Two years ago, I sat transfixed beside a memorial garden assembled within a gallery at the Frye Art Museum on Seattle’s First Hill. That installation, a feat in and of itself, might have scored my memory even were it not for what preceded it: in time, the life of artist Noah Davis; in space, a tour wending from Davis’s magical paintings to the entrancing, mystical film work of his brother, Kahlil Joseph.
I mention this by way of introduction to a museum that over two decades has evolved from a classically white, deadly conservative institution into one that invests in risk and excels in the design of contemporary exhibitions. I mention it because Cauleen Smith, whose Give It or Leave It opens at the Frye on June 1, is, like Joseph, an experimental filmmaker devoted to mining the unfamiliar in African American history. And I mention it because, although his work is not explored in Give It or Leave It, the late Davis—who with his wife founded the Underground Museum in LA’s Arlington Heights neighborhood, because he wanted there to exist a communal art space in a community of color—practiced what Smith preaches: radical generosity between artist and community.
Give It or Leave It interlaces elements drawn from Smith’s inquiry into four “distinct historical universes”: Alice Coltrane and her ashram, a 1966 photo shoot by Bill Ray at Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers, Noah Purifoy and his desert assemblages, and black spiritualist Rebecca Cox Jackson and her Shaker community.
The exhibition opens with a reprint of Ray’s photograph of a group of young men standing in front of Rodia’s towers. The image, shot for Life magazine less than a year after the Watts riots, hangs on a wall illuminated with digital wallpaper.
Deeper in, Smith offers a reinterpretation of Ray’s shoot in Sojourner (2018), a film set in Noah Purifoy’s Outdoor Desert Art Museum in Joshua Tree, California. A founding member of the Watts Tower Arts Center, Purifoy used charred debris from the riots to construct his earliest body of sculpture, and the sculptures at his museum were likewise assembled from found objects. In Sojourner (yes, as in Truth, but also as in one who journeys), Smith reimagines Purifoy’s space in the desert as a feminist utopia, gathering a group of women to restage the iconic photograph displayed at the show’s entrance.
This is but one example of the layering in a show that features, in addition to film, a site-specific light installation, banners, and multi-media sculptural works. Recasting the coercive and fundamentally pessimistic “take it or leave it,” Smith advocates for abandoning the posture of apathy. I’m not sure what her vision of creating and offering means for the viewer of art, but I like the idea of giving myself to, rather than consuming, her work.
Give It or Leave It runs parallel to poet Jane Wong’s exhibition After Preparing the Altar, the Ghosts Feast Feverishly. From June 15 to December 8, Birmingham, a set of three lithographs created by portrait artist Toyin Ojih Odutola during her 2014 residency at Albuquerque’s Tamarind Institute, will be installed in the museum’s south bays.