My favorite piece in the “Now Dig This!” exhibition — showcasing the works of 32 African-Americans in Los Angeles — is “School Crossing Guard” by Marie Johnson Calloway.
The mixed-media piece reminds me of the Argentinian artist Antonio Berni and his characters Juanito, the homeless boy, and Ramona, the prostitute, whom he painted over and over. Berni would collect trash and clothes he found on the streets of Buenos Aires and then paint a scene with Juanito or Ramona surrounded by those objects.
Berni wanted to put a spotlight on the working urban class of Buenos Aires — and how better than to use the materials that build their neighborhoods and litter their streets?
Although Calloway’s crossing guard, made of painted cardboard and dressed in real clothes, uses similar materials and makes a statement on society and class, the statement is different.
The crossing guard doesn’t seem beaten down by her surroundings. She confidently stops traffic with her left hand while surveying her surroundings. She wears bold colors — pinks, greens and oranges. The clothes aren’t high-end, but they are clean and neat.
In my mind the woman’s confidence says a lot about the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s in Los Angeles and the growing economic, social and political influence of African-Americans. Discrimination was waning as a result of new legislation and social consciousness. The civil rights and black power movements were gaining traction, with activists demanding that people heed the new laws and see the black community as a vital part of the United States.
African-American artists chronicled and supported these efforts through their works. The print “America the Beautiful” by David Hammons shows himself wrapped in an American flag — literally engulfing himself in the U.S. and showing that he is part of the tapestry. Elizabeth Leigh-Taylor created a charcoal portrait of activist Angela Davis, with her iconic fro and steady gaze. (Davis was a political activist and leader in the Communist Party who was charged with aiding in the murder of a judge. She was later found not guilty.) Dale Brockman Davis looks critically at the Vietnam War with “Viet Nam Game,” a collection of sculptures of shell casings.
All in the all, the pieces were bold and strong, documenting and commenting on important changes in American history.
Oh, and my least favorite part of the exhibition were the bored MoMA employees — who easily outnumbered visitors three to one on Monday afternoon — giggling around every corner of the converted school house.
When: through March 11, 12 to 6 p.m. Thursdays to Mondays, closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays
Where: MoMA PS 1, 22-25 Jackson Avenue, LIC
Tickets: Suggested admission: $10, $5 for students and seniors
momaps1.org, (718) 784-2084