I call it ORANGES

Art Reviews, Cultural Bric a Brac, Jargon Free

Location: Los Angeles, California, United States

I am an independent writer living in Los Angeles. I write Visual Art Reviews, General Cultural Essays, and Book Reviews.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Kori Newkirk

Kori Newkirk: Rank
Through September 6th

Kori Newkirk has a way of offering a variety of voices -- personal voices, political voices, voices out of time and memory. I remember his floating tire swing held by a noose, a simple reminder that the past is always speaking through our objects, that those objects tell of what we’ve done and how what we’ve done affects who we are. The swing is conflicted, playful, horrifying, elegant, shameful, and poignant but is still just a noose and a tire – a simple poetic flashpoint, Duchamp with a conscience.

Now Newkirk gives viewers a large empty podium in LAXART, a platform for voices but without one. All surfaces are mirrors, even the steps leading to the top are mirrored. Atop the rostrum, a mass of silver spray painted microphones. The podium’s back drop is a small stage backed by plastic strips of silver, the stuff of pompoms and victory. Yet the back drop is small change compared to the challenge of the podium. The mirrors dare you to step up and say something. Of course, no one in a gallery is going to unless it merely to amuse their friends so the coda of “say something” simply hovers in the room. The mirrors serve up a double dose of this challenge -- not only do you see yourself in the mirror as a possible solution to the silence, but the podium, in being mirrored, threatens to disappear entirely. If you are like me, this could turn you shy.

I have been reading Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63 by Taylor Branch, mostly because I am painfully uneducated about the Civil Rights era but partially because Barack Obama cites it as his favorite book besides Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (brilliant) and Moby Dick (which should be everyone’s favorite book). A central premise of Parting the Waters is the role of churches in the civil rights movement as a way for African Americans to organize and have a hierarchy for leadership when not allowed such things by the U.S. government. The idea of preacher is crucial, the idea that powerful voices, affirmed or denied by the congregation, led the people in fire, in protest, and in silence.

America today seems a far cry from the stumps of the past. There are no more spontaneous traveling preachers, revival tent brim stoners, naked running Shakers, or barrel chested men projecting off the backs of trains. Now someone like Joel Olsteen speaks to 16,000 seats and 100 million viewers every Sunday (parishioners onsite can venture into the lobby Starbucks if they get sleepy). Now, we watch Hillary Clinton on television, debating whether her tears are in fact “sincere.” We listen to voices as they rise up, as they articulate and change, as they fade into a whimper. Most voices in our culture do not have the benefit of being destroyed. Neutered and stripped of relevance would be a better description – mostly on television, mostly in moments of high production and spectacle.

With America’s recent and distant history of voices and speaking, Newkirk’s piece feels particularly savvy and particularly current. Like his tire swing, the piece is a place where a certain history comes together and becomes personally relevant.

Notice that Newkirk’s podium is far from slick, far from over-produced. The stage is not a fabricated thing but a hand made place, those streamers being one sign and the spray painted mikes another. The podium is a grass roots lectern anticipating the spectacle of its future. With more emphasis on production, the work could have been very cynical – easily bringing 1984 references or bleak thoughts on hollow political discourse.

However, the work, I believe, focuses more on energy than spectacle, on the incredible smallness of a democracy rather than the often discussed terrible face of government. The podium could easily be in a room behind an Inglewood store front but its scale suggests it could rise to much more. Leadership, I often forget, often starts with homemade pompoms and mirrors, and I was reminded of this by Newkirk.

Parting the Waters speaks of the difference between preachers and prophets, how Martin Luther King Jr. wanted to be a preacher and became a prophet, how he choose a small congregation in the beginning and just rose and rose to become a symbol. Newkirk’s piece seems to accommodate preachers but yearns for a prophet, and in a gallery, where neither preachers nor prophets ever seem to lurk anymore, Newkirk offers a resonate, fascinating dilemma and drama. It could turn you shy.