate system that brought fresh water from the Potomac River throughout the capitol in response to a terrible fire in the Library of Congress that tragically destroyed 35,000 volumes on Christmas Eve 1851. It’s a fascinating history explained here:
Finally, it should come as no surprise that the most featured figure in the art collection is George Washington.
limbs seeds circle danceis a video art work about the desire to connect to the natural world in an ever-increasingly disjointed society. Special effects technology allows contemporary artists to become modern-day wizards. There is a contradiction in how cultural advances can also isolate and distance us. The central figure casts a spell in a grove of urban trees, making multiple images of himself in his mind’s eye that emerge like tree nymphs, but they are odd, uncoordinated creations which ultimately fade away like a hallucination in the confusing blur and dream of life. It is part of a series of videos works with a meditative aim, inviting the viewer to slow down and let the imagery wash over them in a manner that is subversive in its intentional serenity.
I’m excited to premiere the work as part of The L.A. Mise-En-Scène Video Art Festival, featuring over 30 video art works by artists from LA and around the world curated by L.A. Art Documents (Vojislav Radovanović and myself). The festival runs from September 1-20 as part of MAIDEN LA. Each week a new Tarot Card Reading is presented, featuring 10 different videos. limbs seeds circle dance is paired with the Magician card in Tarot’s Major Arcana and takes place in Tarot Reading 2 from Sept 8-14.
Here’s my fourth Staff Pick essay written for the Torrance Art Museum.
I have a confession to make: when I went to see the exhibition Meet Me At the Center of the Earth, by the artist Nick Cave, I totally thought that the rock and roll frontman of the Bad Seeds had somehow ventured into the visual art world. I’m at least relieved to know from talking to others that I wasn’t alone in my confusion of the two, nor am I the only one to be immediately captivated by the artist’s imaginative and playful fusion of assemblage, fashion, sculpture and performance art. It’s one of the few occasions where even though while on vacation, I nabbed up one of the heavy photographic tomes for sale in spite knowing I would have to travel around with that extra weight. I simply had to keep examining his body of work for hours after the visit.
There’s a lot to enjoy in Nick Cave’s creations. Cave’s experiences as a dancer with Alvin Ailey come into play watching how they move both in a studio or out in the world in various locations. The Soundsuits in particular are full of life whether viewed in action while worn by a performer or when simply standing still displayed on a mannequin. The eye of the beholder is constantly engaged in its own dance as it takes in each piece, full of intricacies, layers and new surprises.
The Soundsuits are composed from a wide variety of materials, such as buttons, beads, yarn, feathers, hair, fabric, fur, fake flowers, old toys, household items, discarded objects, etc. Cave combines and transforms everyday objects into breathtaking creations. They take inspiration from African art traditions and various ceremonial dresses and armor, with visual similarities to some Mardi Gras Indian suits and nods to the outlandish fashion and living sculptures of artist Leigh Bowery (another favorite of mine). The Soundsuits astutely bend the principles of haute-couture fashion, allowing Cave to utilize his childhood background repairing hand-me-down clothing alongside his fine arts degree and studio practice. The Soundsuits completely morph the wearer obscuring their identity – age, gender, color, body shape – are all hidden from the beholder as part of the artist’s intention to do so. He wants the viewer to look without judgment or prejudice.
The origins of Cave’s Soundsuits come from a social tragedy that is still hauntingly relevant: the brutality witnessed during the Rodney King beatings by the LAPD in 1992.
“I started thinking about myself more and more as a black man – as someone who was discarded, devalued, viewed as less than. I started thinking about the role of identity, being racially profiled, feeling devalued, less than, dismissed. And then I happened to be in the park this one particular day and looked down at the ground, and there was a twig. And I just thought, well, that’s discarded, and it’s sort of insignificant. And so I just started then gathering the twigs, and before I knew it, I was, had built a sculpture.” – Nick Cave,
From that initial twig and wire Soundsuit, Cave has gone on to create over 500 Soundsuit creations across the world. He often works with various non-profits, social groups and community organizations, guiding others in a process of making their own creations based on found objects within the region. These workshops become powerful community resources, and are in line with the inherent ceremonial and shamanic potentials within the shapeshifting Soundsuits. He’s a great example of using art and creativity to heal and transform pain within a community and to bring people together for a social cause. We can take inspiration from his body of work to help creatively navigate and address the ongoing wave of contemporary social issues.
Here’s my third Staff Pick essay written for the Torrance Art Museum:
Government funding for the National Endowment for the Arts has experienced controversy since its creation in 1965, and the recent allocation of $75 million to the NEA placed in the Covid-19 relief package once again stirred up some animosity toward the program. As both an artist and art-lover, I appreciate the recognition of the arts for federal relief during this time of crisis, yet find it still not enough. After all, the arts in general contributed $877 billion to the U.S. economy in 2017 with over 5 million people employed within the arts and culture sector earning $405 billion. The war operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq have created $6.4 trillion of financial obligations/debt. So is $75 million dollars in crisis aid to fund the arts really worth raising a fuss over? Putting aside the immeasurable cultural value and the numerous scientific studies that show how important the arts are for mental development, those financial figures alone should satisfy opposition to a proportionately small amount of money compared to what the arts delivers to the economy. Unfortunately it does not.
