JPW3 and Grant Levy-Lucero: American Gothic | Kemi Onabulé: False Spring
2050 Imperial St. Los Angeles, CA 90021
Saturday, June 22 at 5:00 PM 8:00 PM
Ends Aug 31, 2024
Night Gallery is pleased to present American Gothic, a two-person exhibition of new work by JPW3 and Grant Levy-Lucero. JPW3’s oil on panel paintings abstract the nameplates of American newspapers into textured, gray expanses and vibrant environmental scenes. Other new works feature bunnies, celestial motifs, and reduced green and black compositions that reference type. Levy-Lucero debuts a series of ceramic sculptures that depict American pop culture icons as cookie jars. Together, the pair defamiliarize the language and symbols that have earned our collective trust. This is JPW3’s fourth major presentation with the gallery, following Root-Bound, 2021; Drifting the Bog, 2017; and 32 Leaves / I Don't / The Face of Smoke, 2014, for which the artist created a sound collaboration with Daniel Pineda. JPW3 also participated in the group show Shrubs, 2022. This is Levy-Lucero’s third major presentation with the gallery, following Reflections, 2021 and Central, 2017-8, and his participation in the group show Majeure Force: Part Two, 2020. Exhibition text by Ross Simonini Neville Goddard, the 20th century writer and mystic, said that all our desires are divine, even those we consider profane. Friedrich Nietzsche said, “One loves ultimately one’s desires, not the thing desired.” It’s true: We want desire, because the objects and people who inspire it generate our life force. Desire pulls us out of bed, drives us to work, thrusts us into sex, and gives life meaning. Without it, we are a hunk of unformed clay, a glob of desiccated paint on an unused palette. But desire has become complicated. It’s not just a primal urge anymore. Consider sweetness. Our bodies want sugar because the treacly flavor tells us that a fruit is safe, filled with carbohydrate energy, and free of toxins, which taste bitter and harsh. So when the pastry chefs and Keebler Elves pack their foods with fructose syrup, they are hijacking our ancient foraging instincts. The problem is that the Elves are sending us mixed messages. I’m hungover after that bag of cookies, but still, I want more. I’m addicted. I have to hide it in a jar on the top shelf, so I don’t overdo it. This is when the cookie monster is born, a being consumed by its desire. And sweetness, that original ignition of life, becomes our enemy. We can no longer trust our taste. Of course this is true of all the senses: The tug of color and the allure of form on the eyes is a favorite of art-lovers. Going way back, the most primal version of this feeling is in the stars and flowers. Even now, the sign of an illuminated human is one who steps outside to gaze into the night sky and pauses to behold the elderflower in spring. This is why artists have always depicted such basic optical pleasures. The desire is already there. The artist just has to let it through. Advertising learned this from art, and the branded icon is the human way of packing strong feelings of desire in a reduced image. The sight of the Disney castle or a Birkin bag floods us with serotonin, not just because we love to look at these things, but because they set off a chain reaction of desires. We identify with the experiences around these symbols. This is how desire transcends the sensorial and becomes intellectual: ideologies are born. Simone Weil said, "The intelligence can only be led by desire.” We are all subject to this. I desire the certainty of an ideology because I believe my mind will finally relax when it receives the truth, instead of constantly seeking answers. So I turn to my newspaper, believing it will quench this desire. And the first thing I see is that Gothic font: The New York Times! The Boston Globe! A gleaming symbol of truth. The San Francisco Chronicle was my family’s paper. Daily, it bent my rubberneck toward disaster, murder, war, political fracas. Reading it was a ongoing thriller of cliffhanging, fist-pumping righteousness, and with every article, my desire for knowledge was stroked and stoked. I knew what was really going on in the world. But really, was desire ever simple? Before the rise of media and propaganda, was it ever just about tending your own little plot of land, growing crops, surviving? In a bookstore, looking for truth, I found a book titled American Gothic: A life of America’s most famous painting. The classic painting on the cover depicts an unfortunate-looking couple who have seemingly achieved this pre-industrial dream of sovereignty. But these people