R.S.V.P. Los Angeles

R.S.V.P. Los Angeles: The Project Series at Pomona

The Project Series at Pomona
September 1 - December 19, 2015
Opening Reception:Saturday, September 12, 5-7 PM


“R.S.V.P. Los Angeles: The Project Series at Pomona” celebrates the milestone of 50 Project Series exhibitions by connecting the extraordinary artists who have been part of the program with a new generation of artists based in the Los Angeles area. The exhibition features seven artists—Justin Cole, Michael Decker, Naotaka Hiro, Wakana Kimura, Aydinaneth Ortiz, Michael Parker and Nikki Pressley—and is unified by a unique curatorial process.

With these artists, the exhibition captures the dynamism of the Southern California art scene, while further extending the Project Series’ impact on the arts community. The exhibition is accompanied by a publication, designed by Kimberly Varella of Content Object, contextualizing the art of the late 20th and early 21st century in Los Angeles through the lens of the Project Series. The book includes two new contextualizing essays by Geis and McGrew, and essays on each of the seven artists by Lisa Anne Auerbach, Terri Geis, Doug Harvey, Kathleen Howe, Rebecca McGrew, Nicolas Orozco-Valdivia, Glenn Phillips, Valorie Thomas and Sarah Wang. All artists will engage with students and elements of the curriculum in a variety of ways during the exhibition.

The Process

To celebrate the Project Series and to broaden the curatorial perspective, a committee comprised of Pomona College faculty, students, and Museum staff collectively determined the artists, exhibition strategies and publication content. The committee consists of Rebecca McGrew, senior curator; Terri Geis, curator of academic programs; Lisa Anne Auerbach, associate professor of art; Ian Byers-Gamber, Pomona College Class of 2014; Jonathan M. Hall, assistant professor of media studies; Nicolás Orozco-Valdivia, curatorial intern and Pomona College Class of 2017; and Valorie Thomas, professor of English/Africana studies.

The curatorial committee invited seven previous Project Series artists: Christina Fernandez, Charles Gaines, Ken Gonzales-Day, Katie Grinnan, Soo Kim, Hirokazu Kosaka and Amanda Ross-Ho, to nominate two emerging or lesser-known artists whose work contributes to the contemporary art dialogue in Southern California. No other criteria were given, in order to encourage a broad and diverse pool of nominated artists. Through a combination of research, studio visits and intensive discussion, the committee selected the seven artists. Unified by this curatorial process, serendipitous connections emerged between the artists’ work: an interest in the archive and documentation, the use of storytelling and theatricality, the delights of obsessive drawing practices, examinations into troubling recent history, spiritual openness and exploration, and commitment to craftsmanship. Their work includes drawing, installation, photography, sculpture, social practice art, sound art and video.

The Project Series at Pomona College 1999-2014

Created by Rebecca McGrew, Pomona College Museum of Art senior curator, the Project Series focuses on emerging and under‑represented Southern California artists. Its intent is to bring to the Pomona College campus art that is experimental and that introduces new forms, techniques or concepts. The Project Series has enhanced the Museum's role as a laboratory for exploring innovative, cross-disciplinary collaborations and ideas and as a catalyst for new knowledge.

Essay by Rebecca McGrew

You Are Invited: An Introduction to the Project Series at Pomona College
By Rebecca McGrew

“R.S.V.P. Los Angeles: The Project Series at Pomona” celebrates the milestone of fifty Project Series exhibitions by connecting the extraordinary artists who have been part of the program with a new generation of artists based in the Los Angeles area. The exhibition features seven artists—Justin Cole, Michael Decker, Naotaka Hiro, Wakana Kimura, Aydinaneth Ortiz, Michael Parker, and Nikki Pressley. While artistic vision has always been the driving force behind the Project Series, the collaborative curatorial process of “R.S.V.P. Los Angeles” prioritized this in a new way. A committee of Pomona College colleagues selected a group of previous Project Series artists and invited them to nominate emerging artists to be considered for “R.S.V.P. Los Angeles.” Our curatorial committee then made the final selection.

This publication serves as a catalog for “R.S.V.P. Los Angeles,” and it includes individual sections devoted to each of the exhibiting artists, contextualizing essays, and an illustrated chronology of the Project Series. My essay frames the exhibition by giving an overview of the vision and history of the Project Series program. Because the work of the invited artists is presented as concurrent solo exhibitions, rather than as a thematic group exhibition, I have chosen to introduce each artist’s practice individually, in short texts inserted throughout this essay. The discussions of the seven artists, the unique curatorial process that led to the exhibition, and the history of the Project Series are intertwined and inform each other.

Nikki Pressley (b. 1982, Greenville, South Carolina) fuses cultural, historical, and spiritual concepts—such as contemporary Black theory, Pan African thought, Gullah culture, and Yoruba religion—with her personal and family-shared histories, as manifested in images, objects, and artifacts. Her focus on process and materiality is hybridized with her history growing up in a Southern Baptist home and her interests in collective Black history. These multifaceted themes provide a grounding structure in her work, but Pressley is fundamentally concerned with how materials shape meaning and process. Pressley explores rhizomatic meaning and narrative through drawings, sculptures, found objects, and installations. Emphasizing the liminal qualities of storytelling, she often uses organic materials—such as dirt, dried beans, plants, and moss—combined with painstakingly fabricated drawings and objects that refer to domestic life or the natural landscape. Most recently, Pressley examines ideas of iteration in a set of handmade cement tiles and a series of graphite landscape drawings. This new work invokes W. E. B. Du Bois’s home in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, where Pressley studies the links between Du Bois, the contested history of land ownership, nature, geologic time, domestic space, materiality of ink and graphite, notions of minimalism and seriality, and the power inanimate objects hold.

After settling into my curatorial position at the Pomona College Museum of Art in 1998, I knew I wanted to focus on contemporary art and use the artist residency as the primary model for a new program.[1] Pomona College has an illustrious history of supporting the most avant-garde tendencies in art and has played a vital role in the history of art in Los Angeles. One early example is Prometheus, a fresco painted on the campus in 1930 by José Clemente Orozco. Recognized as one of the Mexican artist’s great masterpieces, Prometheus was his first work in this country and the first artwork by a Mexican muralist in North America.

A more recent precedent for this kind of dialogue at Pomona occurred in 1969, when gallery director Hal Glicksman proposed the then radical idea to work with artists directly, commissioning installations and artists’ projects, rather than solely exhibiting discrete art objects. Among others at Pomona, curators Glicksman and his successor, Helene Winer, established a vision of supporting young artists who were based in the Los Angeles area and doing exploratory, innovative projects. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, they presented ground-breaking conceptual, installation, and performance artworks—intensely creative projects that reflected a confluence at Pomona College of art faculty, curators, visiting artists, and students who would go on to make significant contributions to contemporary art history.[2]

Aspiring to continue and extend this remarkable legacy, I envisaged engaging and collaborating directly with artists who themselves were engaging with the contemporary cultural moment through a rich, boundary-blurring dialogue of art, culture, history, social issues, politics, music, science, and more.

Michael Parker (b. 1978, New York, New York) creates spaces and places for artists and people to collaborate, interact with artworks, and share experiences. Parker works in ambitious, large-scale endeavors that usually involve specific communities and many participants. He is trained formally as a sculptor, but his practice also encompasses performing, facilitating, and engaging. Parker graduated from Pomona College in 2000 with a degree in studio art and received an MFA from the University of Southern California in 2009. His projects include organizing the hugely popular performance venue Cold Storage in 2006; joining the Lineman Class at Los Angeles Trade Technical College in 2009; designing and creating Steam Egg, an herb-infused collective sauna (2011 through the present); planning and overseeing the construction of The Unfinished, a 137-foot-long obelisk along the Los Angeles River in 2014; and, most recently, creating the fragrant, messy, and beautiful Juicework performance and event (2015). Parker has a profoundly diligent, hands-on, and skilled approach to his craft. While he collaborates with a variety of people throughout the stages of his projects, he ultimately oversees all aspects and completes the majority of the work himself. For this exhibition, Parker presents a rubbing of The Unfinished created by hand, and a unique display of over 1,000 components from the Juicework project.

I drafted a mission statement for the Project Series in 1998: “The Project Series focuses on emerging and under-represented Southern California artists. Its intent is to bring to the Pomona College campus art that is experimental and that introduces new forms, techniques, or concepts. The Project Series enhances the Museum's role as a laboratory for exploring innovative, cross-disciplinary collaborations and ideas and to serve as a catalyst for new knowledge.”

In January 1999, in collaboration with the newly formed Asian American Resource Center at Pomona College, the first Project Series exhibition opened, featuring the work of Soo Jin Kim. Kim exhibited photographs that portrayed images of people and fragments of people on trains, buses, airplanes, and taxis against the background of passing landscapes and reflections of the vehicle’s interior, and a site-specific installation Flight, which echoed travel diagrams found in airline magazines. As I wrote in 1999, the installation of Kim’s new work “focuses on ‘in-between’ places, moments of ‘invisible’ commonality. . . . Kim’s imaginary spaces and in-between places bear a strong affinity to the ‘any-place whatevers’ discussed by Gilles Deleuze. . . . The in-between offers alternatives, different views of how things are and could be.”[3] I went on to observe that instead of merely referring to the place represented, Kim’s work could give us “the freedom to imagine our own visions of the places we inhabit within the world,” which I continue to hold as an aspiration for the Project Series.

When I joined the staff at the Pomona College Museum of Art in the late 1990s, the art community of Los Angeles hadn’t yet attained the global recognition it now has. Only a few museum exhibition models regularly supported local Los Angeles artists. They included the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Focus Series, which was inaugurated in 1992 as “a long-term series of small-scale exhibitions providing an intimate and focused view of various aspects of contemporary art.”[4] Their first exhibition was “Judy Fiskin: Some Photographs, 1973–1992.” The University Art Museum at California State University, Long Beach, founded its Centric series in 1981 as an “on-going series of small, timely exhibitions dedicated to introducing the UAM audience to work by individual artists that has not previously been shown in this area.”[5] Other long-running examples include the Orange County Museum of Art’s biennales, the Santa Monica Museum of Art’s project exhibitions, and the Contemporary Projects program at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Most of these project-style programs sought to bring artists from outside the region to Los Angeles, rather than featuring the work of local artists.

In 1999, the year the Project Series launched with Kim’s exhibition, the UCLA Hammer Museum initiated their Hammer Projects exhibition program. Projects curator James Elaine noted recently that, in the 1990s, “L.A. represented a place where new things could happen more quickly, [it was] a city of opportunity, a city of horizontality. . . . I knew that we wanted to show emerging artists, and L.A. had plenty of them.” Many of those artists were coming out of the prestigious graduate schools in the area, such as Art Center College of Art and Design, California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), University of Southern California (USC), University of California, Irvine (UCI), and Claremont Graduate School (CGS), among others, and local artists availed themselves of the often-cited abundance of relatively inexpensive studio space.[6]

Indeed, the conditions of the 1990s Los Angeles art-world were dynamic, as Los Angeles was evolving into a global art powerhouse.[7] While the recession of the 1980s had dealt a setback to many of the region’s commercial dealers, DIY spaces, alternative non-profits, and artist-run galleries flourished. For example, Deep River (founded by artists Rolo Castillo, Glenn Kaino, Daniel Joseph Martinez, and Tracey Shiffman) presented exhibitions by Los Angeles artists from 1997 to 2002, prioritizing “the cultural diversity of the city.”[8] Several new art journals specific to Los Angeles were publishing intriguing scholarship models. From 1987 to 2001, Art Issues, a bimonthly magazine of contemporary criticism founded by Gary Kornblau, focused on Los Angeles art. In 1997, Ellen Birrell and Stephen Berens produced the first issue of X-TRA with co-founders Jan Tumlir and Jérôme Saint-Loubert Bié. They also founded Project X, a series of adventurous artist-organized site-specific exhibitions in small non-profit galleries spaces and community colleges.[9]

Few large museums were formally exhibiting emerging and under-represented artists in Los Angeles, and backing that commitment by publishing exhibition catalogs of their work. Many were encumbered by their collections, long planning cycles, and the dictates of their boards. Commercial galleries often limited their exposure to experimental art. DIY and artist-run spaces generally couldn’t provide financial support for realizing complex projects or publishing exhibition catalogs. As a small liberal arts college with a history of engaging contemporary art, Pomona was uniquely suited to filling in the gaps left by more established mainstream art institutions and alternative venues. The college had both the legacy and the potential to establish itself as an ideal venue for experimental and innovative exhibition projects backed by serious intellectual scholarship published in book form.

Aydinaneth Ortiz’s (b. 1987, Long Beach, California) selections from the series La Condición de la Familia reflect her interest in exploring personal and social issues within a larger cultural framework, using the mediums of photography, book making, and printmaking. Utilizing documentary, portrait, and street photography, she focuses on intersections between urban structures, familial relationships, and social contexts. Her images fuse the individual with the historical and, in doing so, consider conventions of portraiture and representation. Using the strategies of photo-narrative and storytelling, Ortiz's documentary and digitally manipulated photographs ponder memory and grief. Her book La Condición de la Familia (2013) is an unfolding narrative that combines abstracted photographs of ambiguous street and domestic scenes and portraits of herself and other family members with documentary notes. Informed by meditations on family recollections, the book grew from her brother’s untimely death. In the photographic tradition of Larry Clark, Nan Goldin, and Catherine Opie (Ortiz’s professor at UCLA), Ortiz bluntly, and often painfully, confronts a profound tragedy. Like her predecessors, she documents her peers, tracing the arcs of life in a deeply personal way as sorrow and joy unfold.

As I considered the development of the Project Series, many questions came to mind. What could small exhibitions of contemporary artists offer to the Pomona College Museum of Art audience? How could I support the local community of artists? How could we successfully represent the diversity of Los Angeles? How could the Museum creatively engage artists with its students in deep, meaningful ways? What is the potential of an exhibition? What is a curatorial practice? How can art help to create a more just society? These questions, which I still consider regularly in my curatorial practice, are hardly unique to me. In the past decade, this kind of questioning has accelerated in academia, symposia, conferences, and published essays and interviews with a global range of curators.

In 2004, scholars Terry Smith, Okwui Enwezor, and Nancy Condee convened a symposium, “Modernity ≠ Contemporaneity: Antinomies of Art and Culture after the Twentieth Century,” that aimed to assess the primary characteristics of arts and culture today. I attended the conference, which took place on the University of Pittsburg campus during the Carnegie International Exhibition, and the sessions that focused on critical and political art crystalized my thoughts about working with contemporary artists in the Project Series. The essays were published in 2009 in Antinomies of Art and Culture: Modernity, Postmodernity, Contemporaneity. In addition to the book edited by Smith, Enwezor, and Condee, many other scholars have researched and debated “contemporaneity.”[10] Recently, Ten Fundamental Questions of Curating, edited by Jens Hoffman, curator and director of the Jewish Museum in New York, brought together a selection of curators and theorists who have pondered these issues.[11] In the following, I highlight some contributors to that volume because they propose strategies of curatorial engagement that resonate with the ethos of the Project Series.

In Ten Fundamental Questions of Curating, Elena Filipovic, director and chief curator of Kunsthalle Basel, proposes that an exhibition is not neutral. She argues that while it often is a “scrim on which ideology is projected, a machine for the manufacture of meaning, a theater of bourgeois culture, a site for the disciplining of citizen-subjects, or a mise-en-scene of unquestioned values (linear time, teleological history, master narratives) . . . if we adopt instead the model of the exhibition that artists have at times called for—critical, oppositional, irreverent, provisional, questioning—the term might be understood in an altogether different way.”[12] Filipovic concludes that an exhibition should strive to “operate according to a counter authoritative logic, and in so doing, become a crucible for transformative experience and thinking.”[13]

Adriano Pedrosa, artistic director of the São Paulo Museum of Art, in Brazil, states in a clear directive in Ten Fundamental Questions of Curating: “There can only be one common goal among curators: to promote diversity while avoiding the ‘totalizing interpretation of history, social reality, culture, language, and all the subjective phenomena at the same time.’ . . . We must multiply the ways we look at the world, read it, interpret it, write it, and represent it.”[14] Could our museum be a place, as Pedrosa proposes, to engage, a place to look, read, interpret, write about, and fundamentally, to represent ourselves and our world as we know it?

João Ribas, director and curator at the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art in Porto, Portugal examines how we define the contemporary and why. He questions a curator’s responsibility to the present and the future, asks “how the field will situate itself within the dialectic between historicity and contemporaneity,” and closes with philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s observations about time.[15] Smith also cites Agamben at the beginning of an essay in Contemporary Art: 1989 to the Present and he asserts that to be contemporary, “then, is to live in the thickened present in ways that acknowledge its transient aspects, its deepening density, and its implacable presence.” [16] As these writers have explored, the present time—fraught with unresolved tensions and uncertainty and filled with dissonant potential—provides multiple, perhaps overlapping narratives. Agamben eloquently sums up these intellectual analyses: “The contemporary is he who firmly holds his gaze on his own time so as to perceive not its light but rather its darkness.”[17] Ribas suggests that a fundamental necessity of curating is to situate “itself within those contemporaneities that remain in darkness, untheorized and unlived.”[18] When we give artists a place, space, and indeed, the freedom to take risks and experiment, they can shine a light into the shadows, bringing forth that from which we may turn away.

