“Give It or Leave It,” Cauleen Smith’s immersive and kaleidoscopic solo exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, begins with the proposition of giving instead of taking. A revision of the saying “take it or leave it,” the title signals what Smith describes in the exhibition catalog as an act of “radical generosity” and the exhibition – which encompasses film, video, installation and sculpture – breathes certainly generosity in its visual exuberance and celebration of the utopian construction of the world. Yet the traveling exhibit – curated by the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute of Contemporary Art – also recognizes that getting used to is not easy to overcome.
Subdued lighting mixed with multicolored windows creates an intimate atmosphere as well as a sense of continuity among the people and sites that recur throughout the show. Among them, the famous jazz musician and spiritual leader Alice Coltrane, spiritualist Rebecca Cox Jackson, who founded the Black Shaker community of Philadelphia in 1859, and the Boston-based black feminist group Combahee River Collective in the 1970s.
Smith evokes the spirit of these visionaries through immateriality: a play of light, shadow and reflection. Space station: Two Rebeccas (2018), made up of several small disco balls, imagines Jackson and his lifelong companion and patron, Rebecca Perot, as a dazzling cosmic light shining on the silver wallpaper of the room. Nearby, Coltrane and Jackson are the main subjects of the short film Pilgrim (2017), where Coltrane’s piano composition “One for the Father” (1978) accompanies a bucolic and dreamlike montage that begins at his Sai Anantam ashram in Agoura Hills, California and goes to Watts Towers in Los Angeles, at the Outdoor Desert Museum by artist Noah Purifoy at Joshua Tree and the Watervliet Shaker Village in Colony, New York.
The film’s non-linear structure reflects the intuitive connections Smith maps out throughout the exhibition. Custom-made wallpaper covers much of the main gallery with patterns from the many locations in the exhibit. Unseen photograph of black men relaxing in front of the towers – taken by Bill Ray for a 1966 Life magazine article about the aftermath of the 1965 Watts rebellion – hanging on a wall.
Ray’s photo serves as inspiration for Staying (2018), a 22-minute film that takes a trip west from Coltrane and Sun Ra residences in Philadelphia to a protest in Chicago by R3, a coalition of democratic organizations dedicated to combating racial and economic oppression . The film ends at the Purifoy Museum, which was built from the rubbish he collected after the Watts rebellion. Amid Purifoy’s sculptures, a procession of glamorous black, Asian and Latin women hold translucent banners bearing lines from Coltrane’s autobiography, Eternal monument (1977): “At dawn, sit at the feet of the action. At noon, be in the hands of power. In the evening, be so big that the sky will learn about the sky. In the final scene, the women recreate Ray’s photo against the museum’s otherworldly landscape, replacing male camaraderie with formidable femininity.
The show ends with epistrophy (2018), an installation featuring an array of objects – from bronze figurines to taxidermy crows – placed in front of monitors projecting space – or landscapes from NASA and National Geographic. CCTV cameras project images of objects and their backgrounds onto nearby walls, allowing them to inhabit their own fantasy worlds while positioning them as surveillance subjects. This utopian-dystopian The scenario parallels that of the transcendent mind and the embodied subject: the gift of giving and the violence of taking. “Give it or leave it” postulates the potential to give not only to oppose but to subvert. Although the show revel in color, light and sound, Smith points out that the promise of utopia is inevitably tied to the politics of representation and that “radical generosity” is, indeed, a political act.
“Give It or Leave It” is on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art until October 31, 2021.
Main picture: Cauleen Smith, Staying, 2018, stationary production, single-channel video: color and sound, 22:41 minutes. Courtesy of the artist, Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago, and Kate Werble Gallery, New York, and Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania