Lauren Halsey brings her vision of South Central Los Angeles to New York

Almost every day at dawn, artist Lauren Halsey travels to South Central Los Angeles to collect items.

She collects all the objects that catch her eye along the way and takes pictures on her phone. These discoveries, along with the ephemera she’s kept since her teenage years making collages (magazine clippings, church figurines, shiny aluminum palm trees, miniature cars, aquarium plants), fill every corner of Halsey’s studio. in Los Angeles and gradually make their way into his work.

Today, the latest iterations of those creations are on display at David Kordansky’s new gallery in Chelsea in an exhibition that opened on Friday, the artist’s first major solo exhibition in New York.

“I document intersections that I need to return to or follow,” Halsey said in a recent interview at the gallery, where she was installing the exhibit. “I have to archive this thing or this person or this place or this spirit. Some days are easier than others — I find a calling card. Other days I find an entire Sphinx. Or I find a figure that rocks my world.

“I am an obsessive collector of objects, of images — I scan the streets,” she added. “I collected as long as I could breathe.”

Dressed in a camo baseball cap, purple fleece jacket and white tops, Halsey exudes understated yet focused energy. You can see why she gets up early and stays up late – “I have so much to do” – and why a job isn’t finished until a deadline forces it to stop. “I can just carry on,” Halsey said. “I can keep adding layers.”

Through her installations, Halsey pays homage to the community that nurtured and inspired her – not just her mother, a teacher, or her father, an accountant, but the church, the convenience stores, her bus line, her loved ones and community centers. She also documents a particular segment of society, elevating an urban vernacular that is often devalued or ignored.

At a time when many black artists were recognized for figurative art, Halsey made large-scale sculptures and reliefs. And while his installations may hint at economic hardship, gentrification, or gang violence, they convey an explosive sense of joy.

“She’s not trying to unpack notions of racism, she’s just trying to celebrate blackness,” said artist Charles Gaines, who taught Halsey when she was a student at the California Institute of the Arts. “She’s trying to introduce into the realm of art things that are thought to be low culture, things that are victims of a certain stereotype.”

Halsey has achieved rare fame and notoriety for a performer at just 34 years old. His work is already part of the collections of major institutions such as the Hammer Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles; the Boston Museum of Fine Arts; the Miami Institute of Contemporary Art; and the Studio Museum in Harlem.

This year it was selected by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for its prestigious rooftop garden commission, but it was postponed until next spring due to supply chain issues. (The rooftop will instead be used this summer as a place to sit and snack, with local DJs hosting dance parties on weekend nights.)

Halsey has perhaps become known as much for her activism as for her art, namely the Los Angeles community center she started which has become an important food pantry during the pandemic and her policy of ensuring that some of his art is sold to color collectors.

“Lauren is a builder – a builder of art, a builder of objects but also a builder of community,” said Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum, where Halsey took up a residency in 2014. truly powerful combination that its deeper meaning lies.

For the Kordansky show, Halsey created vast sculptures populated with her collectibles in her neighborhood palette: hot pink, orange, green, yellow; painted boxes inspired by local signs and symbols; and what she calls caves, including one with a working waterfall that she eventually wants to bring home for the kids to enjoy.

Neighborhood is clearly the fuel behind Halsey’s work, namely the collage of symbols she has described as her own form of place-making, like advertisements for batteries or weavings.

“All of these things demystify what’s in store,” Halsey said. “It is important to archive not only the name of the business, but also the pictorial decisions they make to communicate to the neighborhood how they organize the convenience store.”

She honors the unsung workers in grassroots organizations who make a difference in people’s lives every day, calling them her “collaborators, the most brilliant models of community leadership.” Halsey mentions, for example, the Sisters of Watts, which offers after-school programs, and Vanessa’s Positive Energy, which offers dance lessons.

“People are doing the work – from providing Easter baskets to food to karate, tickets to sports games and all the support for education,” she said. “The problem is the infrastructure that makes the job so difficult. But the work is in progress. »

“They are pillars for me – they are monuments in themselves,” she added. “I work closely with them. I’m lucky.”

The people who populated his life can be found in his work, such as the mother of his best friend from Mississippi or Franco Gaskin, alias “Franco the Great” or the “Picasso of Harlem”; she used to bump into him on her way to the Studio Museum.

She described these personal references as inside jokes – “Oh, that reminds me of Sister Jenkins, oh, that’s Sister Fritz, oh, that’s Brother Washington,” Halsey said. “I can go on those tangents over and over again.”

Halsey eventually plans to bring his Met rooftop installation, called the “Prototype Hieroglyphic Architecture of South Central Los Angeles (I),” to South Central. The work invites visitors to explore the connections between ancient Egyptian symbolism, utopian architecture of the 1960s, and contemporary visual iconography.

“I just felt she had the tenacity, the resilience and the courage to deal with the institution the way Doris Salcedo dealt with the Tate; she took on the institution and everything it stands for,” said Sheena Wagstaff, Met chair for modern and contemporary art. “That’s what I thought Lauren had the ability to do – push him, probe him.”

Born in Los Angeles in 1987, Halsey originally wanted to be a professional basketball player and dreamed of playing for University of Tennessee coach Pat Summitt as Lady Vol. But she wasn’t recruited and, after enjoying creating sets for church rooms, began taking architecture classes at a community college in Torrance, California. She then spent about a year studying architecture at the California College of the Arts, but became frustrated with the stereotypical nature of the studio classes and the pie-in-the-sky shots.

“I can go crazy and do Disneyland, but that’s just not reality or where I’m from,” she said, “otherwise I would have seen it.”

Halsey transferred to CalArts in Santa Clarita, where she earned her BFA in 2012 before earning her MFA at Yale University in 2014. Seeing Halsey’s work at CalArts, Golden felt recalled: “My first reaction was total admiration.

“She was forming a deep, deep vocabulary,” Golden added. “It was rooted in his biography, his sense of place, his sense of identity. Even on that first viewing, it was clear to me that it was about so much more than that.

In 2018, Halsey was featured at the Hammer’s “Made in LA” biennial, where Kordansky was smitten with her work. “Lauren is one of the most important contemporary artists to come out of Los Angeles, California in the past decade,” Kordansky said. “She documents her birthplace, her community and her place of origin, but she does so through this extraordinary vision of Pedro Bell, who made all the early Parliament-Funkadelic records. The fantastic and the visionary rub shoulders with reality.

Somehow, Halsey managed to balance her business success with the tougher world she came from — in large part by giving back. His Summaeverythang Community Center, which provides organic products to residents of Watts and South Central Los Angeles, aims to “develop Black and Maroon empowerment”, according to the website, “personal, political, economic and socio-cultural “.

“It would be crazy for me to do this work on South Central that exists in a marketplace and not redistribute or recycle the rewards of that work back into the neighborhood and to the people who need it most,” she said. . “I can accomplish a lot in a sculpture, but it’s not a tutoring program, it’s not a food program.”

She also said she doesn’t see her neighborhood through “the prism of darkness or constant trauma.” On the contrary, says Halsey, she sees her beauty and her humanity: the fertile ground she continues to tap into as an artist.

Halsey counts artists Betye Saar, Overton Loyd, Mike Kelley, Dominique Moody and Mark Bradford among her biggest influences. Ultimately, she says, the art for her is about going “deep into what matters to me,” which she said singer and entertainer George Clinton calls “going for your funk.”

But don’t ask him to explain exactly what funk means. “I wouldn’t define it, because once you define it, it’s dead — you locked it in, you flattened it,” Halsey said. “It’s an energy, it’s a life force, it’s something I look for every day.”

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