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Improvisation & Assemblage by Collette Chattopadhyay

Noah Purifoy is creating some of the most seminal works of his career, to judge from his recent retrospective at the California African-American Museum in Los Angeles.

Gas Station, 1989. Mixed media. 18 x 60 x 96 in.

Tara's Hall and the California African-American Museum, Los Angeles, California

Stronger in impact than his early influential works of the mid-1960s, Purifoy's newest sculptures have a presence that is riveting in their physical energy and powerful in their visual dialogue. Living in the rugged California desert, away from the throbbing intensity of the city that was once the impetus for his work, the artist, who turns 80 this summer, is working with a fervor that belies, or perhaps confirms, his age.

An acknowledged doyen in the Los Angeles African-American art community, Purifoy is just beginning to be recognized in the mainstream art world as an influential figure in both the development of contemporary African-American assemblage and in the early 1960's evolution of contemporary art on the West Coast. The founding director of the Los Angeles Watts Tower Art Center in 1964, Purifoy was a member of the catalytic generation of artists that included Betye Saar and Charles White, and who served as mentors to artists such as John Outterbridge, David Hammons, Alison Saar, Mildred Howard, Adrian Piper, and others who in recent years have garnered national and international reputations.

Intriguingly, Purifoy's work explores the parallels and contradictions between the assemblage sculptural traditions practiced in Africa for centuries and transported through folk art to African-American communities, and the appropriation of those techniques by the European Dadaists and subsequently by the Euro-American Neo-Dadaists. From the charred remains and rubble of the Los Angeles Watts rebellion of 1965, Purifoy created his early landmark works, including Watts Riot (1965), as well as the now dispersed 66 Signs of Neon (1966) made in collaboration with Judson Powell and Debbie Brewer. These early works offer haunting and disturbing images of American life. In significant ways, they function like early Kienholz assemblages such as The Illegal Operation (1962) or The State Hospital (1966), by placing the viewer in the uncomfortable position of complicity in the revealed scenario. In both Edward Kienholz's and Purifoy's early works the selection of readymade objects, charged with the energy of real-life, often ignited viewer resistance and even disdain.

Yet despite such synergism, Purifoy and the 1960s African-American assemblage movement in general were marginalized in the mainstream history of the then nascent 1960s Los Angeles art scenes. In recent years, that opaque regard has come under scrutiny as the exclusionary Modernist premises once regarded as truth have been reevaluated by artists, critics, and philosophers alike. As might be expected, the complex pattern of countercultural strategies that emerged at that time, including African-American assemblage, Beat, Neo-Dada, and Arte Povera, among others, continue to be regarded as significant, in large part because of their relevance to ongoing artistic developments.

While social issues permeate Purifoy's works, in general they are less graphic than in the works of his contemporary, Kienholz, or his successor, Hammons. Working in-stead with the rich multiplicity of meaning inherent in abstraction, Purifoy constructs works that are layered in terms of materials and metaphors. Segueing from the physical realm to the conceptual, he taunts, teases, and conflates the purism of mainstream Modernism with a casual, improvisational approach commensurate with 1940s be-bop music and 1960s rhythm and blues and jazz.

Kirby Express (detail), 1993 and ongoing. Mixed-media installation.

The monumental project, Kirby Express (1993 and ongoing), which anchored the opening room of the retrospective exhibition, presents several layers of artistic and cultural meaning. Playing forthrightly with the conceptual high-seriousness of art, in a manner that parodies Marcel Duchamp's insurgency, Purifoy's Kirby Express presents an eclectic array of "train-cars" extended on a track set in sand. Included in the exhibition were a "train-car" composed of old beer barrels, a "car" of seven lined-up, old-fashioned vacuum cleaners, a "car" of four toilet-tank reservoirs surmounted with a large bottle of water, as well as other "cars," all headed by an "engine" replete with a non-operational electric motor mounted in a wooden box frame. Significantly, where Duchamp used found objects to parody the lingering bourgeois sense of aesthetics, Purifoy assembles the refuse of society to different ends, redressing what most African-Americans perceive as the cultural closure of the Modernist aesthetic. Thus, whereas Duchamp's readymades emphasize the burgeoning availability of new and replaceable industrial products coupled with the notion of a bourgeois aesthetic guiding consumer choices, Purifoy's works focus on the other end of the spectrum, presenting used and dilapidated products in a manner that accentuates consumer waste and dereliction.

