Three wooden backboards hang on the tallest wall in the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery. The tallest of the three hangs ten feet from the ground at regulation height while the other two rest directly below each other. Leaping from the ground, one is able to defy gravity for a few short seconds before inevitably landing back on hard earth. This metaphor is David Alekhuogie’s Gravity, which spans media ranging from cyanotype textiles to cement-casted torsos. Gravity describes our desire to strive and yet our inability to overcome—a struggle for many people in this country.
These backboards are part of a series titled GOAT act. 1 pt. 1-3, in which Alekhuogie uses mark-making to physically demonstrate the act of reaching and falling. Some backboards look more kept than others, while one is simply a wooden board with a red rectangle spray-painted in the center. The backboards are hung at standard height—just as high as the artist could reach. Inked handprints cover the lower half of the board, charting the success and failure of each jump. These markings suggest that repetition and continual strife are taxing and relentless. Futility resounds as we realize that none of the boards are fixed with nets. However, for those few moments in the air we feel that we are actually in control.
The feeling of gravity is employed subtly throughout the show. Basketballs are propped against the walls by wooden frames in the GOAT series. Male Abercrombie torsos dangle midair by rope, exposing the hardware in Pull Up g,g,g. Makeshift wooden chairs nod at improvisational step stools in Support 1 and Support 2. Struggle and the perennial attempt to overcome it are as omnipresent as gravity.
Underlying this show are themes of athleticism and sport. It’s perhaps a metaphor to describe the continual training and persistence required to achieve in this country, or maybe a not-so-subtle reference to the dominance of black representation in sports (despite the actual figures). Both suggest our society’s relationship with sports and black culture. While there have been trite attempts to defend the overrepresentation, all seem too primitive and reductive. By generalizing a whole race as physically superior, the justification may seem like praise, but really it’s just a veneer of racism.
Perhaps the most critically successful series is Untitled Landscape, which upends the torsos of sagging pants into a bold landscape. This photographic series was also on display at Commonwealth and Council in an exhibition with the same namesake as Tupac’s “To Live in and Die in L.A.” The reference says it all: sagging pants allude to hip-hop culture as well as the criticism against it. Even former President Obama once openly criticized the trend, stating that “brothers should pull up their pants.” By reinterpreting black male torsos, he seeks to redefine the stigma of sagging pants, condemning the harmful categorization of people based on their skin color.
In contrast with these photographic torsos are cement-casted torsos of extremely athletic male mannequins. Unlike the Untitled Landscape series, these torsos are completely nude. It’s reminiscent of the handsome Greek statues archived in museums and widely seen as the pinnacle of art and civilization. The contrast draws a distinction between the two, raising the question of an “acceptable” nude. Why are certain nudes and torsos considered palpable and tasteful while others need to be censored and explained? Furthermore, these cement statues sit atop blue bandanas, a metaphoric double entendre. Cousin 1 and Cousin 2 are a play on the blue bandana—clothing known to be worn by the Crips. However, you’ll notice that they’re not actually bandanas. Sure, they look like bandanas and they represent the idea of a bandana, but they were created using a photographic process and then printed on canvas. The concept echoes René Magritte’s The Treachery of Images, a painting that depicts an image of a pipe with text underneath that reads “this is not a pipe.” The image is not the thing; the bandana is not the gang. By removing these signifiers from the context of the streets and placing them in a gallery setting, he demonstrates how arbitrary some of these prejudices are.
This exhibition touches on a larger theme of racial prejudice in America whereby success is not always equitable. While we can try as hard as we can to succeed, underlying systems of oppression are in place to eliminate certain people from the game. The overarching theme of this show, and of this country, is the harmful representation of people and how that inhibits certain peoples from success. This exhibition questions why the highest peak of success for some Americans can be measured ten feet from the ground.
Sofia De Ceglie