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From 1950 to 1989, Noah Purifoy’s career as a Los Angeles-based artist, arts educator, social worker, and activist grew from grassroots community organizing to direct involvement in California state legislation. Purifoy left Los Angeles for Joshua Tree in 1989, disenfranchised by art’s ability to directly effect social change and scaled up his assemblage objects until they occupied ten acres of desert land.
The two larger galleries in Purifoy’s LACMA exhibition display the impressive, humorous, adroit freestanding assemblage sculptures for which he is best known. Presented as artifacts with little context, they lack the constellation of meaning-making when seen in-situ or with more thorough didactic materials. More successful in this exhibition setting are the wall-hung assemblage pictures because they translate well in the galleries as discrete objects with physical limitations. Edges of wood, cloth, and found objects compress their interior imagery to deliver direct blows of uneasy subject matter. Framed within a familiar museum scale of painting are collective and personal histories including the lynchings of African-Americans in Hanging Tree (1990) and Purifoy’s own biography in Snow Hill (1989), an aerial view of the artist’s Alabama birthplace.
One small gallery does provide additional context, though it is easy to miss. Therein, a 1971 artist’s statement notes, “The problem of race in this country is not socio-economical it is psycho-morality.” To grapple with issues as deep-seated as race and inequality in America, desert and junk objects provided Purifoy with a suitable scale and access to materials. Current art institutions still struggle to keep up with such an expansive and critical scale of making and thinking.
Junk Dada runs from June 7–September 27, 2015 at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (5905 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90036)