LOS ANGELES — People have come back again and again. They bring family members and friends. It isn’t often that a gallery show engenders such strong responses. But this one feels different, because every face in every painting belongs to a person of color. Every piece of art was created by a person of color. And the exhibition was organized by two young people of color curating their first major show.
“It had the feeling of a warm family gathering on a day in the park,” said Alysia Cortez, describing the first of her three visits to the show, “Shattered Glass,” at Jeffrey Deitch Gallery in Hollywood. “It is magical to see Black and brown people look at the walls and see themselves. I saw a couple show up with their pit bulls, I saw aunties come around to see what’s going on, and I saw so many kids.”
The exhibition, which runs through May 22, was assembled over the last year, when its curators — Melahn Frierson, who joined Deitch in 2018 and became director of the Los Angeles gallery in 2020, and AJ Girard, an arts educator — wanted to find a way to process all that was happening in the country around racial justice and the pandemic.
“It was so overwhelming and emotionally crushing,” said Frierson, 34, in an interview at the gallery. “We really just wanted to give everybody the chance to do what they wanted.”
Girard, 30, who had been working as the community outreach coordinator at the Underground Museum, which was forced to temporarily close because of Covid-19, found himself missing “safe spaces.”
“It felt like there was no place to go,” he said. “Young Black men and women were particularly distraught. The new social hangout became the protest.”
Jeffrey Deitch said the response to the show has been unlike any he has seen since “Art in the Streets,” the survey of graffiti and street art that he co-curated at the Museum of Contemporary Art in 2011.
“Melahn and AJ really connected with something,” he said.
In putting together the show of 40 artists, the pair reached out to those they knew and those whose work they had been told about or seen on Instagram.
They included Raelis Vasquez, who paints the people he grew up with in the Dominican Republic — even mixing sand from the beaches there and from New Jersey, where he now lives, into the paint. In one canvas, “La Mesa Nuestra,” those gathered at a restaurant include Vasquez himself as a little boy, asleep at the end of the table.
In another, “Mercado en Dajabon,” people gather at an outdoor market. “I’m reflecting on my experience as an immigrant in the U.S. and Haitian immigrants’ experience in the D.R.,” said Vasquez, 25, who is earning his Masters in Fine Arts from Columbia University. “You’re struggling and going through a lot of disruption and even trauma for this better opportunity.”
Murjoni Merriweather’s ceramic busts, with their hand-braided synthetic hair and teeth grills, depict friends and family members.
“I felt immortalized,” said Pink Siifu, a hip-hop artist Merriweather depicted in one piece, adding, “you don’t really get to see grills represented in gallery spaces. We’ve been wearing them for generations. It shows the shine; it’s a self-expression.”
Gabriela Ruiz’s painting, “La Lavada,” is a giant spin cycle inspired by her repeated trips to the laundromat with her mother. “I’ve never grown up with a washing machine at home,” she said. It also includes a security camera that references “how people of color are constantly being surveilled,” Frierson said.
The artists are painting their experiences as well as the people who populate their day-to-day lives. “The people are the art,” Girard said.
“Every room is centering on a young female sculptor,” he added. “They’re able to tell their own stories with the form. Often you don’t hear from women sculptors till their retrospectives.”
“Shattered Glass” celebrates the Black body, with images like Kezia Harrell’s “Bliss: Americana Hot Mamma,” depicting a reclined woman comfortable in her own size and nakedness, as well as Tyler Ballon’s vivid, tender images of a woman caressing a girl’s hair, and a father holding a picture of Dizzy Gillespie next to a child blowing into a trumpet.
Given the difficult discussions swirling around issues of equity and the pain in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, one might expect the exhibition to feel weighty and somber. Instead, there is a joyfulness in the work, one that attests to the resilience of the artists and the people they depict; to the human instinct for reprieve.
“People expected to see a lot of grief,” Frierson said. “We gave them the space to show whatever they were feeling.”
Several artists, like Diana Yesenia Alvarado, a sculptor, are just starting out. “When I would go to museums as a child, I would try to find something that represented me,” said Alvarado, 28. “This show is that for a lot of people. I know its going to encourage a whole community who did not see themselves in these spaces before.”
Mario Ayala, who is also featured in the current biennial, “Made in L.A. 2020: A Version,” depicts his Latino community on the East Side of Los Angeles; he grew up taking the bus to museums by himself to see art.
And Fulton Leroy Washington (a.k.a. Mr. Wash), who is also in the biennial, learned to paint in prison, where he served 21 years of a life sentence for a nonviolent drug offense. (President Obama granted him clemency and commuted his sentence in 2016.)
The show has not only given these artists public attention but the chance to connect with one another. Some of them already knew each other: Ayala shares studio space with Rafa Esparza and Alfonso Gonzalez Jr.; Amani Lewis and Ambrose are partners; Merriweather and Amani Lewis, who makes acrylic, glitter and digital collage, are close friends.
“It feels empowering to see us collectively show up in a traditional art context that is not neutral, or absolved of upholding the same institutionalized racism embedded in the systems that govern American daily life,” Esparza said in an email. “I feel very proud to be in a show that’s unabashedly embracing the aesthetics, queries and proposal being made by Black and brown artists.”
In a way, the curators suggested, the effects of the exhibition are as important as the art that’s in it. “There still exists a massive lack in images of self-affirmation and representation for people of color in traditional figurative portraiture,” the curators wrote in their prepared material for the show. “The result has forced those outside of this one-sided narrative to perceive their history through a predominantly white lens deemed as Universal. It is crucial that our community members, who have historically felt uncomfortable and unwelcome in institutional art settings, finally see themselves represented in these spaces and beyond.”
The curators themselves represent their own kind of progress. Girard, born in Dallas, earned his B.A. in art history from Howard University and started as a tour guide at the Broad and the California African American Museum. The Western Arts Foundation in 2018 recognized him as an Emerging Leader of Color.
Deitch said he was wowed by Girard’s tour of the “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963-1983” show at the Broad Museum in 2019, which highlighted the contribution of Black artists over two decades. He said he was also impressed by Frierson and decided to make her the director of his Los Angeles gallery.
Born in Pasadena, she studied art history and film at San Francisco State University. She started out working as the creative director for her sister’s organic cosmetics company.
The exhibition cannot help but stand as a kind of corrective in the tradition of the Studio Museum in Harlem’s programming and groundbreaking shows like “30 Americans,” an exhibition of works by contemporary African-American artists from the Rubell Family Collection, which has been touring museums for more than a decade.
Since society has for so long failed to question shows featuring only white artists, the exhibition seems to ask, why not similarly get used to shows with only artists of color? “It’s OK for our perspective to be dominant,” Girard said. “It’s like we dropped our anchors.”
The question going forward is, “Is the art world going to close itself back up?” he added. “Or are they going to allow this to happen more often?”