Guest Blog Review: L.A. Skin & Ink Exhibition
In September, we posted on the L.A. Skin & Ink exhibit, which is currently on view at the The Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles until January 6, 2013. We won't be able to make it to the West Coast before its closing, and so we're grateful to Dr. Anna Felicity Friedman, who offers this insightful review of the exhibition -- and a bit of a tattoo history lesson. The value of her expertise here is not limited to her thoughts on this particular show but also makes an excellent guide for those seeking to organize their own tattoo exhibitions. For more from Anna, check her Tattoo History Daily blog.
By Dr. Anna Felicity Friedman
As a tattoo-history scholar and curator, I'm always excited for the opportunity to see new exhibits that highlight the art form I love so much. My recent Thanksgiving trip to Los Angeles gave me the opportunity to stop by the LA Skin & Ink show at the Craft and Folk Art Museum. From the press release, I was expecting an in-depth investigation that "explores the unique role of Los Angeles in the Tattoo Renaissance over the last 60 years.
Sadly, the exhibit did not fulfill my expectations. Instead it presented a curatorially confused mishmash of flash, photographs, and artwork. Was this a tattoo history show? A show of fine art by tattoo artists? A show of art somehow generally related to tattooing? Upon rereading the press release post-visit, I probably should have tempered my enthusiasm in advance--it trots out many of the usual myths about tattooing pre-Renaissance being the purview of sailors and criminals (not to mention the typographical errors, which usually predict a general lack of attention to detail or consistency).
From my first steps into the exhibit, a disconnect between what the museum wanted the exhibit to be and what the exhibit ended up being became immediately clear. The wall text promises an exhibit about LA tattooers who "have been instrumental in researching and refining the distinct styles of Japanese, Tribal, and Black and Grey tattooing." It was a shock to turn around and then see, situated across from the wall text, essentially, an installation art piece rooted loosely in old-school Americana (described in the exhibit label as a "site-specific installation" by Lucky Bastard, Buzzy Jenkins, and Lincoln Jenkins). A wall filled with sheets of mid-20th-century flash hovered above an artist's evocation of a "historic" tattoo "station."
After a video monitor screening interviews with LA tattoo artists and collectors, the exhibit then transitioned into a brief tattoo-technology section. The press-release promised "tattoo equipment" which would make one assume there would be a sizeable selection. Two power supplies, two machines, and a single photograph of a machine, with a short 3-paragraph text about "How It Works" didn't really do any justice to an understanding of this aspect of tattooing nor was any unique LA angle with respect to tattoo technology obvious.
The next section started the confused mix of work that would characterize the rest of the show. Under the heading "American Traditional," classic old-school artists Bert Grimm and Bob Shaw shared a wall with Cliff Raven's work--much of it from his Chicago days, not his California ones. Across from them, tagged as "Japanese," hung Sailor Jerry flash and some contemporary fine-art pieces by Ed Hardy. At the end of the room a selection of "Tribal" tattooing highlighted Leo Zulueta's blackwork, which along with one of the pieces representing Zulu's work around the corner, appeared to be the only "tribal" included in the show.
Especially problematic for me in this gallery, I struggled to grasp why Sailor Jerry, who as far as I know did not work in LA, had been included in the show (and given such a large and prominent section). Also, none of the Hardy pieces were either from his LA days (the pieces were dated 1999-2007) nor particularly tattoo related (all of Hardy's fine-art work aesthetically draws at least a bit from his many years as a tattooer, but many, many other pieces would have been better choices for this exhibit--I would have loved to have seen in person some of the Bert-Grimm-inspired flash Hardy drew as a kid living in Orange County reproduced in "Tattooing the Invisible Man."
Then I happened upon the strangest of the exhibit digressions...a tattoo-projection interactive. The odd location, disrupting the flow of art work mid-way through the exhibition, seemed random--why not place it at the end or the beginning of the show? The interactive also didn't function that well (although it might have rendered better on someone who was not sleeved--the projections were somewhat more legible on my untattooed hands). I know that people have come to expect interactives in museum exhibits nowadays, but if they just end up seeming gimmicky, why include them?
One of my biggest pet peeves with this show is that the connections between tattooers via apprenticeships, correspondence, and other forms of artistic influence could have been signaled visually. Instead, the exhibit put the burden on the viewer to read all the tiny didactic text to understand, for example, that Bob Roberts had apprenticed with Bob Shaw, Cliff Raven, and Ed Hardy (all of whose work was on display in the preceding room, so visually comparisons were not easily made). Also the choice to feature four giant contemporary drawings as the primary focus of Roberts's section in the exhibit (his flash was relegated to a small corner wall) confused me again as to the exhibit's purported focus. Granted, these spectacular artworks floored me--but once more I was left wondering what the exhibit was supposed to be about: LA tattoo history or art by LA-connected tattooers?
Another missed opportunity would have been to draw out the connections between Jill Jordan--one of the early female pioneers in contemporary tattooing--and Roberts. Jordan apprenticed under Bob Roberts and this clearly influenced her style--but this isn't even mentioned in her biographical label. Just having her work on a wall across the gallery from his does not make such a connection at all obvious. (And as an aside...Jordan was one of only two women included in the exhibit. Where was Kari Barba, for example?) Similarly with respect to the wealth of documentation of black and gray tattooing in the exhibit, no clear sense of the history of interrelationships could be gleaned from just looking at the images. As someone who used to work as a curator for many years, I know well that only the most dedicated museum-goers will read the didactic text.
Given that the exhibit already had problems with coherence, the inclusion in the final section of artwork by non-tattoo artists who paint portraits of tattooed people (Sean Cheetham and Kevin Llewellyn) really caused me quite a bit of consternation. First, the portraits focus on the people as subjects--as all portraits should--not particularly their tattoos. Second, one of the two didn't even seem to have any particular connection to the Los Angeles area, or at least the museum didn't reveal this connection in the didactic label. So many other tattooers could have been included in the space their work inhabited.
Still, despite the exhibit's flaws, it's certainly worth $7 if you happen to be in LA. I wouldn't travel just to see this show, but for the price of a glass of wine or a couple of fancy coffees, you will see some great pieces. My favorite item--a 1977 enormous (at least 4' x 6') collaborative piece of flash by Charlie Cartwright and Jack Rudy (below) that apparently has never been on display outside of the tattoo shop, made the trip completely worthwhile for me. Although, from the information on the exhibit label, I guess this piece usually hangs in the Anaheim shop, and I could have seen it there for free. But museum display does invite a different type of looking--a deeper type, perhaps--that does not necessarily happen in a shop setting, at an art opening, or at a convention where we usually have the opportunity to see flash, photos of tattoos, and artwork inspired by tattoos.