Many other curators and scholars are exploring the contemporary art world from a global perspective, and several offer insights into curating in Los Angeles.[19] In an essay about the proliferation of the biennale exhibition in recent years, Brazilian curator Ivo Mesquita proposes a non-traditional format based on “interdisciplinary, intercultural, and international collaboration, taking into account the challenges of a world of fluid identities and trespassed borders—one in which local and global are inexorably linked, where politics is a cultural rather than institutional practice, and where such unresolved contradictions provide the dynamic space of creative inventiveness.”[20] Franklin Sirmans, curator of contemporary art at LACMA and curator of the 2014 New Orleans biennial exhibition “Prospect.3: Notes for Now,” also discusses how he frames and articulates his curatorial practice. He notes in his introductory essay for the “Prospect 3” catalog, “Every biennial-type show is, essentially, an attempt to gauge the state of contemporary art, to set about to define the immediate past and the present and point toward a future in the discourse of contemporary art.”[21] He concludes with a call for action, urging artists “to open the senses, spark imagination, show us other worlds, and otherwise provoke the dreams that have yet to be dreamt—the stuff that makes life worth living. . . . In our world, nationality, race, and religion overwhelmingly continue to divide rather than unite. . . . Visual art [is] the common lens through which to view the recent past and, hopefully, imagine the possibilities of a better future.”[22]

The compelling potential for artists to unite, transform, and imagine possibility resonates with the vision of the Project Series. Discussions of curating exhibitions, as published in Hoffman’s book and elsewhere, indicate a desire for viable models for a considered practice. An academic venue such as Pomona College offers a curator the opportunity to examine the breadth of a historic collection, create thematic shows that bring multiple artists together, and actively collaborate with individual artists. In all cases, artists and their practices should be the basis for any project or program. Thus, the Pomona College Museum of Art’s Project Series aims to serve as a vital creative and intellectual hub where one encounters creative responses to aesthetic, social, cultural, political, and intellectual issues.

Wakana Kimura (b. 1978, Japan) links sensuous materiality with intellectual and spiritual rigor. In evocative paintings, works on paper, and minimalistic videos, she explores the elusive terrain of subjectivity and cultural specificity. Kimura moved to Los Angeles in 2007 and received her MFA at Otis College of Art and Design in 2011. Her influences include Japanese art history, mythology, and painting, and she combines these in intimate drawings and large paintings. For her daily practice drawings, Kimura applies delicate washes of subtle pastel hues or vibrant rich tones in abstract swirls and linear patterns. Often, she layers pale marks, usually dots, over the color washes. With the large-scale paintings, Kimura combines delicate intimacy with dynamic calligraphic strokes of black ink that define the space of the work. Then, with beautifully detailed and lushly colored fields, Kimura exquisitely renders mythological figures, animal forms, and decorative patterns that hover and float through the enigmatic space. For this exhibition, the artist presents One trifle-beset night, t'was the moon, not I, that saw the pond lotus bloom. This new monumental drawing installation further expands the scope of her work by adding new layers of meaning through shifting figure/ground relationships and the poetic ambiguity of the narrative content. Exploring painting as a time-based practice, Kimura’s video I (2010) consists of her repeatedly puncturing tiny holes with a stick of burning incense in a long scroll of delicate Japanese paper over more than four hours. The repetitive, almost obsessive nature of this task echoes her daily practice drawings in both the use of delicate dot marks and the commitment to a rigorous, ongoing practice.

I envisioned the Project Series supporting the vibrant local Los Angeles artist community, and I have showcased emerging and under-recognized artists in a mini artist-residency style. The resultant breadth and depth of the Project Series has consistently addressed differing artistic forms, practices, styles, and content. It also reflects the increasing cultural and geographic diversity of the Pomona student body, the Los Angeles region, and indeed, the nation as a whole. (See page 216 for a chronology of Project Series exhibitions.)

For each project, I have looked for new perspectives on a topic; a synthesis and presentation of existing knowledge in a provocative and thoughtful way; a particularly powerful or beautiful body of work; exceptional creativity and intellectual rigor; and/or a profoundly personal, emotional response to the world today. Each exhibition offers transformative potential, whether through abstract landscape paintings, documents addressing violence against women, a social practice think-tank, photographic representation of the artist’s community, or sublime images of the night sky.

Each exhibition in the Project Series is accompanied by a unique printed document—an artist’s book, newspaper, or monograph—which is produced in collaboration with the artist. These publications provide critical contextual and historical information and insight to the public and extend the museum’s ability to reach and to educate a broad audience. Without discounting the potential for works of art experienced in person to have a deep effect on the viewer, exhibitions are ephemeral; publications provide a lasting legacy. The publications also echo the mandate of the Project Series by supporting local graphic designers and writers, and over the years we have published contributions by a range of curators, critics, poets, scholars, and theorists.

Another fundamental aspect of the Project Series responds to the museum’s academic context, where the primary mandate is to actively contribute to and engage with Pomona College’s curriculum, both within the visual arts and across disciplines. Accordingly, all participating Project Series artists work collaboratively with faculty and students in relevant departments, offering workshops, lectures, performances, and other carefully designed and focused programs during their exhibitions. Most recently, for example, Sam Falls (Project Series 49) presented a public lecture at the museum on his exhibition; hosted a tour to one of his studio spaces, located in a nearby parking lot; then concluded the day over an informal pizza dinner with students from three classes, where he generously shared his experiences as an artist and his perspectives on the current art world. In 2013, Krysten Cunningham (Project Series 47) embarked on a complicated series of adventures with college students. She presented a weekend-long lecture series that culminated in a performance collectively demonstrating “Minkowski space.” Both the lectures and the performance were a collaborative experiment regarding participation in the phenomena of appearances and the modeling of modern scientific theory for the purposes of experiential learning. These are but two examples involving the college’s studio art, art history, math, physics, media studies, and English departments.

The Project Series exhibitions and programming have grown in ambition, scale, and critical recognition. In many cases, the Pomona exhibition was an artist’s first museum show, and provided the artist with his or her first professional and critical publication. In other cases, the Project Series “recuperated” a career, and brought work new acclaim. The Pomona College Museum of Art has also made it a priority, within modest budget parameters, to acquire artworks exhibited by Project Series artists for the permanent collection. (Several of these acquisitions are on view in “R.S.V.P. Los Angeles.”) While the changes over time are significant, the essential goals have remained the same. From the beginning, it has been imperative to establish a collaborative working process with each artist, from exhibition planning to public programs. In sum, the vision for the Project Series has been to highlight contemporary artists from Southern California by presenting unique, cutting-edge art projects to diverse constituencies through wide-ranging, collaborative, innovative, and provocative concepts and ideas, with a legacy through equally significant publications.

Using his body as a performative tool to create sculptures, videos, and sound works, Naotaka Hiro (b. 1972, in Osaka, Japan) attempts to map and identify the fragmented terrain of every aspect of his body and his body’s actions. For Hiro, the unknown includes that which is part of us but that we cannot see—the backs of our heads, torsos, buttocks, genitals, and thighs—or do not want to fully comprehend—bodily substances like viscera, excrement, urine, semen. Influenced both by the groundbreaking experimental art and performative impulses of the Gutai group in Japan in the 1950s and the history of abject body art and performance art in Southern California, Hiro explores the human body and its functions and its refuse. He uses different mediums that purport to reveal truth, such as documentary films and body casting, to reveal imperfections and mistakes through the distortions of his process. Hiro makes life-casts of his own body, following rules that he determines in advance, such as using only his right hand to cover every inch of his body he can reach, or making a cast of his ass in a limited time frame. The resulting beeswax molds and bronze casts are often activated in his abstract films and serve as instruments for the ambient soundtracks of the films. Hiro also uses watercolors to paint lyrical abstract images that obliquely refer to body parts. Mapping his body like a landscape, Hiro acts as an explorer of mysterious or mythical regions. He imagines a variety of unusual narratives to expand an awareness of stories of self-identity and cultural identity.

Timed to commemorate the fifty Project Series exhibitions that have taken place at Pomona College, “R.S.V.P. Los Angeles: The Project Series at Pomona” honors this dynamic contemporary art program. The current exhibition connects the many Project Series artists to a new generation of emerging or under-recognized artists in Southern California. The exhibition celebrates the philosophy of collaboration, engagement, and openness that has guided the series since the beginning. 

“R.S.V.P. Los Angeles” offers an ideal opportunity to both revisit the mission and vision of the Project Series, and possibly expand its model. Given the plethora of biennial-type exhibitions in Los Angeles today—including the 2012 and 2014 iterations of “Made in L.A.” at the Hammer Museum and the well-established biennials at the Orange County Museum of Art—one could ask why another group exhibition looking at contemporary artists in Los Angeles? I wanted to “imagine the possibilities of a better future,” in Sirman’s words, by attempting to create an exhibition based on a different type of model. And how could Pomona College distinguish itself from other exhibitions in the region? I hoped to find a way, as Pederosa challenges us, to “multiply the ways we look at the world, read it, interpret it, write it, and represent it.”

