“Community Engagement” is such a buzz phrase. It is a reminder that privileged people feel obligated to acknowledge and interact with those who are lesser than they are. It’s a chance for the king to step down from the thone to touch hands with the plebeians, if you will. Activities in this world involve everything from free admission days to casual canned food drives, actions that are well intentioned (and important) but ultimately very stationary and insulated. There is no actual stirring of the community: it’s the epidermis of community engagement’s deep skin.
LACMA opened a show this past Saturday that actually lives up to the phrase “community engagement” because it requires a community to activate it. Held within an elementary school, Shinique Smith‘s Firsthand is sewn to the fabric of a community and inspires all visitors to see topical references and personal connections within knots of fabric. The show anchors itself outside of the institution and uses art as the catalyst for conversation.
The show is located in the Southeast corner of the Charles White Elementary school campus, a historic local space that is also the former home of Otis. The space is on MacArthur Park and can easily be lost on a big commuter connector on Wilshire. The area feels incredibly far and alien from LACMA’s Wilshire-at-Fairfax headquarters: you may not even remember that these two places are on the same street.
The show embodies the educational spirit and–like the area–is a show that is composed of colliding influences. Smith’s work in the exhibition are largely clothing based pieces that combine various forgotten and unused clothes into knuckles of fabric. They are full of texture and reflect quick trends in style in addition to artistic movements. Art works dangle from the ceiling and lean over Roman columns as the subtly suggest historic and fabled figures. A piece feels painted to a canvas while another is woven in and out of chain link fence, suggesting (and laughing at) Koons’ fence pieces that lack any human touch.
The show progresses from a few of Smith’s works into a combination of her own and objects from LACMA’s Costume and Textile collection. It becomes a reflection on high fashion and fast fashion, art you wear to art repurposed from nothing. The tie dyed fabrics and off-off brand names that poke out of Smith’s forms playfully bring the likes of Yves Saint Laurent and John P. John back down to earth: they are just clothes.
By the end of the quick show, you remember that you are in the middle of an elementary school campus because there are art pieces on the wall made by the children. The students made art pieces inspired by Smith and Smith worked with students to pull inspiration from their worlds as she did with fashion design. The very end of the gallery space is a devoted art making area for young (And not young!) visitors to sit down and make whatever the spirit of Smith’s work inspires them to do.
Friday’s opening was marked by absolutely none of the typical “Los Angeles art types” as the space was filled with children and families wandering through after the school dismissal rush. Groups of children spoke with docents who explained the value of color, textures, and how art can be made from anything. Mothers were walking pushing around strollers and reading about Shinique Smith and how fabric materials are fluids for her experiments. It felt slightly strange to be an adult visiting alone but the atmosphere and the work and the entire concept is so warm and welcoming: it not only engages a community but it made a community.
LACMA has shown several shows at the Charles White Elementary location but this is the first that we were aware of and had the chance to visit. The show embeds itself remarkably well into the space and into the minds of visitors. It’s incredibly accessible in terms of content and in terms of literal access since it is off of Wilshire, near several bus stops, and walking distance from the Red Line. It may be hip and sexy for institutions to claim they are engaging others through art–but LACMA actually follows through with their intentions.
Shinique Smith’s Firsthand is on view Thursdays and Fridays from 2:30PM to 6PM through June 8 and every second Saturday from 11AM to 2PM for Family Day (March 9, April 13, May 11, June 8). The gallery will be closed on March 28 and 29 and by appointment only from June 9 to July 19. Read more about the show here.