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PST, A to Z: 'Identity and Affirmation' at CSUN Art Galleries

November 22, 2011 |  4:00 pm

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.

Willie Middlebrook lr
Pacific Standard Time began not as an exhibition extravaganza, but as an effort to preserve artifacts and documents in Southern California’s cultural archives. So it’s only fitting it should bring to light collections that are little known or rarely seen.

I, for one, had no idea that the Institute of Arts & Media at Cal State Northridge had a collection of 850,000 images by L.A. African American photographers. Prints of 130 of them (plus an additional 350 that run as a digital slideshow) are on view in “Identity and Affirmation: Post War African American Photography” at CSUN Art Galleries.

The show includes the work of 12 male photographers whose work constitutes the majority of the collection. Arranged in rough chronological order from the 1940s to the 1980s, the works are also grouped thematically: portraits of musicians and performers, civic and religious leaders, civil rights struggles, street scenes and a few nudes. For those unfamiliar with the individual photographers, there’s no biographical information provided, and the thematic groupings make it a bit difficult to get a sense of any one artist’s work. There are, however, some striking moments, and the show does provide a valuable, L.A.-centric view of the period, in particular the civil rights era.

Harry-Adams-lr_webAlthough there are several threads to pursue throughout the exhibition, I was struck by a few moments of high contrast. Charles Williams’ “Halloween at 6th Avenue School,” from 1949, depicts a group of African and Asian American kids looking uncomfortable in their cowboy costumes. Another kind of discomfort is created by the juxtaposition of Harry Adams’ images of burning buildings and soldiers on the streets of Watts in 1965 with Calvin Hicks’ “Venice Beach,” from 1979, which blithely captures the mirror reflection of a white boy riding a bicycle. It’s an odd gap in the chronology of the show, and it makes two points: first, that there have always been at least two “L.A.’s,” and second, that African American photographers were interested in a lot more than portraiture and documentary images of struggle.

To that end, the range of the work widens in the 1970s. James Jeffrey’s 1975 image of a boy doing a back flip framed through the window of a dilapidated house partakes of the same spare, highly formal eye as John Divola’s photographs of deserted buildings from the same period. And Hicks’ sinuous, sculptural nudes from the mid-1970s hark back to Edward Weston and forward to Robert Mapplethorpe.

Still, Adams’ images from the civil rights era are the highlight. An undated photo, “Welcoming refugees from Mississippi at the Los Angeles Central Train Station,” depicts African American families disembarking from a train to a crush of reporters, cameras and welcome signs from the NAACP. It’s a trenchant reminder of the upheavals of the Great Migration of blacks from the South to points north and west, but also emphasizes how, from the vantage point of L.A., Mississippi in the 1960s seemed like a different country altogether. Adams also documented Martin Luther King Jr.’s visit to Los Angeles on May 26, 1963, for the city’s largest civil rights rally, as well as a very different kind of stay the same year by Malcolm X, who was in town for the coroner’s inquest into the police shooting of Ronald Stokes, the secretary of local Mosque No. 27. But Adams’ most chilling images feature no people at all. They depict the Kappa Alpha fraternity house at UCLA in 1965. Flying the Confederate flag, the house is encircled by a thick painted white line extending out into the street and labeled “Mason-Dixon Line.” It seems L.A. and the South were not so far apart after all. 

Calvin Hicks lrAlthough they seem a far cry from the theme of “Identity and Affirmation,” images such as these give ballast to the celebratory tone of most of the exhibition. For, as its title suggests, the show’s main goal is to honor the history and achievements of a people. Alex Green’s moody images of Angela Davis and James Baldwin from the 1980s display a rare intimacy; Roland Charles’ shadowy portraits of musicians capture the romance of jazz performance, and Maxie Floyd’s shot of Bill Cosby playing a cowbell at the Playboy Jazz Festival circa 1978 is priceless.

The show concludes with Willie Middlebrook’s poignant series, “Watts Revisited: Beyond the First Look,” from 1980. It’s the stuff of everyday life: a white robe lies quietly across a pew in a tiny church; a man sits on the stoop of a weathered building; a child examines stacks of cages full of live chickens. Documenting on an intimate scale the streets and spaces that first made national headlines in the uprising of 1965, Middlebrook both invokes what has come before and reminds us that life moves on.

-- Sharon Mizota

California State University Northridge Art Galleries, 18111 Nordhoff St., Northridge, (818) 677-2226, through Dec. 10. Closed Sundays.

Csun.edu/artgalleries

Top photo: Willie Middlebrook, "Watts Revisited, Beyond the First Look," 1980. Credit: Institute for Arts & Media, Cal State Northridge

Middle photo: Harry Adams, "Dr. Martin Luther King at 2nd Baptist Church, Los Angeles," 1963. Credit: Institute for Arts & Media, Cal State Northridge

Bottom photo: Calvin Hicks, "Figure Study #3," 1974. Credit: Institute for Arts & Media, Cal State Northridge

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