As discussed above, contemporary curators are frequently concerned with issues of representation, diversity, and inclusiveness. The Project Series mission of highlighting emerging and under-represented artists speaks to this mandate of reflecting our changing culture in the often exclusionary context of the “ivory tower” and the “white cube.” While it is becoming standard practice for survey exhibitions and biennials to include artists who explore class, gender, locality, race, and religion, an important challenge remains: Who makes the curatorial selections? My co-curator and colleague at the museum, Terri Geis, and I have been discussing these issues for years. We questioned whose work gets recognized for major biennials and surveys, and wondered how we could make our program more inclusive. “R.S.V.P. Los Angeles” was launched with an intention to address this dilemma by expanding the curatorial framework.

We wanted to think outside art world boxes and represent the diversity of Los Angeles art, in terms of background, content, geography, media, schooling, and training. As a small liberal arts college museum with a history of supporting radical art, is not Pomona College an ideal place to highlight risk and experimentation? We planned to emphasize inclusivity by inviting artists to select the artists for consideration. Knowing full well this action could convey a loss of curatorial criticality, we vowed to foster aesthetic excellence through a format and practice new to us.

Michael Decker (b. 1982, Spokane, Washington) is profoundly interested in the cultural products of the United States, often a particularly homespun sort of Americana. Decker sources his materials primarily from thrift stores, which house the objects rejected by one group to be claimed later by another. Attracted to the shifting state of in-between-ness of treasure and trash, Decker dallies neatly with expressionism, pop art, and abject art. In drawings, collages, sculptures, and assemblages, Decker presents individual artworks and assorted collections of multiple objects. This reflects his wide-ranging interests in the discovery of unique individual stories, which he often finds in the abandoned “collectibles” he rescues from thrift stores. He essentially recycles nostalgia, augmenting each object’s history and meaning. For example, in Mélange La Croix, Decker presents an assembly of found wooden sculptures that he has collected over the years. He carefully considers their arrangement and placement, constructing multiple meanings. In his signature found cardboard paintings, he collages commercial packing boxes that he has flattened and arranged thematically so that the sum of each painting idiosyncratically amplifies a specific subject: floral designs, power tools, and metal storage containers, for example. Decker bridges an obsessive sense of hoarding with a formalist’s knack for elegant, almost minimal design. His works can be seen as perhaps psychologically invasive portraits of ourselves and our society. Decker also creates extremely intricate ink drawings that have a Hieronymus Bosch quality of detail and magical perversity.

The “R.S.V.P. Los Angeles” exhibition extends the Project Series’ support of artists in Southern California and expands its collaborative nature. We sought to play with curatorial process in a new way. Wanting to avoid individual artists’ works being subsumed in the greater curatorial armature of a group exhibition, we hoped to generate energy among the former Project Series artists and the artists in the current exhibition toward a goal of achieving a more dynamic and complex whole.[23]

Aiming for a more egalitarian and less authoritarian version of the process of selecting artists and planning the final exhibition, Geis and I organized a committee composed of Pomona College faculty and students with a broad research focus that would collectively determine the artists, exhibition strategies, and publication content. The committee consisted of Lisa Anne Auerbach, associate professor of art; Jonathan M. Hall, assistant professor of media studies; Nicolás Orozco-Valdivia, curatorial intern, and Pomona College ’17 art and art history major; Valorie Thomas, associate professor of English/Africana studies; Geis; and me. A practicing artist in Los Angeles with an extensive exhibition history in California, and internationally, Auerbach addresses themes of communication, media distribution, language, and politics. Hall’s research includes critical and psychoanalytic theories, avant-garde and experimental literature and film, queer theory, and cultural studies; he is currently working on a project about the history of Japanese experimental film. Thomas’s areas of interest are African Diaspora literary and cultural theory, indigenous spirituality as decolonizing practice, vernacular culture and language, and contemporary Native American literature, and she recently curated “Vertigo@Midnight,” an exhibition exploring AfroFuturism. The team also includes graphic designer Kimberly Varella, of Content Object, who has creatively and collaboratively designed many previous Project Series books, editor Elizabeth Pulsinelli, who likewise has worked on several previous projects, and curatorial assistant and Pomona College ’14 graduate Ian Byers-Gamber.

The “R.S.V.P. Los Angeles” committee launched the project with meetings to select previous Project Series artists to serve as nominators for the final pool of artists considered for the exhibition. With 50 great possibilities to choose from, our challenge was to pick seven candidates that we felt best represented the breadth of the Project Series in the range of artistic practice, scope of background and training, and access to artistic communities unfamiliar to us or typically underrepresented in Los Angeles. Seven Project Series artists—Christina Fernandez, Charles Gaines, Ken Gonzales-Day, Katie Grinnan, Soo Kim, Hirokazu Kosaka, and Amanda Ross-Ho—each were invited to nominate two emerging or lesser-known artists based in the Los Angeles area. These nominating artists were asked to propose artists whose work contributes to the contemporary art dialogue in Southern California. In order to encourage a broad and diverse pool of nominated artists, no other specific criteria were given, and no theme was imposed on the resulting exhibition.

Over two weeks in July 2014, the committee conducted studio visits with the fourteen nominated artists. We traveled across Southern California, interspersing conversation during the visits with later debates about the current state of art in Los Angeles and beyond. Driving from edge to edge of Los Angeles County and through and around many neighborhoods in the city, we felt we had traveled every freeway. After multiple lengthy meetings in August, involving complicated and intense conversations, the committee selected seven artists. The process of this dialogue resulted in a curatorial partnership committed to considering the legacies of Pomona and the Project Series in the context of the artists under consideration.

The artists invited to participate in “R.S.V.P. Los Angeles” are Justin Cole, Michael Decker, Naotaka Hiro, Wakana Kimura, Aydinaneth Ortiz, Michael Parker, and Nikki Pressley. The exhibition was envisioned as seven small solo shows, and each artist was invited to present new and/or recent projects. The artists work in a range of media, from drawing, installation, photography, sculpture, social practice, and sound art to video. Despite having no overarching theme, synchronous serendipitous connections emerged. Topics circulating through the group include: an interest in the archive and documentation, the use of storytelling and theatricality, the delights of obsessive drawing practices, examinations into troubling recent history, spiritual openness and exploration, and commitment to craftsmanship.

Exploring the slippery areas between text and image, Justin Cole (b. 1981, Detroit, Michigan) uses photography, drawing, sculpture, and audio to address complex notions of culture, nostalgia, and politics in recent United States history. Primarily interested in the interstices of traumatic moments in society, he offers new interpretations of cultural touchstones, such as the Detroit music industry; the civil rights conflicts of the 1960s; the Black Panther Party; 1970s cultural/musical/political intersections, including the far-left, anti-racist White Panther Party; and the more recent Los Angeles uprisings of 1992. Combining found text fragments with staged photography, Cole seeks to invert and subvert how these key moments in history are framed. He closely examines the interconnections between the archive and the document. In this exhibition, Cole presents “Detroit, Dust and Scratches,” a new installation based on his photographs of building facades of key sites of the Detroit music industry, which he has been documenting since 2010. In another work in the exhibition, 41st & Central (White Panther Party) (2014–15), a colleague holds a sign with upside-down and backwards quotes from John Sinclair, founder of the White Panthers. This group of photographs was taken at the intersection of 41st and Central, former headquarters of the Black Panther Party in Los Angeles.

As the exhibition highlights the seven individual artists, the “R.S.V.P. Los Angeles” publication showcases the artists and their varied practices with new scholarly, in-depth essays and interviews. Catalog essayists include members of the curatorial team as well as critic and writer Doug Harvey (who has written for several Project Series publications over the years); Glenn Phillips, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Collections at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles (who also co-curated “Project Series 46: Hirokazu Kosaka”); Sarah Wang, critic and writer; and Pomona College Museum of Art Director Kathleen Howe. In addition, Geis contributed “Encyclopedia Archipelago,” a wide-ranging web of themes and subjects that loosely connects the previous Project Series artists with the artists in “R.S.V.P. Los Angeles.” A detailed chronology documents the histories of the Project Series exhibitions from 1999 through 2015.

 “R.S.V.P. Los Angeles” presents a distinctive picture of supporting artists and innovative projects that matches the vision for the Project Series I dreamed of in 1998. Former Hammer Projects curator James Elaine notes about working with contemporary artists, “Sometimes you just have to let it go, trust your intuition, and see where it takes you. . . . The curator needs to know when to step forward and when to withdraw and be invisible and just let it happen.[24] Both curatorial intuition and invisibility are at play in “R.S.V.P. Los Angeles.” The experience of sharing the curatorial process with a team of artists, scholars, designers, and students has yielded a revelatory exhibition that highlights the importance of trusting in artists and their creative visions.

The title “R.S.V.P. Los Angeles: The Project Series at Pomona” evokes ideas of what an invitational is and what binds this exhibition together. The expression of RSVP—répondez s’il vous plait—is a heartfelt directive that empowers the invited artists and audience. It is an invitation to bring one’s own point of view to the work—respond favorably, if you will.[25] It is an opening up of a transformative conversation true to the spirit of the Project Series. “R.S.V.P. Los Angeles” provides for a new example of exhibition making and curatorial practice, supporting artists and providing space for experimentation. The exhibition format and this book capture some of the dynamism of the Southern California art scene and Pomona College’s signature program, while further extending its impact on the Los Angeles arts community. As an invitational, this exhibition brings people and artists together, and I invite you to step in, take a look, and enjoy, if you please.