Kirby Express unravels Duchamp's sardonic applause of the Industrial Revolution. Exposing the paradoxes inherent in the post-World War II dream of an industrialized promised land, Purifoy's work wryly mimicks the form, but not the impetus, of assembly-line production. Critiquing notions of progress, completion, and finality that remain central economic premises of the post-industrial world, Kirby Express spins Duchamp's ideas around, suggesting that the real aesthetic problems spawned by industrialization are the issues of urban blight and overflowing landfills. Presented during the retrospective on a floor covered in sand, the installation resonated as well against the legacy of various Western ghost towns. Evoking such phenomena as the train tracks of Bodie or the Borax Mines at Death Valley that stand in a state of "arrested decay," Purifoy's assemblages metaphorically allude to a broad historical vision of upended human endeavors and dreams. Permanently unfinished, with its ongoing accretion of cars and goods extending into a longer and longer train, Kirby Express exposes the array of social and cultural problems that remain proverbially overlooked in favor of the ongoing quest for economic profit and gain. Like Hammons's 1989 installation in New York City of toy trains and boom box music playing the "train" tunes of John Coltrane and James Brown, Purifoy's piece recalls the years when African-Americans worked the plantation fields of the South as slaves while trains of "White progress" passed through. But perhaps most haunting is the manner in which this work raises questions regarding the exhausted and drained condition of the disenfranchised sectors of humanity, and perhaps even of art itself, in the late 20th century. With its antiquated and repetitive component parts all lined up with no place to go, this piece is both humorous and poignant.

Purifoy approaches similar complexities of meaning in his abstract, stele-like forms. Emanating conceptually, perhaps, from his early wall-mounted assemblages, these works refer to a myriad of sculptural traditions ranging from ancient African Tusyan and Senufo masks and headdresses to Louise Nevelson, David Smith, and Lee Bontecue abstractions.

Spaceman, 1993. Mixed media.

Sculpture Defined (1989), for example, is a large rectangular form with a front and back surface, each divided into roughly four component panels. Sporting a bedeviling crown of five doorknobs, this work is rich in texture and color, playing oxidized greens against rusted browns in a rich but diffused melody. Distinct from the often reckless and brash processes of Beat artists such as Kienholz and Rauschenberg, these works are meticulously handcrafted. Conveying finish and refinement, Purifoy's metal-quilted surfaces show the melding of the elements of personal action and choice with the artistic process of chance and improvisation. Works such as Spaceman (1993) and Smoke Stack (1993), particularly, which are constructed of layers of meticulously cut and hammered sheet metal, display a patience, persistence, and perfection that merge the rough with the refined, resulting in pieces that exhibit a physical presence of strength and power. Literally and analogically, Purifoy's works conjoin the cultural metaphors of power inherent to metal surfaces, be they those of the 20th-century industrial nations or of the ancient central African BaKuba and BaLuba cultures. Reconfiguring, even refashioning, such indicators of authority, Purifoy's superb craftsmanship resonates further against the African-American folk art traditions where the rejuvenation of used material has historically been grounded in concepts of personal integrity and validation. Moreover, in emphasizing craftsmanship, Purifoy invests his sculptures with what may be one of the most redemptive values of art in the late 20th century, the concept of art as a validating form of work in a world of predominately impersonalized labor.

The Old Volks at Home (front and back views), 1995. Mixed media.

Tara's Hall and the California African-American Museum, Los Angeles, California

Several works use the two faces of the stele form to narrate the two sides of a story. These works, such as The Old Volks at Home (1995), Untitled (red orange plastic duct) (1996), and Untitled (Heavy Metal) (1996), present the concept of double vision, parodying to perfection the schism between mainstream and African-American art.

