Cauleen Smith: Give It or Leave It

Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA, United States
14 Sep 2018 - 23 Dec 2018

Cauleen Smith, Sojourner (production still), 2018. Colour, sound (in progress). Courtesy the artist and Institute of Contemporary Art University of Pennsylvania

Cauleen Smith, Sojourner (production still), 2018. Colour, sound (in progress). Courtesy the artist and Institute of Contemporary Art University of Pennsylvania

Opening on September 14, 2018, the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania will present a solo exhibition of film, video, and sculpture by filmmaker and artist Cauleen Smith. Give It or Leave It navigates separate and unrelated universes into an emotional cosmos: Alice Coltrane (1937–2007) and her ashram; a 1966 photo shoot by Bill Ray at the Watts Towers; Noah Purifoy (1917–2004) and his desert assemblages; and black spiritualist Rebecca Cox Jackson (1795–1871). Cauleen Smith: Give It or Leave It is organized by Anthony Elms, Daniel and Brett Sundheim Chief Curator, and will be on view through December 23, 2018.

“Embracing black avant-garde experimental music, culturally hybrid forms of spirituality, film, as well as literature, Cauleen Smith’s work encourages us to reconsider histories of misogyny and white supremacy and demonstrates how creative responses to our past are necessary, transformative, and intergenerational,” said Amy Sadao, Director of ICA. “This exhibition is further significant for ICA as it is only the third solo exhibition by a black woman artist in our 56-year history. This is the reality of many institutions, not just ICA, and so we should address it head-on. We are honored to have the opportunity to present Smith’s work and to provide a critical platform for her experiments linking us with our past and serving as an instruction manual for the future.”

The exhibition title, Give It or Leave It, is a revision of the threat “take it or leave it.” The artist proposes a new rule for a better world: creating something, offering it, and gifting it—regardless if the gesture is accepted or rejected. “Give it or leave it” is a rule for the self, not an ultimatum for the other, born of this spirit of generosity, hospitality, and selflessness. Smith finds the roots of this spirit in Alice Coltrane, Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers, Noah Purifoy, and Rebecca Cox Jackson, and the fact they did not turn their backs on the here and now, nor on the cities around them. They each in their own way wanted prospective utopian gestures to be imbedded in current events and social communities. It is this energy that drives Smith’s work.
“Whether based in African American histories, neighborhoods and landscapes, improvised music, or speculative afrofutures, Cauleen’s films, videos, and artworks are a series of blossoming gestures that cultivate a shared space of humanity in the face of the dehumanizing forces of our everyday present” says curator Anthony Elms. “She engages because she knows that a better world is available once we strengthen our wills against the brutal behaviors thriving within social structures.”

Highlights of the exhibition include two new films, three new banners, a site-specific light installation, and revised versions of two previous sculptural works.

To date, much of the research conducted by Smith for her film projects is in progress and on¬site in California, on location at Coltrane’s ashram, The Vedantic Center, in Agoura, and in history through a restaging at Noah Purifoy’s desert museum of a photograph of nine dapper black men taken in 1966 at the Watts Towers by Bill Ray. Additional research centers on the 19th-century black spiritualist Rebecca Cox Jackson (1795–1871). Jackson is known for having been the Eldress of one of the few urban Shaker communities, which was also the rst black Shaker community in Philadelphia. This community was known for its hospitality and fervent spiritual practice. An autobiography written by Jackson between 1830¬–64 provides inspiration for Smith in her current research and lming. Give It or Leave It builds on The Warplands, a 2017 exhibition of Smith’s at the University Art Gallery (UAG) in UC Irvine’s Claire Trevor School of the Arts, organized by Rhea Anastas.

Cauleen Smith (b. 1967; Riverside, California) is an interdisciplinary artist whose work reflects upon the everyday possibilities of the imagination. Smith roots her work rmly within the discourse of mid-20th-century experimental lm. Drawing from structuralism, third-world cinema, and science fiction, she makes things that deploy the tactics of these disciplines while offering a phenomenological experience for spectators and participants. Her films, objects, and installations have been featured in numerous group exhibitions at the Studio Museum of Harlem; Houston Contemporary Arts Museum; Yerba Buena Center for Art, San Francisco; the Whitney Biennial 2017; Prospect.4, New Orleans; the New Museum; D21, Leipzig; and Decad, Berlin. She has had solo shows of films and installations at The Kitchen, New York; Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago; The Art Institute of Chicago; and Threewalls, Chicago. Smith is the recipient of several grants and awards including the Rockefeller Media Arts Award, Creative Capital Film /Video, Chicago 3Arts Grant, and the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, Chicago Expo Artadia Award, and Rauschenberg Residency. Smith was born in Riverside, California and grew up in Sacramento. She earned a BA in Creative Arts from San Francisco State University and an MFA from the University of California, Los Angeles School of Theater Film and Television. She teaches in the School of Art at CalArts.

Anthony Elms joined ICA in 2011. He has organized the exhibitions Endless Shout (2016–17), Rodney McMillian: The Black Show (2016), Christopher Knowles: In a Word with writer Hilton Als (2015), White Petals Surround Your Yellow Heart (2013), and coordinated several other exhibitions and projects. He has written essays for catalogues and edited collections such as Cosey Complex (Koenig Books), Geof Oppenheimer: Big Boss and the Ecstasy of Pleasures (Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art), and Terry Adkins: Recital (Prestel). He has independently curated many exhibitions, including: Interstellar Low Ways (with Huey Copeland); A Unicorn Basking in the Light of Three Glowing Suns (with Philip von Zweck); and Sun Ra, El Saturn & Chicago’s Afro-Futurist Underground, 1954–68 (with John Corbett and Terri Kapsalis). He was one of three curators of the 2014 Whitney Biennial.




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