Write-up in SF Weekly by art critic Jonathan Curiel on my recent museum solo art exhibit, Antebellum Appropriations, at Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, which ran from April 29 – June 25, 2017.
The plight of being an African American woman is the shared thread in the group show SWEET STICKY THINGS currently on view at LaunchLA gallery thru May 6. Lili Bernard, Zeal Harris and Loren Holland have distinct styles and conceptual concerns but share a compassion for and commiseration with what America sees as a second-class race and gender. Each artist, though, exalts the black female amidst these trials and tribulations, making SWEET STICKY THINGS part celebration, part verification.
The exhibit is more a showcase for each of the participants than it is a truly meshed group show. The artists have their own defined spaces in the gallery with no cross-pollination of sorts. The title of the show comes from Sweet Sticky Thing, a song by the 1970s funk group The Ohio Players. Famous for their music, a close second for the group was their infamous suggestive and erotic album covers. No trip to the record store was complete for young men of all ages without a perusal of the Ohio Players albums section. The show offers three different takes on femininity thru an African American point of reference.
Lauren Holland inserts black women in all their SWEET beauty and glory into landscapes that give a conceptual tweak to the Western (colonial) canon. One painting, The Bathers, takes its name from the four Cezanne masterpieces investigating that theme of nude women, isolated in a lake of pastoral splendor. Holland’s vision of the bathing beauties brings in a sad reality. Not only is there a voyeur in the shadows, but discarded binoculars indicate others have been gazing before. Amidst some detritus at the watering hole floats a Greek urn, reminding us that the cradle of the West based its culture heavily on the then long-established African culture. Just beneath the veneer of sweet figurative beauty, Holland challenges centuries of the dominance of the Eurocentric definition of beauty in her oil paintings that show the sweet gorgeousness of black women despite their vulnerability in the culture.
Lili Bernard infuses a STICKY combination of spirituality and satire into her offerings here (full disclosure: I have curated this artist into commerical shows). She is known widely for her paintings of Orishas, the saint-like pre-Christian gods worshipped in the Caribbean by African slaves. She expands on that theme with inventive sculptural altars to hair salons as well as a satirical advertisement for Orishas as natural hair products. But her calling card will always be her fantastic oils and she does not disappoint. This artist paints the battle for souls as a pictorial wrestling between a dragon and a saint in one picture. But the most moving image in the show is her portrait of Latasha Harlins as an Orisha. At the top of her halo is her name and the artist has lettered in “Say Her Name” at the bottom. Harlins was murdered by a convenience store cashier in 1991. In this painting she holds the bottle of orange juice the cashier insisted she was stealing. She gave her life for that orange juice and she carries it into eternity here.
Zeal Harris reminds us that there are THINGS with which African Americans must deal. Things that are best called burdens. Her outsider-styled drawings are belied by the sophisticated compositional rhythm of text passages woven throughout many of the works in this show. Digitally printed on a silk-like material, they tell dramatic stories of police shootings, relationship hurdles, and pining for a better world, all made more emotional by the mundane nature of these tragedies. That they appear to be so ordinary is what makes the subjects of Zeal’s stories so gripping. When the girlfriend tells her man the positives of them moving for a better job, he retorts “What’s the money gonna mean in Redneck, Arizona if you’re Sandra Bland and I’m El Chapo”. A man leaves his lover’s side not when it is time to go but when he is least likely to be pulled over. The artist “gets real” but on silk the work has a glistening presence – are these artworks also handkerchiefs in which to cry?
Most gallery exhibits have a homogenous quality passed off as an aesthetic. SWEET STICKY THINGS is a bold show about excess, about the diversity within a community, about belief, gender, and experience. Narrative painting too often seeks to spoon-feed viewers in the quest for a wider audience. These three artists give aesthetic investigation as much precedence as they do in elucidating their conceptual narratives. There is an inspiration in this show for a wider range of artists than just the storytellers.
SWEET STICKY THINGS continues at the LaunchLA Gallery thru May 6. Gallery is open TUE-SAT 12-6 PM – located at 170 S La Brea Ave, Los Angeles, California 90036.
An Artists Talk featuring all three artists and moderated by Naima Keith, California African American Museum deputy director of exhibits and programs is Saturday, April 15 at 4 PM, free admission.