[1] Former Pomona College Museum of Art director Marjorie Harth supported this endeavor from the beginning, encouraged me throughout, and helped make it possible on a very limited budget. Current director Kathleen Howe has continued to support the Project Series as it has grown in ambition, scale, and budget.

[2] See my “Introduction” and essay “Opening Things Up: Why and How It Happened at Pomona,” in It Happened at Pomona: Art at the Edge of Los Angeles 1969–1973 (Claremont: Pomona College, 2011). From the fall of 1969 through June 1970, Glicksman devised a unique series of exhibitions for a program that he called the “artist’s gallery.” Under this program, the gallery functioned as a studio-residency for Conceptual artists in Southern California. Participants included Michael Asher, Lewis Baltz, Michael Brewster, Judy Chicago, Ron Cooper, Tom Eatherton, Lloyd Hamrol, and Robert Irwin. Following Glicksman, Winer became the gallery director and curator in the fall of 1970. She organized exhibitions of Bas Jan Ader, Ger van Elk, Jack Goldstein, Joe Goode, William Leavitt, John McCracken, Ed Moses, Allen Ruppersberg, and William Wegman. She also presented performance work by Chris Burden (’69), Hirokazu Kosaka, and Wolfgang Stoerchle. In concert with this exhibition programming, the art department thrived under a unique group of faculty members, including Mowry Baden (’58), Lewis Baltz, James Turrell (’65), David Gray, and Guy Williams. In addition to Burden, other outstanding students at the time included Michael Brewster (’69), Thomas Crow (’69), Judy Fiskin (’66), Peter Shelton (’73), and Hap Tivey (’69).

[3] Rebecca McGrew, Project Series 1: Soo Jin Kim (Claremont: Pomona College Museum of Art, 1999), unpaginated.

[4] Museum of Contemporary Art, press release for “Judy Fiskin: Some Photographs, 1973–1992,” September 1992, http://www.moca.org/museum/pastexhibition.php?syear=1992&eyear=1992

[6] “A Conversation with James Elaine and Lauren Bon,” moderated by Gary Garrels, in Hammer Projects 1999–2009 (Los Angeles: Hammer Museum and University of California, 2009), 414.

[7] Numerous books and articles address the history of the recent Los Angeles art scene. I will cite just a few examples. Exhibitions included “Helter Skelter” at MOCA, curated by Paul Schimmel in 1992; “Sunshine and Noir: Art in L.A., 1969–1997,” presented at the Hammer Museum in 1998; and “LAX 94: The Los Angeles Exhibition” (presented in nine venues throughout Los Angeles, including the Armory Center for the Arts, the California Afro-American Museum, Cal State L.A., the Japanese American Community and Cultural Center, LACE, the Municipal Gallery at Barnsdall Park, USC, Otis College of Art and Design, and the Santa Monica Museum of Art). Recent articles and books include Robby Herbst, “Can Creative Practice Gentrify Creative Practice?” KCET A4tbound, July 2, 2014; “Christopher Miles, “Hammer Projects and the Indwelling of the Project Spirit,” in Hammer Projects, 20-31; Connie Butler’s and Michael Ned Holte’s essays in the Made In L.A. 2014 reader; “Thing: New Sculpture from Los Angeles,” Hammer Museum, February 6–June 5, 2005; OTIS L.A.: Nine Decades of Los Angeles Art (Los Angeles: Otis College of Art and Design, 2005); and Chris Kraus, Jan Tumlir, and Jane McFadden, LA Artland: Contemporary Art from Los Angeles (London: Black Dog Publishing, 2005).

[8] Lauri Firstenberg, “From Temporality to Longevity,” LAXART>5 (Los Angeles: LAXART, 2010–11), 8.

[9] See Brica Wilcox, “From X to XV: Conversation with X-TRA Founders Ellen Birrell and Stephen Berens,” X-TRA 15, no. 4 (Summer 2013), http://x-traonline.org/article/from-x-to-xv-conversation-with-x-tra-foun.... Art Issues is no longer extant. X-TRA is still in print; Elizabeth Pulsinelli, who worked with us on this publication, serves as executive editor.

[10] Terry Smith, Okwui Enwezor, and Nancy Condee, eds., Antinomies of Art and Culture: Modernity, Postmodernity, Contemporaneity (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2009). In 2012, Terry Smith (professor of art history and theory at the University of Pittsburg) published Thinking Contemporary Curating (New York: Independent Curators International, 2012), which was billed as the first publication to comprehensively explore what is distinctive about contemporary curatorial thought. Smith also contributed the essay “‘Our’ Contemporaneity?” to art historians Alexander Dumbadze and Suzanne Hudson’s Contemporary Art: 1989 to the Present (Oxford, United Kingdom: Wiley-Blackwell).

[11] Jens Hoffman, editor, Ten Fundamental Questions of Curating (Milan, Italy: Mousse Publishing, Fiorucci Art Trust, 2013). All of the essays were originally published between 2010 and 2012 by Mousse Publishing.

[12] Elena Filipovic, “What Is an Exhibition?” in Hoffman, ed., 74–75.

[13] Ibid., 81.

[14] Adriano Pedrosa, “What Is the Process?” in Hoffman, ed., 131.

[15] João Ribas, “What to Do with the Contemporary?” in Hoffman, ed., 98.

[16] Smith, in Dumbadze and Hudson, eds., 17.

[17] Giorgio Agamben, What Is an Apparatus? And Other Essays, trans. David Kishik and Stefan Pedatella (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009), 41.

[18] Ribas, in Hoffman, ed., 108.

[19] In addition to the above sources, the following also address many of these issues: Hans Belting, Andrea Buddensieg, and Peter Weibel, The Global Contemporary and the Rise of the New Art Worlds (Karlsruhe, Germany: ZKM Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe, 2013); Bruce Altshuler, ed., Biennials and Beyond—Exhibitions That Made Art History 1962–2002 (London: Phaidon Press, 2013); Paul O’Neill, The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Culture(s) (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2012); Judith Rugg and Michele Sedgwick, eds., Issues in Curating Contemporary Art and Performance (Bristol, United Kingdom: Intellect Books, 2007); and Hans Ulrich Obrist, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Curating (New York: Sternberg Press, 2011).

[20] Ivo Mesquita, “Biennials Biennials Biennials Biennials Biennials Biennials Biennials,” in Beyond the Box: Diverging Curatorial Practices,” Melanie Townsend, ed., (Banff, Alberta, Canada: Banff Center Press, 2003), 66.

[21] Franklin Sirmans, “Somewhere and Not Anywhere,” Prospect.3 Notes for Now (Munich: Delmonico Books/Prestel, 2014), 25.

[22] Ibid., 29.

[23] Constance Lewallen mentions curator Nancy Spector’s attempt to do something like this in her “theanyspacewhatever” exhibition at the Guggenheim in New York in 2008–9. Spector sought an alternative curatorial model through determining the exhibition content of the group show in collaboration with the exhibiting artists. Constance Lewallen, “Back in the Day: The Eighties in 1970,” The Exhibitionist 2 (June 2010), 17–21.

[24] “A Conversation with James Elaine and Lauren Bon,” moderated by Gary Garrels, in Hammer Projects 1999–2009 (Los Angeles: Hammer Museum and University of California, 2009), 418.

[25] Kimberly Varella suggested this complimentary vision of the “R.S.V.P. Los Angeles” title, and I am grateful to her.

Essay by Terri Geis

Encyclopedia Archipelago
Terri Geis

The seven artists in “R.S.V.P. Los Angeles” evade synthesis. They were selected through nomination and committee deliberation, they work with widely varying styles, themes, and materials, and they practice in different spheres throughout the city. Yet connections and overlaps between their disparate endeavors can be found. The encyclopedic form—and its undermining by surrealist collectives in the early twentieth century—provides a useful model of examination that allows seepage between the discreet borders of each artist’s work.

The traditional encyclopedia attempted to consolidate “complete knowledge” and objectively present information on a vast array of subjects, interpreting our world in manageable yet authoritative fragments.[1] Recognizing both the power and inherent biases of this form, Georges Bataille, Isabelle Waldberg, and other surrealist artists and affiliates compiled their own encyclopedias in the first half of the twentieth century. Their works maintain the alphabetized structure but reject standardization of entries, circulate ideas and themes between adjacent entries, appropriate materials from other sources, and accentuate the intuitive, humorous, and abject over the objective. The results are both elucidating and disruptive. “Encyclopedia Archipelago” is structured with these techniques in mind in order to cast a different light on the “R.S.V.P. Los Angeles” artists’ practices and forefront the larger realm of their sources and imaginative worlds.

