Shattered Glass: Curated by Melahn Frierson and AJ Girard
March 20 through May 20, 2021
By LITA BARRIE, April 2021
Shattered Glass opened on the first day of spring, ushering in a new era of revitalized figurative art which is bright, bold and beautiful, featuring commanding faces of color. Exhibitions at Deitch Gallery are significant events, attracting crowds who want to explore the cutting edge of contemporary art. The two young, black curators Melahn Frierson and AJ Girard initiated a dialogue with black and brown artists during the lockdown, and the artworks created specifically for this exhibition reflect the personal experiences of those artists during a troubled period of major historic events - the police brutality to George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the Black Lives Matter protests, the election of the first woman of color as Vice President, and the horrific Capitol insurrection followed by the jubilant inauguration of a new administration that overthrew toxic masculine white supremacy. Shattered Glass will be a significant chapter in the art historical canon because it is a powerful testimony of what it means to live through a pivotal time as a person of color.
The dynamic energy of the larger-than-life paintings, sculptures and films in this ambitious exhibition is electrifying. These in-your-face paintings do not ask but demand attention as self-affirming declarations: “I am here” and “My story matters.” These artworks convey a sense of hope, even though they are rooted in sadness from the experience of hatred and chaos from racial injustice, white terrorism and a pandemic that had a disproportionate impact on communities of color.
During the COVID-19 lockdown, we constantly heard the message, “We will get through this together.” Shattered Glass takes its impetus from this urgent need for inclusivity. When I spoke to Girard about the curatorial premise, he said, “the only parameters were that we asked artists to think about community in making work and about succeeding in doing that as individuals.” He emphasized that “this exhibition is about us as a community moving forward with hope. Not one artist is the face of our community, and not one artist is the face of our times.”
This new wave of figurative artists of color is breathing new life into a tradition dominated by the white male gaze by interjecting different perspectives; the days when one person could speak on behalf of everyone are over. The artworks are installed to allow each artist enough space to hold their own in a dialogue about this shared purpose.
Multiple through lines connect works in this exhibition—particularly the use of a naturalistic, true-to-life painting style to depict people, places and things with the least possible distortion in order to draw attention to observable facts. Tyler Ballon’s candid domestic scenes of teenage boys slouched on couches, teenage girls combing one another’s hair and a boy learning to play the trumpet with the encouragement of his father, are close analyses of everyday life which have a quasi-photographic quality. Raelis Vasquey also paints in a naturalistic style to depict social gatherings and large dinner parties that convey the psychological complexity of the Afro-Latin experience from the perspective of a Dominican Republic immigrant. Unlike the academically trained artists, Fulton Leroy Washington (aka Mr. Wash) is a self-taught painter who learned his craft in prison while wrongfully convicted for a non-violent drug offense until President Barack Obama granted him clemency. His soulful photo-realist paintings include Shattered Dreams, a portrait of the late Kobe Bryant spilling tears filled with memories of his family and friends, while Targeted - Insurrection features a young black boy wearing an American flag t-shirt, yet clearly haunted by memories of the insurrection.
A second through line connects artists who provide a window into various subcultures. Rafa Esparza explores gay Latino culture in a painting of men dancing and kissing in an LA club (al tempo). Identical twin artists, The Peres Bros. (Alejandro and Vincent) explore LA car culture and the obsession with low riders. Their paintings provide a window into low rider events, and capture the Latino enthusiasm for these iconic cars which they paint in meticulous detail. Simphiwe Ndzube, a Nigerian artist with a studio near The Peres Bros. has a hilarious take on transportation in Sondela Forever, which combines fantastical painting with sculpture in his distinctive style of witty craft figuration.
A third through line connects artists who use re-imagined fantasy with a mythological twist to envision a brighter future. Phumelele Tshabalala’s exuberant paintings have a surreal theatricality which makes his black faces appear to shine light from the canvas. Lauren Halsey’s sculpture draws from Afro-futurism, funk and LA signs and symbols. Her magical fantasy sculpture, land of the sunshine wherever we go 11, combines handmade, found and fabricated objects to create a vision of joyful community engagement.
A fourth through line connects artists who reverse the white male gaze, building on feminist critiques. Mario Moore’s grand portraits honor black people in the way that powerful white men have been immortalized by portraits for centuries. His masterful Standing in the Roaring 20’s effectively uses spatial dynamics to present an impeccably dressed black man in a blue coat with satin lining and a blue fedora; this man’s determined gaze is focused on the viewer as he weathers a storm and prevails through the looming terrors in the distance behind him. Moore’s Supreme Green Grass portrays a statuesque female nude decorated with Egyptian jewelry who towers over the trees and clouds in the background, gazing down at the viewer from a cosmic dimension.
Each room is grounded by a female sculpture which Girard says is “a nod to feminism in the now.” Murioni Merriweather’s ceramic sculptures in the side gallery feature anguished faces, grimacing with black teeth in foreboding times, but in the main gallery, Merriweather’s majestic sculptures (A D H A R A, O Y A and K A M I L) celebrate the regal beauty of black women with their swan-like necks, face tattoos, bold jewelry and gold teeth. The braided hairstyles that resemble beautiful stars and crowns are a signifier of emancipation and galactic black female power, which is yet another powerful through line in this exhibition.
Shattered Glass is a multi-layered metaphor for artists who are breaking through the glass ceiling of outdated power structures, throwing out rigid rules, and smashing the mirror of distorted white projections; the title even recalls the smashing of windows during the riots that followed the George Floyd protests. When I spoke to Frierson, she said that this title came after seeing “the sense of reawakening and rebirth after what we have all experienced last year.” She emphasized, “we can’t do the same thing; everything needs to change.” This heartfelt exhibition is post-pandemic art history in the making: art is back—but with many different faces of color. WM
Lita Barrie is a freelance art critic based in Los Angeles. Her writing appears in Hyperallergic, Riot Material, Apricota Journal, Painter’s Table, ArtnowLA, HuffPost, Painter’s Table, Artweek.L.A, art ltd and Art Agenda. In the 90s Barrie wrote for Artspace, Art Issues, Artweek, Visions andVernacular. She was born in New Zealand where she wrote a weekly newspaper art column for the New Zealand National Business Review and contributed to The Listener, Art New Zealand, AGMANZ, ANTIC, Sites and Landfall. She also conducted live interviews with artists for Radio New Zealand’s Access Radio. Barrie has written numerous essays for art gallery and museum catalogs including: Barbara Kruger (National Art Gallery New Zealand) and Roland Reiss ( Cal State University Fullerton). Barrie taught aesthetic philosophy at Claremont Graduate University, Art Center and Otis School of Art and Design. In New Zealand, Barrie was awarded three Queen Elizabeth 11 Arts Council grants and a Harkness grant for art criticism. Her feminist interventions are discussed in The Encyclopaedia of New Zealand and an archive of her writing is held in The New Zealand National Library, Te Puna Matauranga Aotearoa.view all articles from this author