Among the recent works by John Outterbridge on view at Art + Practice in Los Angeles are two very different series of modestly-scaled, wall-mounted assemblages, each of which evokes aspects of the African-American experience. One is sculptural in nature, the works being made with a wide assortment of castoff objects; the other is aligned with painting, the pieces consisting both of flat and “stuffed” (puffy) pieces of fabric painted in bright colors. Both series consist of works that appear to have been constructed in a most casual and offhand manner. Although contemplation reveals that formal and conceptual clarity underlies these works, their literal scrappiness and wholly unpretentious (almost Outsider Art) nature is fundamental to their appeal.
American flags appear often in the assemblages, as do dreadlocks, assorted wooden tools and metal chains and implements, which together evoke the history of race, slave labor and violence in the United States. While more varied in their materials, more delicate in form and occasionally lighter in spirit, these pieces nevertheless call to mind Melvin Edwards’ welded metal Lynch Fragments Series works, begun in the mid-1960s. Outterbridge’s painted, soft sculpture reliefs would appear to belong to less allusive, more abstract realms. However, these works are part of the artist’s recent Rag and Bag Idiom Series that look to African-American adaptations of African shamanistic rituals and objects.
Outterbridge, who is now in his early 80s, was born in Greenville, North Carolina, and studied art in Chicago before moving to Los Angeles in 1963. In L.A., he became part of a group of African-American artists that included Melvin Edwards (referred to above), David Hammons, Betye Saar, Noah Purifoy and others. Together these artists redirected the California Assemblage movement, which in the hands of such white practitioners as Ed Kienholz and Bruce Conner in the late 1950s had embraced various political causes, to dynamically promote black liberation. The Watts Rebellion of 1965, which left the streets of Los Angeles strewn with detritus, provided these artists with impetus and raw materials. The Brockman Gallery, founded in the Leimert Park neighborhood in 1967 (around the corner from where Art + Practice is now), promoted their work and Outterbridge showed there in the ’70s and ’80s. Outterbridge’s commitment to art as a vehicle for social change was evidenced both in his art and life; he served, for example, as director of the Watts Towers Art Center from 1975-92.