The encyclopedia also invokes the archipelic concept of Martinican writer Édouard Glissant: “Archipelic thought makes it possible to say that neither each person’s identity nor the collective identity are fixed and established once and for all. I can change through exchange with the other, without losing or diluting my sense of self.”[2] Reflecting politically, geographically, and metaphorically on island chains (specifically the Caribbean), Glissant suggests that we can circulate on a personal, national, or international level, maintaining our “opacity”—the distinct outlines of our islands—while also recognizing the shared and conflicting influences that inform and change us.[3] The entries that follow circulate themes between the “R.S.V.P. Los Angeles” artists, as well as previous Project Series artists, while deferring any unified interpretations of their work.


Objects related to the culture, folklore, and industry of the United States, at times with a highly patriotic, traditional, or nostalgic sensibility. Some artists use Americana to celebrate and critique United States culture. For example, vintage vehicles manufactured in Detroit and old record label logos figure prominently in the history referenced by Justin Cole. Michael Decker collects E.T. dolls and Sillisculpts and reconfigures them into subtly autobiographical sculptures.

Afro-Americana music draws inspiration from traditional rural music forms, including the fife and drum blues exemplified by Othar “Otha” Turner and his Mississippi-based Rising Star Fife and Drum Band. Fife players often carve their instruments out of local river cane, while vocals relate to the call and response format of traditional Black Spirituals. Nikki Pressley’s 2013 exhibition, “Elsewhere, In Another Form,” (a title borrowed from a passage by Glissant) included the work fife, fife, fife. . . . This twelve-foot sculpture combines multiple bamboo pipes, alluding to both collective creativity and an extended timeline of ancestral heritage.

The first edition of The Encyclopedia Americana was published in 1829; the publisher’s intention was to move away from a Euro-centric model toward one based on the United States. In the early 1900s, W.E.B. Du Bois sought to create an Encyclopedia Africana to examine the cultures and histories of the African continent and the African diaspora. A similar mission was adopted by The Liberator, a journal that Pressley has been involved with since 2007.


Resulting from the desire to organize and preserve a body of knowledge that developed systematically or organically, such as, official documents of a political or social organization, illegible love letters, amateur photographs of an evolving urban landscape. In contemporary artistic production, Hal Foster has noted an archival impulse, which he describes as “a will to relate—to probe a misplaced past, to collate its different signs . . . to ascertain what might remain for the present.”[4] Objects sourced by Michael Decker from thrift shops on Holt Boulevard in the eastern borderlands of Los Angeles County provide a highly selective archival record of consumer decisions regarding desirable goods versus cast-offs. For Wakana Kimura, old books and catalogs of historic Japanese images and symbols salvaged from the discard pile at the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center in Little Tokyo become an inventory of the elephant, octopus, and phoenix.

Archival engagement may also indicate the desire to reorganize and undermine classifications to highlight political violence, cultural shortcomings, prejudices, gaps, and failures. Many documents, like ritual objects on display in museum vitrines, were never intended for viewing by strangers. Can these objects refuse our cultural intentions? In the opening of the 1953 film on the art of Africa in Paris museums, Statues Also Die, writer and filmmaker Chris Marker reflects, “When men die, they enter history. When statues die, they enter art. This botany of death is what we call culture.”[5] Dinh Q. Lê (Project Series 6) slices and weaves photographs together, including images of himself and his family, photographs of stone statues from the ancient temple complex of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and photographs from an archive constructed by the Khmer Rouge of men, women, and children murdered by the Cambodian regime.


A three-dimensional archive is achievable through exploration, documentation, and reproduction of one’s own body. Since 1991, Naotaka Hiro has made casts of different parts of his body as private performances in his studio, suggesting that “to make the body double is to see myself.” But it is a separate self, one that can even seem “half dead.”[6]

In a 2015 sculpture Untitled (Mocap), Hiro cast the front half of his body in hand-size segments, which randomly added up to fifty-eight pieces. Strung together with rope, the bronze body parts chime melodiously when moved. In “Fifty-eight Indices on the Body,” philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy reflects on the body as, among many other possibilities, a “marionette drawn by a thousand threads,” or “an accordion, a trumpet, the belly of a viola.”[7] Nancy coincidentally provides the number 58 as a tally of the body, but it is also a collection of never-ending parts: “Corpus: a body is a collection of pieces, bits, members, zones, states, functions. Heads, hands and cartilage, burnings, smoothnesses, spurts, sleep, digestion, goose-bumps, excitation, breathing, digesting, reproducing, mending, saliva, synovia, twists, cramps, and beauty spots. It’s a collection of collections, a corpus corporum, whose unity remains a question for itself.”[8]


Historian William Deverell notes, “The color of brickwork is brown.”[9] The Simons Brickyard opened circa 1905 near Montebello. The compound, which included housing, a restaurant, school, store, and post office for the immigrants who worked at the brickyard, was one of the few company towns in Los Angeles. By 1925, the population of El Hoyo (The Hole), as it came to be known, was around 1,600. Around the same time, anthropologist Manuel Gamio studied the brick industry in California and noted seemingly endless classifications for the labor: “cortadores, dampeadores, metedores de moldes, areneros, paleteros, templadores, arriadores, cargadores, asentadores, pichadores, arregladores, and apiladores.[10]

In August 2014, artist Rafa Esparza presented a performance piece with dancer/choreographer Rebeca Hernandez entitled “Building: A Simulacrum of Power” at Michael Parker’s The Unfinished sculpture. The performance was the culmination of an on-site residency in which Esparza, his parents, and five siblings created adobe bricks with water from the Los Angeles River and used these to cover the entire span of Parker’s obelisk. Wearing a Danza Azteca costume, Esparza crawled over the bricks in movements partially inspired by their fabrication, and concluded the performance by burning sage at the tip of the sculpture.


An act frequently carried out with repetitive, ritualistic intention. Incense, sage, or sweetgrass burning accompanies many spiritual traditions, with fragrances and smoke facilitating access to a different dimension. Wakana Kimura accompanies her daily drawing practice with a secular burning of incense and has also used burning sticks as a tool to mark rice paper. The four-hour video I (2010) features Kimura’s silhouette as she repetitively burns tiny holes through rice paper. The holes become a million eyes for the artist to peer through. Mark Bradford (Project Series 16) burned the edges of found street posters and hair perm end papers to create collages; the burned areas become lines in the compositions.

Burning is at times related to expenditure and protest. Reflecting on the cycles of growth and destruction in Detroit, Justin Cole notes that October 30 is known as Devil’s Night in the city due to extensive arson attacks on residences. The practice was at its height in the 1970s through the 1990s, but still occurs. More than 800 fires were set in the city in 1984. Allan DeSouza (Project Series 23) constructed and then burned a scale model of his childhood home in Kenya in the 2004 piece Home. The artist subsequently used wax, hair, dust, and other detritus to cover and then carve out the burnt remains.


The human brain can perceive connections between objects that are not actually connected, often making the leap between the organic and inorganic. Drawing on this phenomenon, Salvador Dali illustrated his Paranoic-Critical method with an old postcard of a hut in an African village that, when turned 90 degrees, resembles a human face. Naotaka Hiro’s photocollage Ass Fall (The Hidden Fall) (2004) composites a natural landscape of a waterfall with the artist’s ass, referencing the eighth-century chronicle Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters). In this text, the creation of the Japanese archipelago is accomplished through the urine of deities. A related three-dimensional exploration by Hiro involves a beeswax cast of his ass transformed into an erupting volcano. 


Le Da Costa Encylopédique, published in Paris in 1946 by anonymous members of the surrealist group, offers the following explanation of the exhibition process: “Certain individuals called artists have a custom by which they place their works before the eye of the public when these are particularly distressing or ridiculous. In other words, they abandon their works to passers-by who at the moment they take possession of the abandoned works, receive the title of art-lovers. But it quite often happens that none of the passers-by pass for an art-lover, the works thus placed leaving the passer-by who prefers to pass them by impassive. When this result is obtained, the artist experiences a splendid satisfaction and a legitimate pride, which is easy to understand since the work he has abandoned to the passer-by, has equally been abandoned by the latter; the exposure is double, and thus it counts as two. It suffices for an artist to regularly repeat this exploit for him to achieve fame.”[11]


The number is associated with an infamous twentieth-century police raid that informs Justin Cole’s 41st and Central (White Panther Party) (2014-15). On December 8, 1969, police raided the Los Angeles headquarters of the Black Panther Party, which was located at 41st and Central. The incident involved 350 officers and was the first SWAT operation in history. (The paramilitary group was conceived by Daryl Gates after the 1965 uprising in Watts.) The SWAT team used a battering ram, helicopters, tanks, and dynamite. Approximately 5,000 rounds of ammunition were exchanged, but no deaths occurred. Multiple Black Panther members were imprisoned under charges of conspiracy to murder police officers and their headquarters building was subsequently demolished. The number 41 appears on a SWAT team patch in commemoration of this operation.


