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Clarissa Tossin’s 21st Century Wisdom: Healing Frank Lloyd Wright’s Textile Block Houses at the 18th Street Arts Center makes up for what it lacks in monumentality with its concision. The show consists of just a few tightly-edited materials and cultural reference points: 3D printed replicas of ancient Mayan musical instruments that rest upon three cinder block constructions installed throughout the gallery. Embedded within each of the replicas lies the multitude of historical and material contradictions that have come to form the cornerstone of Tossin’s work, including the 2017 video Ch’u Mayaa (not included in this exhibition), which was staged on the grounds of the famed Hollyhock House, one of Wright’s textile block houses. This video similarly explores the aesthetic, political, and emotional repercussions of colonialism.
While the original Mayan instruments were carefully and uniquely crafted by hand, Tossin’s replicas have been machine-forged, a process which makes them easier to hybridize and mass-produce. Viewers can pick up and even play with the working instruments, experiencing the disjointedness of the objects’ cold plasticity with their terra cotta color and curvaceous forms (the instruments often take the shapes of small animals or human figurines). The similarly machine-made cinder blocks also imply an urban, modernist brutality contradictory to pre-Columbian aesthetic sensibilities. Yet at the same time, their material coolness seems to fetishize the instruments that rest upon them. This display mirrors the way imperialist societies often operate—erasing large swathes of the cultures they conquer while salvaging and highlighting certain aspects of said culture they find appealing.
This tendency makes its way into the artworld too—early 20th-century artists such as Picasso, Matisse, and Gauguin worked within the historical movement dubbed “Primitivism” wherein artists and designers unapologetically appropriated aspects of colonized cultures and reassimilated them into the mainstream. Frank Lloyd Wright did this as well when he mass-produced concrete blocks using molds based on traditionally hand-carved Mayan architectural designs for his textile block houses, including the aforementioned Hollyhock House. In Ch’u Mayaa as well as this exhibition, Tossin struggles with the pain of colonialism and the art world’s place in perpetuating it while avoiding didactic critique and its equally unappealing opposite—historical ignorance.
Clarissa Tossin: 21st Century Wisdom: Healing Frank Lloyd Wright’s Textile Block Houses runs from January 22–March 29, 2019 at 18th Street Arts Center (1639 18th St., Santa Monica, CA 90404).