PST, A to Z: John Outterbridge at LAXART
Pacific Standard Time will explore the origins of the Los Angeles art world through museum exhibitions throughout Southern California over the next six months. Times art reviewer Sharon Mizota has set the goal of seeing all of them. This is her latest report.
John Outterbridge is a ragpicker. The 78-year-old artist first rose to prominence in the California assemblage movement of the 1960s and served as the director of the Watts Towers Art Center for almost 20 years. Now, as part of Pacific Standard Time, he’s created a new installation at LAXART. It’s mostly made of bits and pieces of fabric routinely discarded in our ever faster cycles of consumer fashion.
In the center of the main gallery, Outterbridge has arranged long strands of multicolored rags, tied end to end, in a tall column. The strands hang from the ceiling, waving gently in the breeze from the air conditioner, over a roughly person-shaped assortment of smaller, loose fabric pieces on the floor. White around the edges and multicolored in the center, these scraps suggest flower petals, and the shape is similar to the rough bodily outlines that artist Ana Mendieta left behind in her ritualistic performances. The piece looks like an offering of sorts.
From the top of the column, several long skeins of fabric—all black—spread across the ceiling in all directions and trickle down the walls like the legs of a spider. In between, the white walls ripple with shadows cast by the central column. The effect is reminiscent of a restless bamboo grove or a gentle rain, and it multiplies the slender piece’s presence, filling the room.
Like the shadows, the rags have a life of their own. A mix of shiny synthetics and humble t-shirt cottons, light laces and thickly woven knits, one can’t help but wonder: Who thought lime green iridescent mesh was a good idea? What was it used for? Who wore it? Each rag has a secret; their sheer diversity and volume speak not only to our diversity, but to the endless variety we demand and consume and discard.
Outterbridge used to scavenge these scraps for free; now, as he noted in an opening night talk at the gallery, even these leftovers are for sale. Entire businesses are based on used fabric that is collected, washed, cut up, baled, and sold in India, China, or elsewhere, where the scraps are in turn refashioned and resold back to us as more clothing or household goods.
He also related how, growing up in North Carolina under Jim Crow, rags were often used in folk healing traditions—worn around the neck as amulets of a sort. Indeed, hanging amid the skeins in the installation are a few, tightly packed bundles, neatly wrapped and dotted or streaked with paint. Outterbridge is fascinated by this endless cycle of disposal and reuse—the economic and spiritual investments whereby the lowliest rags approach something like immortality.
LAXART, 2640 S. La Cienega Blvd., L.A., (310) 559-0166, through Oct. 22. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.laxart.org
Above: "The Rag Factory" by John Outterbridge. Credit: John Outterbridge and LAXART