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Lauren Halsey’s untitled installation is a shock to the system—stacks and stacks of painted cubes have been installed in the gallery to create a strangely-scaled quixotic city. Big enough that it towers over you but small enough that you could easily climb over it all, the installation tumbles and moves. Brightly-colored, hand-painted text modeled off of local signage swarms the visual field—each borrowed text pointing to a real person, a real place, a real business. They are all cobbled-together building to create a communal reverie. This installation does contain the glitz of mosaicked mirrors and holographic flooring, though unlike Halsey’s past works—such as the enchanting cave-like grotto, titled we still here, there, that she showed at MOCA in 2018—this new exhibition feels less like a fantasy. Instead, Halsey roots her visual language in words and objects found on the streets of her own neighborhood.
This installation has it all: DJs; Steve Harvey; incense; hair weaves; sloshing Slurpees; ice cream; Nefratiti; bodybuilders; Cheeto’s Chester Cheetah; bouncy castles. As such, the exhibition is a celebration of idiosyncratic, vernacular typography—one side of a large cube declares “OFF DA SHOULDERS DRESS” in hasty, neon-colored bubble letters while the catty-corner face of the cube contains big block letters calling for reparations—“In Memory of our Ancestors,” it reads. Other signs are less direct, like one that simply reads “HIGHLY FLAVORED,” as if describing the outrageously chromatic exhibition itself.
To create this striking, poetic jumble, Halsey scoured the streets of South Central L.A., documenting and cataloging local signage, while also looking at archival images of the area (going as far back at 1927). She then—alongside her bevy of collaborators—repainted these signs on cube-like sculptures, meant to play off of the symbol of big box stores. As a result, her work revels in the city’s complexities while also attempting to preserve them in the face of the homogeneity that comes with gentrification. By synthesizing present signage with that which has come and gone over the last century, Halsey paints with a broad-brush the dynamic lineage of black culture in Los Angeles. The artist specifically pays homage to black-owned businesses, those that have bootstrapped to become active participants in local commerce—even as other types of capitalist forces have pinched the area. “Yes, We’re Open, and Yes, We’re Black-Owned,” one found sign proclaims.
Halsey told the L.A. Times that not all the hand-made signs she found were as celebratory as those she’s included in the gallery—some “very aggressive stuff” targeted at people of color was deliberately restrictive and even criminalizing, saying “No Drug Dealing,” or “No Washing Your Car on the Premises.” “All this just to buy a piece of candy,” she lamented. Like an anthropologist-meets-collagist, Halsey reports the facts while remixing them to suit her specific love letter to South Central L.A., omitting hostility, and focusing on the generative. As a result, the installation feels alive, autonomous, and optimistic, filled with active participants whose words together swell into an affecting chorus.
Lauren Halsey runs from January 25, 2020–March 14, 2020 at David Kordansky Gallery (5130 W. Edgewood Pl., Los Angeles, CA 90019 ).