look wrecked. Not a glimmer of desire in their eyes. Why does everyone want to look at them? Funny how with such masterworks, celebrity becomes the draw: We can’t even see the painting through all the fame. Crowds of museum-goers line up for hours just to say they saw it. This is a desire to collect the coveted experience. But real art-desire has always been in its own peculiar category. Because fundamentally, it’s not the desire for fame, or ownership, or even truth. When an artwork hits me right, I am happy to be manipulated by it, because it’s giving me something I can’t get from desserts or ideologies or newspapers — raw sensorial energy. When I find one of these rare works, these glowing sources of desire, I am willing to stand in its presence, absorb its complicated symbols, feel its tugs, and taste its decadent flavors, because these are all the methods it uses to generate its life source. It enters the eyes, mind, heart, and pelvic floor. I’m always looking for a place to feel such things safely, profoundly, and once I’ve found it, I’ll take all the want there is to receive. - Night Gallery is pleased to announce False Spring, an exhibition of new paintings by Kemi Onabulé. This is the artist’s debut solo exhibition in the United States and follows her participation in the group show Shrubs, 2022. Throughout her practice, Onabulé is known for her humanoid figures who interact with her vivid, post-apocalyptic landscapes. While broadening her world-making environments, Onabulé takes direct reference from her lived experience in painting bodies in shades of brown as she undermines Western landscape tropes. Where predecessors flattened and exoticized the “Other,” and created endless sightlines to suggest unbounded colonial domination, Onabulé creates contained scenes that reflect the deep, psychic spaces of her figures. Onabulé’s title derives from a line in Ernest Hemingway’s 1964 memoir A Moveable Feast: “When spring came, even the false spring, there were no problems except where to be happiest.” This “false spring,” and the winter weather that follows, mirrors the ups and downs of the writer’s life in interwar Paris. Onabulé’s “false spring” similarly references a summer that’s come too early, perhaps due to the climate crisis; our increasingly unstable seasons have warped our sense of promised time. The artist views such ecological vicissitude through the prism of the body: She considers how it responds to shifting landscapes—and may respond to the lush, regenerative climates that arise after the world we know disappears. Onabulé’s figures wade or gaze into eddying waters as volumes of green streaks and drips suggest the dynamic lands, grasses, and tropical settings around them. Lost Love and The Wish to Be Forgiven (both 2024) feature pairs of figures who reveal or conceal themselves in bright or twilit clearings. In the title painting, False Spring (2024), no figure appears. Instead, bare tree limbs arc across a desolate landscape that evokes the wreckage of California forest fires. In the distance, pastel waters reflect a luminous moon. Throughout these paintings, the artist considers what it means to have a witness, whether human or celestial. Disparate art histories and mythologies inform these scenes. Onabulé refutes Paul Gaugin’s paternalistic visions of Tahiti while embracing the surreal simplicities of Noah Davis. Her dual heritage also shapes the complex relationship between her figures and their surroundings. Nigerian tradition centers and anthropomorphizes nature; forests have eyes and the land has a consciousness of its own. Greek tradition, on the other hand, focuses on humans while blurring the boundaries of form: Gods turn themselves into animals, while Narcissus, so seduced by his own aquatic reflection that he falls into a pool, ultimately sprouts into a flower. Translation and transformation are similarly key to Onabulé’s process. The artist begins each work with drawing. She uses pencil, watercolor, oil stick, and oil paint on paper to solidify her image and determine the ideal texture of her brushstrokes. She then uses oil paint to recreate these energies and heterogeneous marks on canvas. The artist scratches back into wet oil to give further texture to her surfaces. Through such contrivance, invention, and engagement with the fraught past, Onabulé discovers new forms and ways of working that are both generative and true. Trees fall and darkness descends around her figures. A green, new world springs up around them. No matter the setting, they remain sturdy and strong.
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