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Welcome to Los Angeles, Timothy Washington’s just-closed exhibition at Wilding Cran Gallery, burrowed under my skin like a psychedelic folk ballad. Born in Watts and based in Leimert Park, California, the artist spent his formative years visiting Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers (the artist let him and his brothers climb the unfinished structures), which sparked his passion for accessible, interactive art. Washington’s magic is transforming found objects recovered from yard sales and the streets of Los Angeles into fantastical sculptures and multimedia works that ripple with the spiritual energies of their maker. Straddling the earthly and the cosmological, Washington divorces his materials from their utilitarian uses, pointing instead to the infinite stories embedded within each scrap or discarded item. These untold narratives are loose enough to encourage audience collaboration and projection, while also prescient enough to tap into collective fears and outrages.
Welcome to Los Angeles was a concise journey through Washington’s 50-year career, starting with graphite drawings from his time as a student at Chouinard Art Institute in the late 1960s, and ending with his most recent experiments in assemblage. Most of the works on view were an explosion of materials: dice, Christian memorabilia, kitschy glassware, Disney figurines, nails, bells, human hair, toys, and hardware fragments were among the many objects collaged onto the surfaces of his work. To cement all of these repurposed tchotchkes into place, Washington mixed pigmented Elmer’s glue and cotton to form his own puttyish encaustic.
Influenced by the Kapok Tree (2009) rose from the floor, resembling a spiraling tower. Spikey growths jutted out from the aquamarine surface like fungi clusters attached to the bark of a tree. At the base of the structure was an assortment of bells, evoking the kind of playful touch that now feels precarious in our Covid-era. Kitchen timers are embedded throughout the piece, another musical flourish that filled the gallery with a dissonant ticking soundtrack. Like most of the works included in the show, the sculpture is a feast for the senses; viewing it was like parsing an erratically-designed novel, full of irreverent asides and looping narratives. The point isn’t to arrive at a particular meaning but to savor the journey through the materials and their associations.
Introduction (2000), which took the shape of a table overstuffed with entangled trinkets, featured a central skull plastered with broken ceramics, and chrome plating, its glass eyes rolling back and forth when prompted by a nearby string (Another interactive feature: the skull exhales a puff of smoke if you blow on a plastic tube). To the right of the skull, Washington included a decorative tray depicting anthropomorphic animals at a tea party—an image that took me back to my own childhood—which was placed underneath wooden dowels painted grey like metal bars. In recent years, this juxtaposition has taken on eerie dimensions, as the U.S. continues its shameful practice of detaining migrant children in makeshift jails. Other sculptures, like Love Thy Neighbor (1968), an armless metallic figure with a torso full of nails, suggested the violence committed against marginalized communities, and our inability to find unity across differences. The objects’ meanings aren’t set in stone—they expand and refract in response to the fissures of our world.
The exhibition overwhelmed me with its accumulation of items and gadgets, but Washington invited a close and slow reading, urging a meditation on the infinite relations between people and things, and how meanings can easily slip and transform depending on the surrounding environment. Although outré and futuristic, Washington’s oeuvre models a way of moving through our real world, assembling the discarded and collected elements of the city into a transcendental playground replete with personal memories and eccentric fantasies that echo each other—an improvisatory chorus of wonder and possibility. For Washington, truth can only be felt in those echoes, the surprising entanglements that occur when we are in relationship with one another.
Timothy Washington: Welcome to Los Angeles runs from April 17–June 5, 2021 at Wilding Cran Gallery (1700 S. Santa Fe Ave #460, Los Angeles, CA 90021).