John Outterbridge’s recent exhibition “The Rag Factory” was a poetic treatment of relevant social issues, such as the stark division between haves and have-nots, and reflected the resilience and fragility of the human spirit. Curated by Kris Kuramitsu, it represented Outterbridge’s first solo show in Los Angeles since his 1996 exhibition at the Watts Towers Arts Center (where the artist served as director from 1975 to 1992). Born in Greenville, N.C., in 1933, Outterbridge arrived in L.A. in 1963, two years before the Watts riots. In the early ’60s, he began constructing assemblages using found objects and castoffs. The following decade—long before relational esthetics was popularized—he started merging art and activism with a focus on advocacy for African-Americans. The result has been a body of work marked by material innovation and empathic intelligence.
All of the elements of “The Rag Factory,” which included one room-size piece and several smaller works, were completed in 2011 and constructed from rags that Outterbridge collected, scavenged or otherwise acquired from the streets and factories of downtown L.A. Tied, draped, piled, suspended, gathered and folded, the cloth was transformed into an elegant and deeply evocative material. For the room-size piece, rags in many colors (red, yellow, green, blue) were tied together in long strands and hung from the ceiling in a row. From this central grouping, strips of black cloth drooped outward and attached to the walls, where they dangled almost to the floor. The suspended strips cast large shadows on the walls and swayed subtly as viewers moved throughout the gallery. The striking overall effect was that of a larger-than-life reliquary, as if hundreds of bits of cloth were tied together and infused with the essence of someone or something past in an act of mourning, celebration and homage.
In the second gallery, smaller assemblages on the walls and floor appeared as signs of a recent human presence or habitation, as if a person had been there and died or simply moved along. At the center of the room, a stack of folded blue jeans strapped to a pallet intimated a suitcase, or a body at the morgue. In a far corner, a colorful pile of rags rested like a roadside memorial made from the detritus of a life. The wall-hung assemblages fleshed out narratives suggested throughout the installation; details including tufts of hair and a small shoe recalled, in their depth and simplicity, Hemingway’s famously brief short story: “For Sale: baby shoes, never worn.” In one of these works, a miniature shopping cart filled and festooned with colorful bundles of rags conveyed the individuality found among the people living on the streets of Los Angeles, a city with a larger homeless population than any other in the United States.
Photo: View of John Outterbridge’s exhibition “The Rag Factory,” 2011; at LAXART.