The Anti-Spectacle Generation

L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley

Leslie Hewitt, "Make it Plain (2 of 5)", 2006.

The Pew Research Center caused a stir this week when it released a study portraying The Millennials, those who came of age during the first decade of the 21st Century, as the most even-tempered generation in recent history. Unlike the Baby Boomers and Gen X-ers, The Millennials have sidestepped almost all reactionary impulses. “They look at themselves and they say, our generation is quite different than our parents’ generation. But they don’t say it with any rancor,” Pew president Andrew Kohut told NPR’s Robert Siegel. “The only thing they criticize the older generation for is their lack of tolerance.”

This sounds suspiciously rosy, even toothless, as though, by some accident of history, a whole generation of non-judgmental diplomats emerged at the exact moment the U.S. entered Iraq. But the Pew study has more bite to it than Kohut suggests. Refusing the spectacle of rebellion that your parent’s generation reveled in is another way of breaking history’s patterns.

After 1968: Contemporary Artists and the Civil Rights Legacy, on view at the California African-American Museum in Exposition Park, revisits 1968 through the work of African-American artists who grew up in its wake. None of the included artists–most of them belong to last leg of Generation X even though their art-making careers coincided with the rise of the millennium–were cognizant when Martin Luther King Jr. and JFK were shot down or when the Black Panther Party peaked. And none of them pretend to have any precocious insight into  history they didn’t experience. What they do quite well, however, is acknowledge the still-opaque role the past plays in the present.

Hank Willis Thomas, "The Liberation of T.O. I'm not goin back ta' work for massa in dat' darn field," 2003/2005, Lightjet Print.

Hank Willis Thomas, "The Liberation of T.O. I'm not goin back ta' work for massa in dat' darn field," 2003/2005, Lightjet Print.

Hank Willis Thomas‘ stunningly sleek photographs, culled from advertisements and digitally stripped of all text, dominate the  gallery space’s center. All part of Thomas’ Unbranded, the ads originally appeared between 1968 and the present; Willis has been painstakingly moving  through the history of branding, selecting images that portray blackness or target black audiences. The images create a strange visual paradox. They retain the staged melodrama of the initial advertisements yet their deliberate serialization makes them feel like specimens in a study, each something to get close to and pick apart. In Willis’ 2006 rephrasing of a 2004 Peace Corps ad, unambiguously title Don’t Let Them Catch You!, young black children, who might have been from Harlem as easily as Brazil or Niger, leap  into a muddy pool of water as if on the run. A blurry haze covers the whole image, romanticizing the picture’s narrative and recalling too-close-for-comfort episodes in US history in which African-Americans have fled authority. The most disturbing aspect of  Thomas’ images is their ability to cleverly manipulate history’s visual tropes while still living in the realm of glizty glossies that suggest history doesn’t matter.

Leslie Hewitt, "Make it Plain", 2006

Leslie Hewitt’s large-scale photographs and sculpture also reconsider images of the past, but her considerations are more intimate. In the Make it Plain series, Hewitt combines loosely connected historical objects in an attempt to piece together a history different than that of sit-ins, protests and riots. In the second of the five photographs in the series, Hewitt has placed two worn books, representing two divergent perspectives, on a shelf: Black Protest: History, Documents, and Analyses, 1619 to the Present and the Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. An empty frame leans above that and a photo of a ’60s era gathering, flipped on its side, hang above the frame. Another photo of two men hangs on the wall to the right. It’s like an impossible game of connect the dots–the relationship between the objects is buried in a palimpsest of history that only those who have read the books and were there when the photos were taken could decode, and even they might struggle.

In his recent book Timothy, essayist Verlyn Klinkenborg mentions how easy it is to ” walk through the holes” in human perception. It’s hard to overlook the big events, the ones that cause fires, change laws, and are embedded into history books. It’s harder to look between the spectacles and find the threads of truth that have slipped through. Hewitt and Thomas are looking through the holes.

After 1968 continues through March 7th. The exhibition also features work by Deborah Grant, Adam Pendleton, Jefferson Pinder, Nadine Robinson, and Otabenga Jones and Associates.