Presenting one face to the world and another to the folks at home, The Old Volks at Home, for example, faced the central gallery room with a cool and Minimalist face that conversed with the rubric of mainstream abstraction. On the reverse, facing the gallery wall, is an animated space that enunciates itself with a lively and syncopated aesthetic. Visible on the back of the sculpture is a wide assortment of found objects, including old clothes, a fold-away ironing board, a large pizza shovel, and a Kleenex dispenser.

Untitled (Red orange plastic duct) (1996) functions in a similar way. In the retrospective, the work faced the open gallery space with a large billboard-shaped form constructed in a Minimalist style and highlighted with a few playful digressions: a loud-orange plastic duct, a metal coil spray on the upper left, and a row of temperature gauges hanging fringe-like along the work's lower edge.

On the reverse, facing the gallery wall during the show, is a lively assemblage reflecting the comforts of home, including a squash racket, ice-cube trays, eight bread-baking pans, and a sieve or two.

Untitled (Heavy Metal), 1996. Mixed media, 9 x 6 ft.

Revisiting in sculptural form the failed ambitions for social progress and equality that were first alluded to in the wall-mounted 1965 Watts Riot assemblage, Untitled (Heavy Metal) also presents two facades. In the relief facing the gallery room, the stele features a central molten section that had been subjected to fire. With its heavily encrusted core, this surface resembles the burned center of the earlier 1965 assemblage, metaphorically suggesting a healed but ugly wound.

On another level, however, with its scale and texture of contrasting polished and rough-hewn surfaces, this work relates conceptually to Abstract Expressionism. Moving from the front to the back, this piece alludes to the 1950s dream of art as a cathartic experience of redemption for both the artist and viewer against the devastating social realities of urban poverty.

These visual differences are parodied right down to a wine bottle on one side, left as an endemic trace of the metaphoric artistic struggle and juxtaposed on the other side with an empty, earthen food bowl emblematic of life's struggles.

The tenor and sobriety of Un-titled (Heavy Metal) is brought to a crescendo in the powerful "Desert Tombstone" series (1994-95). Situated in the closing room of the exhibition, these works are a variation on the stele theme.

Smaller in scale than the other assemblages, the "Desert Tombstone" works require closer proximity and viewing distance, initiating a sense of intimacy. At the same time, with their ruminations on death, burials, and silences, these demanding works psychologically rebuff the viewer.

Functioning both as a single installation and as individual pieces, the 12 tombstones commemorate the insurmountable struggles rather than the triumphal accomplishments of life, creating counter-models to traditional commemorative sculpture.

As an installation, the work resonates with the echoes of collective African-American history and the struggles for identity that have remained mute for many years. Yet giving individual form, shape, and variety to each tombstone, Purifoy transforms that silence into narrative, creating a public tribute to a dozen unnamed individuals. Complex and brutally frank, these works create a tension between the silenced and the spoken, the erased and the celebrated, the unnamed and the remembered.

A Book Flown (from the "Desert Tombstone" series), 1995. Mixed media.

Tara's Hall and the California African-American Museum, Los Angeles, California

A Book Flown (1995) speaks poignantly of the ambition and struggle to cram as much reading, knowledge, and living as possible into too small a space and time, poignantly emphasizing life in a sculptural form associated with death.

Another piece from the "Desert Tombstone" series, Fire Next Time I (1995), tells a tale of disenchantment by moving from a pristinely smooth and geometric base to a jagged top-contour defined by nails. Inverting and transforming canonized narrative sequences, the image spins a story that begins with a basis of structure and order but moves to a jaded and scrappy conclusion.

Redressing the erasure of the collective and individual African-American experience in post- industrial society, Purifoy's "Desert Tombstone" series presents a vision that is searing in its poetic force.

With the wisdom of age, Purifoy's works forcefully addressed issues of social inequality and indifference without becoming didactic. Rather, with humor, ingenuity, and candor, Purifoy presents works that are grounded in his own experience yet which point beyond the personal to the larger arenas of collective social thoughts, memories, and histories.

Constructing works that are both gentle and forceful, Purifoy narrates the complexities of art and life without apology, expounding on them with visual wit, generosity, poignancy, and conviction.

Collette Chattopadhyay is an art historian and critic living in the Los Angeles basin.

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