The popularity of communicating with ghosts through Oujia boards and séances increased dramatically after World War I.[12] Literary scholar Katharine Conley asserts, “Unconstrained by mortal chronology or rules of behavior, spiritualist ghosts are simultaneously threatening and inspiring in their freedom, symbols of rebellion against fate and the constraints of mortality.”[13]

Like automatic writing and drawing, the use of a Ouija board can create a system in which process is as important as outcome and full conscious intention is relinquished. Michael Decker and Christian Cummings explore this in their practice of Spectral Psychography. After identifying a willing spirit with the help of the board, the blindfolded artists proceed to create drawings that reflect the otherworld influence. But is the result a confession, a secret message, or an inside joke? Of the ghost collaborators guiding their hands, Decker has reflected, “They seem to enjoy leaving us with more questions than the few of ours they answer.”[14]

The Ouija board is related to the silhouette or shadow, a ghost traced through letters into a shape/message that the bereaved can perceive. Aydinaneth Ortiz’s series “Not Alone” (2014) investigates this sense of longing, inserting the silhouette of her recently deceased brother into the landscapes of her daily life. Ortiz reflects that she is attempting (without success) to summon his presence.[15]

Charles Gaines (Project Series 43) references connections between ghosts, doubles, and representation in the video Black Ghost Blues Redux (2008), which features Lightnin’ Hopkins’s lyrics, “Black ghost is a picture, and the black ghost is a shadow too.”[16] Amanda Ross Ho (Project Series 40) addresses concepts of visibility and invisibility with a sculpture consisting of an enlarged reproduction of a candy dish shaped like a ghost, suggesting that the original object “intended to represent a spirit or lack of a body—while containing the body—turned into a different kind of container.”[17]

At times it is more desirable to keep spirits away. The Gullah community of South Carolina, an important and recurring cultural inspiration for Nikki Pressley, developed the tradition of painting porch ceilings a light blue (“Gullah Blue” or “Haint Blue”) to resemble the sky, attempting to fool malevolent spirits into flying up and away through the ceiling. Front doors are also painted this color to imitate water, which spirits are said to be unable to cross.


Surrealist and sociologist Pierre Mabille writes, “Having penetrated our dwelling places, [gifts] enjoy a curious extraterritoriality. Although they belong to us and are subject to our domestic laws, they continue nonetheless to be linked by invisible threads to those who sent them to us.”[18] Michael Decker’s practice includes gifted objects that have been excavated from the contemporary thrift shop economy. He feels they are imbued with special characteristics that can be sensed by others who later encounter them. The concept that gifts should remain moving—consumed and then passed on—has a history in many traditions. One of the most carefully documented ritual gift systems is the Kula exchange among the Massim peoples of the South Sea Islands, in which armshells and necklaces “move continually around a wide ring of islands in the Massim archipelago.”[19]


Ancient Greek verb (γράφειν), interchangeably meaning to write, to draw, or to depict; it provides the basis of the English noun “graphite.” Justin Cole uses highly reflective graphite for his drawings in order to instigate a “troubling reproductive nature” when the drawing is photographed.[20] For Nikki Pressley, graphite (along with concrete) can provide an indexical record of her process, and she has also used the material to create rubbings of furniture in an attempt to convey the thoughts of inanimate objects. In Michael Decker’s series “And All I Got Was This Lousy Graphite Seashell That I Used to Make This Drawing” (2011), the artist created four large drawings with highly abstracted, anthropomorphic imagery. He presented the drawings alongside his graphite tool, which is inexplicably shaped like a seashell. Likely intended to be a non-functional souvenir, the seashell instead serves as both creative inspiration and technical means. In 2015, Michael Parker used graphite and large rolls of paper to create rubbings of his obelisk sculpture.


The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association is the oldest historic preservation organization in the United States. Founded in 1853, this group worked to preserve the plantation home of George Washington, located in Virginia along the Potomac River, and in early years offered visits to Washington’s tomb on the property. In Solomon Northrup’s 1853 narrative, Twelve Years a Slave, the author recounted his own experience of “visiting” Washington’s tomb after being kidnapped and smuggled by steamboat into the slaveholding South by James H. Burch: “Soon the vessel started down the Potomac, carrying us we knew not where. The bell tolled as we passed the tomb of Washington! Burch, no doubt, with uncovered head, bowed reverently before the sacred ashes of the man who devoted his illustrious life to the liberty of his county.”[21]

Contemporary historic preservation works with photographic documentation and oral histories to create archival records and to trace places and communities in the face of development and destruction. As a result of the 2009 survey “Historic Resources Associated with African Americans in Los Angeles,” seven sites were added to the National Register of Historic Places. These included the 28th Street YMCA in South Los Angeles, which when built in 1926, was among the few public places where the city’s black residents were allowed to swim.

Similar documentary strategies can be found in contemporary art. In the series “Detroit, Dust and Scratches” (2010 to present), Justin Cole uses the aesthetics of historical society photography in order to document the disappearing legacy of the music industry in Detroit. Nikki Pressley has paid multiple visits to the razed childhood home of W.E.B. Du Bois in Great Barrington, New York. In this wooded area, punctuated by remnants of a chimney and a few foundations, Pressley has collected moss for propagation. Katie Grinnan (Project Series 31) used photographs of a recently demolished building materials store as a “skin” for Rubble Division (2005–6). Ken Gonzales-Day (Project Series 30) has extensively documented sites of lynching in the West and created a walking tour of sites in Los Angeles. In the 1996 series “Manuela S-t-i-t-c-h-e-d,” Christina Fernandez (Project Series 18) photographed facades of sweatshops in East Los Angeles. Aydinaneth Ortiz’s newest project documents the buildings and grounds of a state-run psychiatric facility in California.


The creation of different types of holes involves varying sounds and vibrations. The burnt holes created by Wakana Kimura poking lit incense through rice paper make little noise, while an erupting volcano, a regular theme in Naotaka Hiro’s work, can sound like a jumbo jet or make “swishing sounds like ghostly winds through a pine forest.”[22] A bronze cast of one’s own ass and anus can double as a volcano or a resonant gong, as Hiro has demonstrated. Michael Parker’s egg-shaped steam chamber in use is punctuated by the sound of sweat dripping out of the bottom entry hole. Prior to receiving permission to excavate an obelisk in twenty-first-century Los Angeles, Parker utilized high-frequency radio waves to determine feasibility and provide information on underground toxicity levels.


Assigned to systematize urgent communication within hospitals and often an attempt to veil trauma from anxiously waiting family members. The colors are not standardized across facilities, which can cause confusion for doctors who work in multiple hospitals. For example, Code Yellow can varyingly indicate a missing patient or an assault, while Code Purple is used in some facilities for a hostage situation, in others for a bomb threat. Code Red consistently indicates a fire.

Code colors sometimes tap into physical or emotional conditions. Code Blue, which Aydinaneth Ortiz notes as deeply informing her family’s experience during her brother’s hospitalization, indicates that a patient requires resuscitation. Code Blue has subsequently become a subtext within her work. In his classic study on color theory, spirituality, and emotion, artist Wassily Kandinsky suggests, “Blue is the typical heavenly color. The ultimate feeling it creates is one of rest. When it sinks almost to black, it echoes a grief that is hardly human.”[23]


Fire prevention chemical engineer and linguistic theorist Benjamin Whorf attributes to language the ability to build the house of human consciousness.[24] This house—in which resides the inner I of the thinker—is unique to all, yet universal in its linguistic cause. To speak Gullah is to have a structurally varying house of consciousness from someone who speaks English and therefore a differing human experience. The house surrounding one’s consciousness is a singular mediating apparatus that creates our worldly experience. Nikki Pressley’s work on paper Word (2010) presents on one side the Biblical passage of John 1.1 translated into Gullah and written repeatedly in graphite: “Fo God mek de wol, de Wod been dey. De Wod been dey wid God, an de Wod been God.” On the other side of the paper, Pressley embossed passages from a West African folk tale about the trickster Anansi, who often takes the shape of a spider and maintains the knowledge of all stories.

