Spanning three decades and involving thirty-three artists, Now Dig This! Art and Black in Los Angeles 1960-1980 at MoMA PS1 presents a collection that chronicles the social, cultural and political experiences of African Americans during a particularly tumultuous period. The exhibit opens with Charles White’s Love Letter #1, a display of letters and a lithograph which narrates the artist’s plea to free UCLA professor and activist Angela Davis, who served 18 months in jail before being found innocent on the charges of kidnapping and murder. Love Letter #1 sets the tone for the show by introducing viewers to socially oriented art that functioned to both share tales and to incite action.
Focusing on the marginalized African Americans, a majority of the work on display sheds light on overlooked stories of injustice. White makes another contribution on this front with his Birmingham Totem, a charcoal and ink drawing that shows a boy shrouded in cloth and sitting atop a mountain of scraps. An ode to the victims of a church bombing in an Alabama town by the Ku Klux Klan, the pile of debris depicted covers faceless victims, pointing to how easy it is to forget such tragedies. The reference to a totem pole reveals the White’s motivation to immortalize the massacre.
Now Dig This! then goes on to break up art movements that emerged during the time, including Post-Minimalism and Assembling. While both were obviously significant in the L.A. scene, the quick shift from one to the other seemed disjointed within the small confines of the space. Of the mixed media art, David Hammons’ pieces shine the brightest. In The Wine Leading the Wine, a commentary on the rise of alcoholism in adult males, Hammons literally puts himself onto the canvas with his body print technique of slathering oil on his body to produce imprints of two men in the process of inebriation. Bag Lady in Flight intrigues the eye in a similar way, a close look at chunks of human hair stuck to greasy paper bags causing immediate aversion yet revealing refinement in the movement of the origami-like pleats when seen from afar.
Although comprehensive, the sheer number of work gathered at the show caused some of the more interesting pieces to disappear into a cacophonous background. Nevertheless, the wealth of strong visuals makes for a collection that pierces through very poignantly. And while it’s easy to leave with the uncomfortable residue of oppression in mind, the best take-away message comes in the form of Charles Gaines’ triptych of Faces: Set #4. A breakdown of a black and white photograph of black man to racially indistinguishable colors and shapes, one walks away with the realization that perhaps the reason the stories presented resonate so strongly is because at the end of the day, we are simply all the same.