My work in the show:
LILI BERNARD Interviewed on Modern Art Blitz – Host Art Critic Mat Gleason – June 6, 2016
First printed in 1902, the progressive ARTnews Magazine is “the oldest and most widely-circulated art magazine in the world.” I’m currently featured in their Spring 2016 “Icons Issue,” which is available for purchase on the magazine stands for $8. There are 5 icons in the cover-feature: Mary Heilmann, Faith Ringgold, Kerry James Marshal, Kenneth Anger and Lynda Benglis. I’m one of 16 Los Angeles-based artists featured in this issue in the article by editor-writer-photographgher, Katherine McMahon, entitled Habitat: LA. The 16 featured L.A. artists are myself, David Hockney, Ed Ruscha, Catherine Opie, Diana Thater, Mary Weatherford, Jim Shaw, Henry Taylor, Thomas Houseago, Kaar Upson, Liz Larner, Amanda Ross-Ho, Enrique Martinez Celaya, Samara Golden, Lara Schnitger and Elad Lassry. Scroll down for an ARTnews.com online preview.
Habitat: Los Angeles
The opening layout of Habitat L.A. from the Spring 2016 issue of ARTnews. Clockwise from top left: David Hockney and his studio, Diana Thater and her studio, Ed Ruscha and his studio, Catherine Opie and her studio.
Los Angeles is all the rage at the moment. Last September, megacollector Eli Broad opened his $140 million private museum on Grand Avenue; the shiny Diller Scofidio + Renfro building is open free of charge and has had lines around the block. That same month, New York’s Maccarone gallery inaugurated a big space near L.A.’s downtown arts district with a show of Alex Hubbard. Berlin and London’s Sprüth Magers is expanding to Wilshire Boulevard, across from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. And March brings the big kahuna: Hauser Wirth & Schimmel, a new branch of the London-, Somerset-, New York-, and Zurich-based Hauser & Wirth gallery, will open downtown in a converted flour mill. At 100,000 square feet, it’s on the scale of a museum.
For our Icons issue, we took a look at L.A., that iconic American city, through the lens of some of its many artists’ studios, visiting 16 people of different generations. Over the next 16 weeks, each of those studios will be featured on the site—one per week. Below, a photo preview of what is to come, and below that, the complete lineup of artists.
- Lili Bernard
- Samara Golden
- David Hockney
- Thomas Houseago
- Liz Larner
- Elad Lassry
- Enrique Martinez Celaya
- Catherine Opie
- Amanda Ross-Ho
- Ed Ruscha
- Lara Schnitger
- Jim Shaw
- Henry Taylor
- Diana Thater
- Kaari Upson
- Mary Weatherford
Coagula Art Journal May 2016 Issue
Eric Minh Swenson’s Art World Year Book of Art World All Stars
“Lili Bernard: A survivor, an activist, but most importantly, an artist. Lili Bernard paints elegant, sumptuous scenes of the uttermost cruelty in relating slave stories, Orishas and epic tales of bloodlust, revenge, and finally, redemption. Most importantly, redemption”
— MATT GLEASON, art critic/Coagula Art Journal Editor
March 1, 2016
Lili Bernard says she was assaulted by Bill Cosby in the early 1990s.
Community Awareness Award, Judges’ Special Recognition.
Credit: Amanda Demme/New York Magazine
“Oshun Altar-Hair Salon” by Lili Bernard pops out from against a wall inside L.A. Artcore, where it is on view until April 5 for “Pulse of L.A.,” a juried show featuring 23 female artists. The bright yellow table is decked out with crosses and beads, shells and baubles. There’s a prayer candle under the table. A mirror, comb and hairdryer hang from the side. Above it is a poster made to look like an ad for the latest hair product, boasting slogans like “Get your sweat on!” and “Racial Self-Hatred get thee gone!” In the center of the poster, Bernard poses with her daughter in a photo taken by artist Toni Scott. Both mother and daughter wear their hair in a natural style.
The altar is part of a bigger series called “Donning and Dismissal of the Conqueror’s Coiffure.” When presented in full, there are multiple altars that bring together Afro-Cuban religious traditions with elements of the hair salon. The series also includes a performance piece, where women wet their hair — “like a Baptism,” Bernard explains — to reveal their natural curls.
