Just about every day around sunrise, artist Lauren Halsey goes to South Central Los Angeles to collect things.
She collects everything she notices along the way and takes pictures with her phone. Those finds, along with the ephemera she’s been saving by making collages since her teens (magazine clippings, church figurines, glossy foil palm trees, miniature cars, aquarium plants), fill every corner of Halsey’s Los Angeles studio, gradually making their way to her artwork.
Now the latest versions of those creations are on display at David Kordansky’s new gallery in Chelsea in a show that opened Friday, the artist’s first major solo exhibition in New York City.
“I document intersections that I have to return to or follow,” Halsey said in a recent interview at the gallery, where she was installing the show. “I have to archive this thing or this person or this place or this ghost. Some days are easier than others – I find a business card. Other days I find a whole Sphinx. Or I find a statue that turns my world upside down.”
“I’m an obsessive collector of objects, of images – I scan the streets,” she added. “I’ve been collecting for as long as I can breathe.”
Dressed in a camouflage baseball cap, purple fleece jacket and white high tops, Halsey exudes a low-key yet focused energy. You can see why she wakes up early and stays up late — “I’ve got so much to do” — and why a job isn’t done until a deadline forces her to quit. “I can just keep going,” Halsey said. “I can keep adding layers.”
With her installations, Halsey honors the community that nurtured and inspired her – not just her mother, a teacher or her father, an accountant, but also the church, the convenience stores, her bus route, her relatives and community centers. It also documents a particular segment of society and elevates an urban vernacular that is often devalued or ignored.
At a time when many black artists are recognized for figurative art, Halsey creates large-scale sculptures and reliefs. And although her installations refer to economic hardship, gentrification or gang violence, they radiate an explosive sense of joy.
“She’s not trying to unravel racism, she’s just trying to celebrate Blackness,” said artist Charles Gaines, who taught Halsey when she was a student at the California Institute of the Arts. “She’s trying to bring things into the realm of art that are thought to be low culture, things that are victims of a certain stereotype.”
Halsey has achieved fame and fame that is rare for an artist of only 34 years. Her work is already in the collections of major institutions such as the Hammer Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami; and the Studio Museum in Haarlem.
This year she was selected by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for the prestigious roof garden contract, but has been postponed until next spring due to supply chain issues. (The rooftop will instead be used as a place to sit and grab snacks this summer, with local DJs hosting dance parties on weekend nights.)
Halsey may have become as well known for her activism as she is for her art, namely the Los Angeles community center she started that became a major food supply during the pandemic, and her policy of ensuring some of her art is sold to collectors. of color.
“Lauren is a builder—a builder of art, a builder of objects, but also a builder of community,” said Thelma Golden, the director of the Studio Museum, where Halsey stayed in 2014. “In that really powerful combination is where its deep meaning lies.”
For the Kordansky show, Halsey has created sprawling sculptures populated by her collectibles in her neighborhood’s palette: bright pink, orange, green, yellow; painted boxes inspired by local signs and symbols; and what she calls caves, including one with a functioning waterfall that she eventually plans to take home for kids to enjoy.
The neighborhood is clearly the fuel behind Halsey’s work, which is the collage of symbols she described as her own form of placemaking, such as advertisements for batteries or tissues.
“All of these things demystify what’s in store,” Halsey said. “It’s important to archive not only the company name, but the painterly decisions they make to communicate to the neighborhood how they are organizing the minimarket.”
She pays tribute to the unsung workers in local organizations who make a difference in people’s lives every day, calling her “employees, the most brilliant role models for community leaders.” For example, Halsey mentions the Sisters of Watts, which offer after-school programs, and Vanessa’s Positive Energy, which offers dance classes.
“People do the work — from providing Easter baskets to food to karate to tickets to the sports games to all the educational support,” she said. “The problem is the infrastructure that makes it so difficult to do the job. But the work is being done.”
“They’re total pillars to me — they’re monuments in themselves,” she added. “I work closely with them. I’m lucky.”
The people who have populated her life find their way into her work, such as the mother of her best friend from Mississippi or Franco Gaskin, also known as “Franco the Great” or the “Picasso of Harlem”; she always passed him on the way to the Studio Museum.
She described these personal references as inside jokes: “Oh, that reminds me of Sister Jenkins, oh, that’s Sister Fritz, oh, that’s Brother Washington,” Halsey said. “I can use these tangents over and over again.”
Halsey eventually plans to bring her Met rooftop installation, dubbed “the eastside of south central los angeles hieroglyph prototype architecture (I),” to South Central. The piece invites visitors to explore connections between ancient Egyptian symbolism, 1960s utopian architecture, and contemporary visual iconography.
“I just felt she had the tenacity and the resilience and the guts to handle the attitude the way Doris Salcedo handled the Tate; she took on the institution and everything it stands for,” said Sheena Wagstaff, the Met’s chair for modern and contemporary art. “That’s what I felt Lauren was able to do — poke at it, explore.”
Born in Los Angeles in 1987, Halsey initially wanted to be a professional basketball player and dreamed of playing for University of Tennessee coach Pat Summitt as Lady Vol. But she was not recruited and, having enjoyed creating sets for church performances, began taking architecture classes at a community college in Torrance, California. After that, she studied architecture at the California College of the Arts for about a year, but became frustrated with the formulaic nature and air plans of the studio courses.
“I can go crazy and make Disneyland, but that’s just not the reality or where I’m from,” she said, “otherwise I would have seen it.”
Halsey transferred to CalArts in Santa Clarita, where she received her bachelor of fine arts in 2012 before receiving her master’s degree from Yale University in 2014. Seeing Halsey’s work at CalArts, Golden recalled, “My first reaction was a of utter awe.”
“She formed a deep and profound vocabulary,” Golden added. “It was rooted in her biography, her sense of place, her sense of identity. From that first viewing, it was already clear to me that it was about so much more.”
In 2018, Halsey was featured in Hammer’s “Made in LA” biennale, where Kordansky was impressed by her work. “Lauren is one of the most important contemporary artists to come out of Los Angeles, California in the past decade,” Kordansky said. “She documents her birthplace, her community and place of origin, but she does it through this extraordinary vision of Pedro Bell, who made all the early Parliament-Funkadelic records. The fantastic and the visionary collide with the real.”
Somehow, Halsey has managed to reconcile her commercial success with the more challenged world she came from – largely by giving back. Her Summaeverythang community center, which offers organic products to residents of Watts and South Central Los Angeles, aims to “develop Black and Brown empowerment,” the website says, “personally, politically, economically and socioculturally.”
“It would be crazy of me to do this work about South Central that exists within a marketplace and not recirculate or recycle the rewards of that work to the neighborhood and to the people who should benefit most from it,” she said. . “I can accomplish a lot in a sculpture, but that’s not a tutoring program, that’s not a food program.”
She also said she doesn’t see her neighborhood through “the lens of darkness or constant trauma.” Instead, Halsey said, she sees its beauty and its humanity: the fertile soil from which she continues to draw as an artist.
Halsey counts among her biggest influences the artists Betye Saar, Overton Loyd, Mike Kelley, Dominique Moody and Mark Bradford. Ultimately, she said, for her, art is about “getting down to the depths or the bones of what I care about,” what she said the singer and artist George Clinton calls “going for your funk.”
But don’t ask her to explain exactly what funk means. “I wouldn’t define it because once you define it, it’s dead — you packed it, you flattened it,” Halsey said. “It’s an energy, it’s a life force, it’s something I look for every day.”