RETROaction (part two) / Hauser & Wirth, Downtown Los Angeles

In the early 1990s, a pivotal moment in American art and society unfolded amidst a backdrop of crises: AIDS became the leading cause of death for young men, the Los Angeles uprising erupted, and the Culture Wars intensified with the Mapplethorpe trial. Artist Charles Gaines curated ‘The Theater of Refusal’ to confront marginalization in mainstream criticism, showcasing works by lesser-known artists. Now, ‘RETROaction’ revisits this seminal exhibition, examining its relevance today amid ongoing social upheavals. Featuring pieces from Gaines, Lorna Simpson, and Gary Simmons, alongside a new iteration curated by Ellen Tani, the exhibit delves into themes of abstraction and materiality, echoing the original’s critical exploration of identity and representation. The exhibition runs until May 5, 2024.

RETROaction (part two) / Hauser & Wirth, Downtown Los Angeles. February 27, 2024.

— Right-click (Mac: ctrl-click) this link to download Quicktime video file.

Exhibition text (excerpt):

In the early 1990s a generation of artists in the United States were using exhibitions to draw attention to real-world crises: by the time Bill Clinton was inaugurated in January 1993, AIDS was officially the #1 cause of death for men aged 25 – 44 in the country; the Los Angeles uprising had been declared the most destructive period of local unrest in US history; and the Culture Wars were in full force, after the Robert Mapplethorpe ‘obscenity’ hearing marked the nation’s first criminal trial over content in an exhibition. Terms such as multiculturalism, identity politics and marginalization signified spaces of contestation, while in art, the market had collapsed following a global recession, causing an unprecedented number of galleries to shutter.

It was in this context that artist Charles Gaines developed the exhibition ‘The Theater of Refusal: Black Art and Mainstream Criticism’ for the University Art Gallery at the University of California, Irvine, in close collaboration with the gallery’s director, Catherine Lord. Presenting works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Renée Green, David Hammons, Ben Patterson, Adrian Piper, Sandra Rowe, Gary Simmons, Lorna Simpson, Carrie Mae Weems, Pat Ward Williams and Fred Wilson—all little known artists at that time—‘The Theater of Refusal’ intended to ‘reveal the strategies of marginalization and to propose an alternative,’ as Gaines described his approach then. Integral to the show was a reading room, for which Gaines accumulated articles and reviews about the participating artists that he highlighted to reveal limitations in the discourse of marginality and its instrumentalization by mainstream criticism.

On the occasion of the 30th anniversary of ‘The Theater of Refusal’—in a social and political context that bears many similarities—this exhibition in downtown LA looks back at that seminal project and continues the theoretical investigation to understand its resonances today. Co-curator Homi K. Bhabha has called this process ‘retroaction.’ He suggests, ‘A conventional retrospective looks back from the summit of the present to synthesize the past by giving it a culminating shape. In contrast, ‘RETROaction’ brings forth the legacies of ‘The Theater of Refusal’ in the early 1990s to interact with the lessons and lesions of art today. It takes a view of the present in all its decolonizing tumult—racial violence, pandemics, climate catastrophe, migration and displacement—pinpointing a critical moment of transition in the ‘90s from which to move forward.’

‘RETROaction’ presents works from the early 1990s by Charles Gaines, Lorna Simpson and Gary Simmons, who all participated in the original ‘The Theater of Refusal: Black Art and Mainstream Criticism,’ as well as a new iteration of the exhibition, this time subtitled ‘Black Art and Reconstitution,’ presenting the work of ten artists who all embrace abstraction and materiality in their practice, selected by art historian, Ellen Tani, together with Gaines.

Posted in: art, Los Angeles, no comment