Los Angeles

John Outterbridge: Rag Man at Art + Practice

In the South Central Los Angeles neighborhood of Leimert Park, an art and social movement is gaining steam. Art + Practice is a community outreach and education center as well as a gallery in partnership with UCLA’s Hammer Museum. Founded by artist Mark Bradford, philanthropist Eileen Harris Norton, and social activist Allan Di Castro, Art + Practice aims to educate and prepare disadvantaged foster youth for the workforce and a self-sufficient future. As an important part of this outreach, the campus, which spans nearly two blocks of downtown Leimert Park, is building a community of artists and activists through exhibitions, artist talks, panels, performances, and film screenings.

John Outterbridge. Case in Point, c. 1970 (from the Rag Man Series); mixed media; 12 x 12 x 24 inches. Collection of the Hammer Museum. Photo: Andrew Zermeño.

John Outterbridge. Case in Point, c. 1970 (from the Rag Man Series); mixed media; 12 x 12 x 24 in. Collection of the Hammer Museum. Photo: Andrew Zermeño.

Currently on view at Art + Practice, Rag Man features the work of veteran artist John Outterbridge (b. 1933, Greenville, NC). Outterbridge is no stranger to this kind of community activism through art, having been the director of the Watts Towers Art Center from 1975 to 1992. He is also no stranger to the oft-ignored art scene located “south of the 10” (or south of Interstate 10, as non-Angelenos would say). In fact, the Brockman Gallery, which housed the Black Artists Association and represented artists such as Betye Saar, Noah Purifoy, Kerry James Marshall, David Hammons, and Outterbridge himself, once sat in the same square in Leimert Park. Started by Alonzo and Dale Davis in the 1960s, the gallery sought to showcase underrepresented artists of color, who were otherwise disregarded.

When LA Times art critic William Wilson said that he had not attended the Brockman Gallery because he was not interested in writing about group shows (a statement easily refuted), John Outterbridge responded by saying, “Mr. Wilson, why don’t you honestly tell everyone that you have not come to Brockman Gallery simply because you don’t come on that side of town? … The people that you write about are the people that you drink wine with, and we’re not those people. So just be honest and say that you have not come to the gallery because you are uncomfortable in coming into the realm of what the gallery represents.”[1]

John Outterbridge. Remnants of an Apron, Lost, 2002; mixed media. Courtesy of Tilton Gallery, NY. Photo: Lenae Day.

John Outterbridge. Remnants of an Apron, Lost, 2002; mixed media. Courtesy of Tilton Gallery, NY. Photo: Lenae Day.

Rag Man consists mostly of Outterbridge’s newer work from the past eight years, with a few older pieces scattered throughout. The first wall features fourteen mixed-media sculptures from 2000–12. With titles like Dreads, Hooked, and Caged, the range of materials includes wood, metal, bone, horn, ripped fabric, hair, paint, and found objects. In Remnants of an Apron, Lost (2002), the head of an African Ashanti doll becomes a wide platter with dreads growing out of a dome-like head. Dreads seem to be growing out of many of these talismanic, toy-like works, anthropomorphizing them into the bodies of black Americans. I Mus Speak (2008) is a mallet-shaped form with a ponytail of dreads and rags. The mallet, which resembles a wooden horse or mule, is a symbol that Outterbridge draws on throughout much of his work to talk about the history of American capitalism being built on the backs of slaves. For Outterbridge, the mule is a “symbol of the black body, courageously searching for absolute freedom.”[2]

John Outterbridge. Jive Ass Bird, 1971; mixed media. Courtesy of Tilton Gallery, NY. Photo: Lenae Day.

John Outterbridge. Jive Ass Bird, 1971; mixed media. Courtesy of Tilton Gallery, NY. Photo: Lenae Day.

The exhibition also includes two pieces from Outterbridge’s original soft-sculpture Rag Man series of the 1970s: Jive Ass Bird (1970) and Case in Point (1970). Case in Point appears to be a large duffel bag made out of smaller, sausage-like bags that could alternatively be interpreted as artillery shells. Underneath a military brown wash, an underpainting of neon colors practically screams to be let out. A Greyhound bus tag reads: “People travel like packages,” suggesting that human beings are nothing more than baggage. As a war veteran, Outterbridge knew many men who died abroad, only to be shipped back home. The piece also indicates the transportation of slaves, brought to the U.S. as the property of other men—or in other words, as packages.

Across the back wall, Outterbridge’s new Rag and Bag Idiom (2012) series calls back to the original soft sculptures. These pieces are bright, as though the neon rainbow underpainting of Case in Point were finally free to express itself. In this new series, there is a sincere feeling of optimism and youthful energy to be found in the works’ playful shapes, bright colors, and formal arrangement.

John Outterbridge. Rag and Bag Idiom I, 2012; mixed media. Courtesy of Tilton Gallery, NY.

John Outterbridge. Rag and Bag Idiom I, 2012; mixed media. Courtesy of Tilton Gallery, NY.

At age 83, it is only in the past five years that Outterbridge has received the kind of recognition and praise he deserves as the influential and talented artist he is. With recent exhibitions in New York and LA, Outterbridge also participated in the Venice Biennale and received a lifetime achievement award from the California African American Museum. John Outterbridge was on the front line of activism in art in the 1960s and ’70s, and it is only fitting that he be back there now during the inaugural year of this vibrant community art space.

John Outterbridge: Rag Man is on view at Art + Practice in Los Angeles through February 27, 2016.


 

[1] African-American Artists of Los Angeles: John W. Outterbridge. Interviewed by Richard Candida Smith; 1989–90. Online Archive of California. Department of Special Collections, University of California, Los Angeles, 2009. Accessed February 13, 2016, http://www.oac.cdlib.org/view?docId=hb229006xm;NAAN=13030&doc.view=frames&chunk.id=div00020&toc.id=0&brand=oac4

[2] John Outterbridge: Rag Man. Curators Anne Ellegood and Jamillah James (Los Angeles: Art + Practice Foundation, December 2015), exhibition catalog.

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