Sunday, September 18, 2011

John Outterbridge

Artforum Newsletter (an online newsletter) of September 16, 2011 had an interesting 500-Word piece about John Outterbridge, a Los Angeles artist with a long history of making work from found, recycled and discarded objects, i.e. bricolage. Students of bricolage, please note that the material (rags) that Outterbridge uses is where he begins, but he reaches way beyond that in relating his meaning and intention in the work. I'm quoting the whole piece from the AF Newsletter below.

John Outterbridge, The Rag Factory (detail), 2011, mixed media, dimensions variable. Installation view

For “Pacific Standard Time,” the multisite initiative that runs from October 2011 to April 2012 and celebrates art made in Southern California between 1945 and 1980, the artist John Outterbridge has created a site-specific installation at LAXART made almost entirely out of rags collected from the streets of Los Angeles and from a downtown factory. Widely known as a teacher, mentor, and community organizer, and as the director of the Watts Towers Arts Center from 1975 to 1992, Outterbridge has made work for the past forty years that is widely associated with the California Assemblage movement. The show is on view from September 10 to October 22.

I SEE A RAG AS AN OBJECT OF MANY VIBRATIONS. You wear clothes, and after you’re tired of them, they’re just rags. But you can’t escape the importance of the rag, no matter where you go or what you do. We use them to wrap around our bodies, but we also hide in them. Because of the colors, because of their previous lives and their histories, rags are pretty much a statement about our social position in the world and the importance of the cast-off. I like using metal a great deal too, or really any material that has a voice. Rag is not as cold as metal, and you can fold it up and put it in your pocket, you can put it in a bundle, you can hang it from the ceiling, you can decorate with it, it becomes a pillow you can lay your head down on. And that’s why I chose not to use anything for this show but piles of rags.

I was born in 1933, a long time ago. When I was a kid growing up in North Carolina, I had a mother and a father who had a lot of faith in cast-offs, the beauty and the aesthetics of what is not of use anymore, and that has always excited me because I saw old fences, degraded buildings, and scrub rags not as foreign objects but as being of a piece in the language of life, each with a lot of kinship between them. When you grow up the way I did, the way most African Americans did, separation was the law, and there were certain things––many things––that you just couldn’t do. We don’t talk about race in the way that we should, because it’s not popular anymore. We think that everything has been done before––even though nothing has been done before.

You bring that in your studio with you, that anger, whatever knowledge you gain from it. You don’t just do art; art becomes your life. The creative expression, whatever you’re doing—the fact that you have to go on the sidewalk and protest, and sometimes you have to break a glass window—it becomes part of your creative gesture, and it becomes part of your art. There is a little time to separate the act of doing art and act of going into life. And sometimes you’re not capable or able to speak of it, simply because you choke up, when you have to get into the past.

I feel good about the use of rag as an expressive element, but I don’t see it as different from other aspects of my life, or the way I think about a general population, a world population. Rags have always been in and around the environments I’ve been a part of. With me, art has the audacity to be anything it needs to be at a given time. Anything. Because the creative process is the beginning of all things, no matter what we’re doing or where we are going. You just can’t get away from rag; even when you throw it away it comes back to you. It’s like water, nourishing to your character, to the character of the cast-off, and to the way we practice living.

As told to Allese Thomson Baker

John Outterbridge, Traditional Hang-Up, Containment Series, 1969. Mixed media, 30" x 25"

Note: All photos in this post except the first one (from the Artforum article) are by Tilton Gallery, New York © John Outterbridge

More About Outterbridge
John Yau in The Brooklyn Rail also wrote a piece in 2009 on Outterbridge when he had his first New York show at Tilton Gallery 8. Students of bricolage, please note that Yau speaks about the wider context of Outterbridge's work in terms of artists and writers with related ideas and also about the meaning of Outterbridge's intention and the wider meaning of his work. I'm quoting an excerpt from Yau's article below:

Long before it was fashionable to do so, Outterbridge recognized that identity is a construction, not a given, and certainly not something to be defined by succumbing to external pressures. In this regard, Outterbridge’s philosophical-aesthetic position has affinities with Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (1951-1982), Ed Clark, David Hammons (whom Outterbridge mentored in L.A.), Martin Puryear, Alma Thomas (1891-1978), and Stanley Whitney, artists and writers who do not utilize any of the familiar and ultimately reassuring racial markers to make quickly readable work that announces their identities. Rather, Outterbridge’s relationship to art history, including non-Western art, and personal history (Rodia’s monumental assemblage, for example) is complex, and does not fit into any of the overarching narratives used to categorize all art. The death of the artist and originality, as well as the emergence of deskilling and art that is supposedly anti-market, are not only irrelevant when it comes to Outterbridge’s work, but they are also exposed for their repressive nature—they too are manacles.

One of the central subjects in this exhibition is Outterbridge’s belief that art has the power to heal and to curse. In two otherwise very different wall pieces, Asafetida Yoke (2008) and Hinged Window with Asafetida Bags Branded (2009), the artist includes a tiny bag or bags tied tightly at one end. In African American Hoodoo, which should not be confused with voodoo, asafetida can be used for magic spells as well as for protection. By introducing these and other elements into his work, Outterbridge reminds us that in some cultures the function of art is not purely aesthetic or formal. Moreover, in his work, which often incorporates a wide range of detritus, from pieces of wood, wire, rags, tool parts, unrecognizable things, and hair, Outterbridge both uses and fashions his materials, all in the service of transforming them into something more than what they once were.

Formally, Outterbridge’s unearthings echo the subject of his work, which is the excavation of different histories that have been covered over, neglected, and hidden. He possesses a masterful ability to join delicate things (a tiny painted bell) to larger, sturdier things, which are often rusted, patinaed by time. Their power to endure time’s corrosive vagaries, to survive and become transformed, is the eloquent testimony suffusing all of the work.

John Outterbridge, Ragged Bar Code, 2008, Mixed Media 58" x 8" x 2 1/2"

In Ragged Bar Code, the artist wrapped twigs with brightly colored scraps of cloth and mounted them vertically in a horizontal line across the wall. A form of identification, barcodes compress data into a visual abstraction; as the poet Christopher Dewdney has advanced, one recent manifestation of them is tattoos.Ragged Bar Code is dense with data, all of which we have to translate. Inviting intimacy—I was tempted to touch the bits of cloth as if they possessed talismanic power—Outterbridge’s work conjures complex, multilayered narratives that are viscerally and visually enchanting. Having made a real and important place for himself in postwar American art, he continues with unparalleled grace to implicitly challenge many assumptions regarding the proper place and meaning of art in postmodern culture.

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