The ongoing battle over funding the arts in this country reminds me of the infamous NEA Four case in the early 90’s. The NEA Four is the group name given to four performance artists (Karen Finley, John Fleck, Holly Hughes, and Tim Miller) who were originally granted NEA awards only to have them revoked by congressman and NEA Chair John E. Frohnmeyer after congress (spearheaded by Jesse Helms) passed a “decency clause” as criteria for the government to judge works. The four artists sued the government for wrongly turning down their grants. While the artists won their case in district court, it ultimately worked its way to the Supreme Court in 1998, which ruled that the government’s decency clause does not interfere with artist’s first amendment rights. The NEA had already had its funding severely cut by Congress, but after the court decision they did away with funding to individual artists altogether.
Sadly the biggest victims of all in the ongoing battle against NEA funding and the so-called “Culture Wars”, are not artists like those of the NEA Four, but the citizens of the United States who live in small, rural communities in great need of funding and access to the arts in general.
As a rural teenager at the time, I was slightly aware of the significance of the controversy as it made national news. Impressions formed in my mind by the events profoundly affected my own appreciation (or lack of appreciation in some cases) towards performance art – in my mind, and perhaps many others, it would be permanently connected with “indecent”. The NEA Four situation came shortly after other enormously public controversies surrounding the NEA funding of money; $35K towards an exhibition which included the homoerotic photography of Robert Mapplethorpe and another $10K award to visual artist Andres Serrano who made Piss Christ (a photo of a crucifix submerged in the artist’s urine). Going to battle over a small amount of tax payer money being used towards such indecent works of art made for a good distraction from money spent on wars (an estimated $61 Billion for 1990’s Gulf War).
So just what was deemed indecent about the NEA Four? For the sake of brevity I shall limit my description of each performances to one sentence, which is rather like showing a one inch square section of 6’ X 8’ canvas painting. Karen Finley created a performance called “We Keep Our Victims Ready”, which involved stripping to the waist and describing sexual assault while smearing chocolate on her body ending with a poem about social isolation and the AIDS crisis. John Fleck’s work “Blessed are the Little Fishes” dealt with concepts of faith and religious authority, and involved an onstage toilet prop and live urination. Holly Hughes’ performance of “World Without End” served as a memorial to her mother, with concepts about the battle of the sexes, her father’s abusiveness, fast food culture and growing up in the suburbs. Tim Miller’s works focused on AIDS activism, challenged the Reagan Administration and medical institutions for contributing to the enormous death toll, and often involved a portion of time with the artist naked.
One of the purposes of performance art is the unfolding of visuals and themes over time, allowing for viewers to process information and develop various thoughts and emotions about the work. Performance art is an experience that cannot be easily condensed or simply described, much in the way that words cannot replicate the visuals of a work of graphic art. There were many reviews from audiences who actually experienced the NEA Four’s works, that said the performances helped provide catharsis, acting as a communal therapy of sorts – an invaluable process that cannot be measured or easily replicated by other methods. I know for many peers viewing performance art is their church, and experiencing such works evokes similar feelings to a religious rite or ceremony, which many conservatives support.
There is no question in my mind that the quickly enacted “decency law” of Congress in 1990 and the repeal of NEA funding was a thinly veiled attempt to silence LGBT activism and the complicated issues which the AIDS crisis brought up. Three of the NEA Four artists identified as LGBT and the fourth dealt with AIDS issues and sexual assault. There is a reason the motto Silence Equals Death was created. To censor such works of art as those of the NEA Four was a masked attempt to erase the opportunity for community healing and avoid dealing with the elements which plague society. It’s not a difficult stretch to see parallels with how the Nazi regime censored work they labeled Degenerate art.
Some felt that the amount of attention garnered by the NEA Four during the process ought to have been good for their careers, as there is no such thing as bad press except no press at all. It should be noted that along with the attention, the NEA Four received cancelled performances, hate mail, phone calls, and death threats by people who never actually experienced their work in person; just its labeling as “indecent” by some members of Congress.
I do so enjoy beautiful, satisfyingly simple and seductive works of art, but I am equally capable of recognizing the immense value in complicated and controversial works of art that challenge our perceptions of the world. One doesn’t have to like a work of art to be capable of appreciating it. Performance art can be a powerful vehicle for expression, to hold a mirror up to society, illuminate important issues that need attention, and reshape our perspective. What constitutes “indecent” in one viewer’s mind may be the exact emotional undercurrent another person is feeling that needs to be expressed. As the world grows ever more populated and problems mount, there are more and more festering wounds, which art has the potential to heal in ways not capable by any other means – if we give artists and arts organizations the opportunity and appropriate amount of funding to do so.
It should be noted that the NEA was originally created along with the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1965 under Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration to help improve the quality of life for Americans, particularly those in impoverished communities. They were formed during the era of the cold war space race, and there was a growing imbalance in the emphasis on the sciences – humanities and the arts needed some help in order to contribute to LBJ’s vision of The Great Society.