“There’s a lot of trauma for black women with regard to their hair,” says Bernard inside her home studio. She talks about the physical pain that can be caused by straightening hair, using chemicals that burn or wearing weaves that are tightly sewn in with natural hair. She also talks about the emotional trauma that comes with hair, the taunts that children have faced because of the smell of hair relaxing products or because a swim in a pool revealed one’s hair texture. She speaks personally about family pressure regarding her own hair, mentioning the criticism she received from her parents when she visited them with a natural hairstyle. “There’s so much tremendous pressure from the family, the black family, to try and make you look white,” she says.
Trauma is central to Bernard’s work. The Los Angeles-based artist, who was born in Cuba and was raised primarily in New Jersey, delves into trauma experienced by African people brought to the New World as slaves and the scars that exist many generations later. She explores traumas experienced by women, whether it’s the struggle to attain a beauty ideal to the pain of sexual assault. Bernard’s work is boldly feminist and as universal in its themes as it is personal.
In her “Antebellum Appropriations” series, Bernard references the great paintings of Europe’s art history as she builds a narrative of slavery and abuse. The project started with her participation in the “Tel-Art-Phone” show that Coagula Curatorial’s Mat Gleason curated at Beacon Arts in 2011. The event was modeled after the game Telephone, where each artist riffs on one who immediately preceded him or her. Bernard followed Coop and was inspired by his pin-up-style piece to reference Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus.” She created “The Sale of Venus,” with a pregnant woman on an auction block, clearly suffering from trauma. Bernard decided to keep going with the theme after the show. She followed “The Sale of Venus” with “Carlota Leading the People,” based on Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People. The piece depicts the story of a woman who led a slave revolt in Cuba and was ultimately executed. Bernard notes the horses in a corner of the painting — “they dragged and quartered her to death,” she explains. [image: “Oshun Altar-Hair Salon” by Lili Bernard]
Yet, there is more to the story. In “Caroline,” based on Manet’s “Olympia,” Bernard depicts rape, with Caroline representing her great-grandmother and the perpetrator representing her great-grandfather. Then there is “Carlota Slaying the Slaver,” which pays homage to Artimesia Gentilesch painting “Judith Slaying Holofernes.” In it, women are depicted mutilating their rapist.
As Gentilesch’s painting is said to be inspired by the artist’s own experience, so is Bernard’s work. Only recently has she been able to talk about the autobiographical aspects of the “Antebellum Appropriations” paintings. She points to some of the details, metaphors that reflect her own experience, like the silencing of women in the paintings.
While Bernard plans to continue with “Antebellum Appropriations”– she has ideas for more than 20 more additions to the series — she has already begun work on a new series of more autobiographical pieces. “I’m working on this body of work that’s coming out of me, not with effort, but compulsively,” she says. “It’s born out of this trauma, of which I spoke, that I endured in my early 20s.”
After Bernard was attacked, she sought help. A couple years later, she believed that she was getting better. Bernard carried on with her life and moved to Los Angeles. She had six children and went back to school, earning an MFA at Otis College of Art and Design. Still, she suffered from night terrors and panic attacks. Eventually, she was overcome by the memories. Bernard likens it to Hurricane Katrina. “Hurricane Katrina came and broke the levy and all the water came flooding over New Orleans, which was once very functional,” she says. Bernard sought help.
“I’m healing,” she says. “I’ve been recovering, but what’s coming out is the art. I’ve been prolifically, compulsively creating a whole bunch of art as therapy.”
Bernard describes the urgency and therapeutic nature of her art, comparing her art-making tools to “tools on an operating table in the ER.” While art helps Bernard’s recovery, the graphic nature of the paintings captures the physical and emotional violence so often perpetrated against women. Bernard points to the woman at the center of “Carlota Slaying the Slaver,” which she started last summer and is ver close to competition. The woman appears to be ready to castrate the attacker, but her expression shows that she is unsure about what she should do. “There’s a war going on there,” says Bernard.
That challenge to bring an end to rape culture is imbued in much of Bernard’s work. “I used to spend so much time with my art addressing white privilege, but, now I’m really focusing on male privilege,” she says. “I’m fighting male privilege.”
Top Image: “Carlota Leading the People” by Lili Bernard