[Entry by Parker Head]


In 1946 Los Angeles cultural historian Carey McWilliams described the city of Los Angeles as an archipelago of separate, isolated cultures: “Throughout Southern California, social lines do not run across or bisect communities; on the contrary, they circle around and sequester entire communities. ‘Migration,’ [urban sociologist] Dr. Robert E. Park once wrote, ‘has had a marked effect upon the social structure of California society . . . a large part of the population, which comes from such diverse and distant places, lives in more or less closed communities, in intimate economic dependence, but in more or less complete cultural independence of the world about them’ . . . Southern California is an archipelago of social and ethnic islands, economically interrelated but culturally disparate.”[25]


Founded in 1925 in South Central Los Angeles, the college is the oldest of the public two-year colleges in the Los Angeles Community College District. Programs include Automotive Technology, Community Planning & Economic Development, Correctional Science, Nursing, and Welding Technology. In the 2009 publication Lineman, Michael Parker documents four months that he spent in the power pole yard at LATTC while enrolled in the lineman-training program. Comprised of oral histories, performance documentation, and photographs, the Lineman project explores Parker’s desire to interact with and reflect a “diverse microtopia.”[26]


The concept of “Deep time,” extended geological time over hundreds of thousands of years, and the impact of extended time on natural materials, informs Nikki Pressley’s new series of cement tiles, Iterations (2014-15). Deep time may be translated best into a comprehensible notion for humans through metaphor or analogy. Hirokazu Kosaka (Project Series 46) often explores varying experiences of time, for example, the impressive speed of the Japanese bullet train that allows him to hastily arrive at his ancestral home, which is over 800 years old. Here, he sees a spider in the eaves, perhaps a descendant of an arachnid line dating back to the seventeenth century. Kosaka also regularly references the Hindu/Buddhist concept of kalpa, a long period of time, and its metaphorical application, in which an angel descends from heaven and swipes her silk sleeve against a seventeen-mile long stone. This is repeated once every hundred years, until the rock has vanished. Soo Kim (Project Series 1) cuts and layers her photographic prints, with the intention of creating a “slowness in the reading and understanding of an image that makes evident the materiality of the medium as well as the time of labor and deliberation, marked by imperfection, that works against the speed and perfection of developing technologies.”[27]


Communal living environment established in Detroit by John Sinclair in 1967, in connection with the proto-punk band MC5 and the White Panther Party (formed to support the Black Panthers). Trans-love Energies, regularly referenced in the work of Justin Cole, sought to use rock music to radicalize the youth movement and envision/establish an alternative, anti-racist, anti-capitalist society. The commune emerged out of the Detroit Artist Workshop, which was founded in a storefront in 1964 by Sinclair and other artists, writers, and musicians. In his manifesto, Sinclair explains: “What we want is a place for artists—musicians, painters, poets, writers, film-makers—who are committed to their art and to the concept of community involvement to meet and work with one another in an open, warm, loving, supportive environment (what they don’t get in the “real” world)—a place for people to come together as equals in a community venture the success of which depends solely upon those involved with it.”[28]

Edgar Arceneaux (Project Series 11) has recently explored another Detroit-based collective, the electronic band Drexciya. In the 1990s, Drexciya envisioned an underwater civilization descended from pregnant slaves thrown overboard during The Middle Passage, planning an attack on the human world above.


Basket weaving with locally harvested sweetgrass has been a tradition in the Gullah community of the coastal counties of South Carolina (and the Sea Islands chain) for 300 years, with methods passed down from ancestors in West Africa. Nikki Pressley identifies these practices as transcending the uprooting and enforced migration of the slave trade, and references this living patrimony when weaving string trellises for sculptures such as Run (2013).

The Seigaiha (blue ocean waves) motif is prominent in Wakana Kimura’s large drawing, One trifle-beset night, t’was the moon, not I, that saw the pond lotus bloom (2015). The motif has been woven into textiles in Japan for over one thousand years and possibly originates from ancient Chinese maps, where it was used to illustrate water. Krysten Cunningham (Project Series 47) uses giant looms to weave hypersurface models for performative enactments of theories of physics. The histories of European textile factories and labor organizations also inform her weaving practice.

Michael Decker’s use of fabrics, including thrifted t-shirts compiled into large collage-panels, has also resulted in a textile composed of hundreds of tags sewn together. Company names and logos on many of the tags reference the multinational garment industry, and they were likely sewn into the t-shirt by a worker on an assembly line in a factory. Each tag subsequently brushed up against the skin of at least one wearer, absorbing sweat, rubbing uncomfortably, possibly tucked back in to the shirt by a well-meaning stranger. Each tag was removed and stitched into a new associative adjacency by Decker, who was perhaps partially driven by a love of objects and reluctance to remove even the smallest fragment from circulation, as with a crazy quilt.

In Poetics of Relation, Édouard Glissant suggests, “Opacities can coexist and converge, weaving fabrics. To understand these truly one must focus on the texture of the weave and not on the nature of the components. For the time being, perhaps, give up this old obsession with discovering what lies at the bottom of natures. There would be something great and noble about initiating such a movement, referring not to Humanity but to the exultant divergence of humanities. . . . This-here is the weave, and it weaves no boundaries.”[29]


[1] The word “encyclopedia” has its origins in the Greek terms enkyklios (general) and paideia (education), together meaning “complete knowledge.”

[2] Édouard Glissant, Le Discours antillais (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1981), quoted in English translation in Hans Ulrich Obrist, “Le 21ème siècle est Glissant,” Édouard Glissant & Hans Ulrich Obrist, dOCUMENTA (13): 100 Notizen - 100 Gedanken (Berlin: Hatje Cantz, 2012), 4.

[3] On Glissant’s concept of opacity, see Le Discours antillais and “For Opacity,” in Poetics of Relation, trans. Betsy Wing (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997), 189–94.

[4] Hal Foster, “An Archival Impulse,” October 110 (Autumn 2004): 21.

[5] Chris Marker, essay-script for the film Les statues meurent aussi (Statues Also Die), directed by Alain Resnais, Chris Marker, and Ghislain Cloquet, produced by Présence Africaine, Paris, France, 1953.

[6] Naotaka Hiro in conversation with author, January 29, 2015.

[7] Jean-Luc Nancy, “Fifty-eight Indices on the Body,” Corpus, trans. Richard A. Rand (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), 152.

[8] Ibid., 155.

[9] William Deverell, Whitewashed Adobe: The Rise of Los Angeles and the Remaking of its Mexican Past (Oakland: University of California Press, 2005), 149.

[10] Manuel Gamio, Mexican Immigration in the United States (New York: Arno, 1930), cited in Deverell, 149.

[11] Le Da Costa Encylopédique, published in Paris in 1946, reprinted in English translation as Encyclopædia Da Costa, trans. Iain White (London: Atlas Press, 1995), 154.

[12] See Mitch Horowitz, Occult America: White House Seances, Ouija Circles, Masons, and the Secret Mystic History of Our Nation (New York: Bantam, 2010).

[13] Katharine Conley, Surreal Ghostliness (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013), 3.

[14] Janice Lee, “On Spectral Psychography,” Bright Stupid Confetti, January 16, 2013, accessed February 28, 2015.

[15] Aydinaneth Ortiz in conversation with author, December 4, 2014.

[16] Sam Lightnin’ Hopkins, “Black Ghost,” recorded in 1964.

[17] Rebecca McGrew, “Project Series 40: Amanda Ross Ho” (2000), Pomona College Museum of Art, accessed April 1, 2015, https://www.pomona.edu/museum/exhibitions/2010/project-series-40.

[18] Pierre Mabille, Le Miroir du merveilleux (Paris: Sagittaire, 1940), reprinted in English translation as Mirror of the Marvelous, trans. Jody Gladding (Rochester, NY: Inner Traditions, 1998), 183.

[19] Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World (‪New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2009), 16.

[20] Justin Cole in conversation with author, December 30, 2014.

[21] Solomon Northrup, Twelve Years a Slave (Auburn, NY: Derby & Miller, 1853) 56.

[22] Richard V. Fisher, Grant Heiken, and Jeffrey Hulen, Volcanoes: Crucibles of Change (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), 179.

[23] Wassily Kandinsky, Über das Geistige in der Kunst. Insbesondere in der Malerei (1912), reprinted in English translation as Concerning the Spiritual in Art and Painting in Particular, trans. Francis Golffing, Michael Harrison, and Ferdinand Ostertag (New York: George Wittenborn, 1970), 58.

[24] Benjamin Lee Whorf, Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings, ed. John B. Carroll (Cambridge, MA: Technology Press of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1956).

[25] Carey McWilliams, “The Los Angeles Archipelago,” Science & Society 10, no. 1 (Winter 1946), 41. Italics added by McWilliams to Park quote.

[26] Michael Parker, Lineman, accessed February 28, 2015, http://www.michaelparker.org/lineman.html

[27] Lesa Griffith, “Artist Soo Kim: I consider my practice mistake-driven,” Honolulu Museum of Art Blog, March 14, 2014, accessed February 28, 2015, http://blog.honoluluacademy.org/artist-soo-kim-i-consider-my-practice-mistake-driven.

[28] John Sinclair, “The Artists’ Workshop Society: A ‘Manifesto’” (November 1, 1964), Detroit Artists Workshop, accessed February 28, 2015, http://www.detroitartistsworkshop.com/the-artists-workshop-society-a-manifesto.

[29] Glissant, “For Opacity,” Poetics of Relation, 190. 

Related Events: 
Saturday, September 12, 4-5 PM
Former Project Series artist Charles Gaines in conversation with "R.S.V.P. Los Angeles" artists Justin Cole and Nikki PressleyMore >
Monday, September 28, 2:45-3:45 PM
Talk by "R.S.V.P. Los Angeles" artist Wakana KimuraMore >
Wednesday, September 30, 2:30-3:30 PM
"R.S.V.P. Los Angeles" artist Naotaka Hiro in conversation with Glenn PhillipsMore >
Thursday, October 15, 7-8 PM
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