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Commonwealth and Council, Los Angeles, CA
November 4, 2017 – January 6, 2018
What happens when artifacts from a culture with an oral tradition are collected into a predominantly visual archive? How can such an archive serve to restore such artifacts, if not to their native context, then to at least some functional mode of communication? These fundamental problems of knowledge acquisition, visual representation (both ethnographic and aesthetic), and historiography permeate Gala Porras-Kim’s “An Index and Its Histories,” the final iteration of a three-part project dealing with the Proctor Stafford Collection at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). The collection is largely comprised of what are thought to be burial figurines and vessels from Colima, Nayarit, and Jalisco on Mexico’s Pacific Coast, dating from 200 BCE—500 CE. For the group exhibition “A Universal History of Infamy” at LACMA, Porras-Kim tackled the naming conventions in cataloging the collection. The second part dealt with known contexts and issues of provenance, symbolically repatriating the Nayarit pieces through an exhibition at LABOR in Mexico City. For Commonwealth and Council, Porras-Kim studies the formal vocabulary of objects found in Jalisco and offers parallels from our contemporary visual lexicon. Her graphite drawings and ceramic sculptures of stacked arrangements suggest an incipient language through which the congruence of shapes leads to mnemonic devices that generate sound.
The 235 diverse west Mexican ceramics acquired by LACMA in 1986 from Proctor Stafford have been collectively grouped under his name. Porras-Kim took this seemingly straightforward archival move as a provocation to delve into the naming practices and cataloging methods at the institution, interrogating how a western collector’s name comes to identify such a heterogeneous group of indigenous artifacts. For the group exhibition “A Universal History of Infamy,” Porras-Kim cataloged the “109 west Mexico ceramics from the LACMA collection: Colima Index,” ordering the ceramics from this region by scale to reveal them in a strictly empirical light. This index was presented along with six clay sculptures created by the artist using shapes commonly found in the Colima ceramics, each outfitted with a GPS tracking device. Unlike the artifacts on which they are based, Porras-Kim’s ceramics will continuously generate information as to location/movement, hardwiring the importance of precise data to both historical accuracy and responsible cultural stewardship.
Provenance, or known context, is the central issue of “An Index and Its Settings” at LABOR. Here, Porras-Kim’s visual index of the Nayarit pieces compliments her large-format graphite drawing “78 West Mexican Ceramics in a Grave,” depicting these objects in their original setting: an underground grave. In counterpoint, groups of multi-headed animals, figures with hands raised, and seated nudes derived from the Nayarit visual lexicon appear on mantels, in reference to Stafford’s claim that prior to their acquisition by LACMA as works of art, the ceramics had served as decorations. Porras-Kim thus traces the artifacts from their excavation in burial chambers and across various sojourns in private and public collections, ultimately repatriating them through the exhibition itself.
“An Index and Its Histories” contends directly with the possibility of using what little is ultimately known about the ceramics—the bare facts of their objecthood (shape and size)—as a starting point to inquire into their unknown or even unknowable dimensions. Accompanying an index of the Jalisco ceramics, Porras-Kim’s drawings and sculptures examine the formal vocabulary of the original objects. Just as the artifacts depict the quotidian life of their indigenous makers, the new pieces refer to our visual vernacular—acrobats, dogs, fruits, and vegetables. Expanding on the implicit formal modularity of the stacked objects, Porras-Kim develops her forms in quasi-syntactical chains. In this exploratory lexical context, the sculptures can be arranged through repetition and recombination in complex sequences, or sentences. We can begin to imagine patterns—not only syntax but speech—emerging from the various indices. The proposed composite forms transmute into a tonal language that allows the artifacts to speak once more from their empirical form. Porras-Kim thus suggests an alternate historical account in which what we see is not just an image, but the building blocks for a phonetic language—to be read, sounded out, and ultimately spoken.