by flaunt

On view through February 2017

In 1989, Richard Serra wrote, “The scale, size, and location of site-specific works are determined by the topography of the site, whether it be urban or landscape or architectural enclosure. The works become part of the site and restructure both conceptually and perceptually the organization of the site.”1 Serra was speaking about “Tilted Arc,” his short-lived and much-hated public artwork that New York Times art critic Grace Glueck called “conceivably […] the ugliest work of outdoor art in the city.”2Site-specificity—having emerged in the late ‘60s as a knee-jerk reaction to the perceived commodification of art—at its core has the desire to bond a work to its context.

Installed in the Federal Plaza in lower Manhattan in 1981, “Tilted Arc” was removed just eight years later after a long, painful court battle.

Thirty-five years on, a lot has changed for site-specific art. These days, entering the special exhibition space of the MOCA on Grand Avenue in DTLA, the viewer is presented with two contrasting exhibitions—R. H. Quaytman’s Morning: Chapter 30, and Mickalene Thomas’ Do I Look Like A Lady? Both exhibitions showcase innovative site-specific work by New York-based female artists who seem to have nothing else in common.

Since 2001 R. H. Quaytman—a compact, energetic, woman with sandy shoulder-length hair—has been organizing her intellectual practice into “Chapters” which are created for—and so take as a point of departure—the location they will be shown in. Wrapped up in the Chapters are the various art historical and personal interests of the artist at the time. “Taken as a whole,” writes Steel Stillman for Art in America,3 “Quaytman’s work suggests a many-layered novel or film—a text in space and time. In her work, past and present, depth and surface, meet, but the distinctions between them do not collapse.”

Mickalene Thomas, the young, queer, African-American artist’s work, on the other hand, is rooted in representations of black femininity and power. In 2011, artist Sean Landers, writing for BOMB Magazine, assessed Thomas’ early inspiration as deriving from Carrie Mae Weems’ photograph “Mirror, Mirror,” which shows a black woman gazing into a mirror—asking Mirror, mirror, who’s the finest of them all?  The white woman gazing back at her answers, Snow White, you black bitch, And don’t you forget it!!! “Through her paintings, photographs, and collages” Landers writes, “she has presented us with the perfect epilogue to the polemic raised in Weems’s “Mirror, Mirror.” In Mickalene Thomas’s mirror the woman staring back is a self-assured, powerful woman making artwork at the very top of her game.”4 

Choosing Michael Heizer’s “Double Negative” as an entry point for her exhibition, Quaytman dug into the history and mythology of the North American desert, emerging with a 22-panel piece spanning the 110-foot wall of the exhibition space derived from Polaroids taken at the site of “Double Negative.”

Although Quaytman often incorporates screen-printing into her work, the technique feels like it serves Chapter 30 to a specific end, “The paintings are truly red, white, and blue” Quaytman insists; referencing the use of the gold paint screen-printed onto the gesso and indigo pigment bases. Thomas has also long incorporated the practice into her colorful, rhinestone-studded images of powerful black women that she is best known for, which reference her long-standing interest in Blaxploitation films.

This filmic influence is felt immediately in Do I Look Like A Lady? with one wall of the exhibition being taken by the two-channel video projection “Do I Look Like A Lady? (Comedians and Singers)” featuring clips of black female performers past and present including Jackie “Moms” Mabley, Whitney Houston, Wanda Sykes, and, perhaps most memorably, a young, predatory Eartha Kitt singing “Let’s Fall In Love” circa the late ‘60s, followed by a clip of Kitt from 1997, noticeably older, describing how she recounted the lyrics to “All By Myself” in a letter to her daughter when she was stuck in a hotel during a bomb scare. The duality of the young sex-bomb Kitt and the older, wiser Kitt—both equally powerful in opposing ways—form the cornerstone of the video installation, and the exhibition in general.

Heizer’s monumental piece—a problematic one from MOCA’s collection (in as much as two trenches cut into the eastern edge of Nevada’s Mormon Mesa can be part of a collection)—serves Quaytman well. The austere beauty of the Southwestern desert permeates the installation, which, in addition to the imposing 22-panel work, incorporates stand-alone pieces—linked, among other ways, by their use of the natural pigment indigo—that enlarge the context through which we view the Chapter.

“‘Double Negative,’” reads a Los Angeles Times article from 1985—the year the piece was donated to MOCA by Heizer’s longtime patron Virginia Dwan, “like Walter de Maria’s ‘Lightning Field,’ [it] derives its importance partly from the fact that it is a rare survival of a radical artistic movement that has attracted few new practitioners since its inception.”5

Similarly to Quaytman’s interpretation of Heizer’s problematic piece, Thomas’ work has often referenced and reimagined art movements from history. Starting with her 2007 Odalisque series, exemplified by the excellent collaged photograph “Le déjeuner sur l’herbe: les trois femmes noires” (2010) which recast Manet’s original painting with three black women lunching on the grass, omitting the fully-clothed men surrounding the nude women in the original. While Quaytman’s void is a literal one, Thomas’ is the lack of female perspective in portrayals of women throughout history.

1 Serra, R. 1989, May. Tilted Arc Destroyed. Art in America.
2 Glueck, G. (1981, August 7). An Outdoor Sculpture Safari Around New York. The New York Times.
3 Stillman, S. (2010, June 1). R. H. Quaytman. Art in America.
4 Landers, S. Mickalene Thomas. BOMB Magazine, 116 (Summer 2011).
5 Wilson, W. 1985, December 10. New Moca Acquisition Is A Hole In The Ground. Los Angeles Times.

Written by Amy Marie Slocum