Panel illuminates ‘Now Dig This!’

The latest exhibition at the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA), “Now Dig This!” is a collection of multimedia art by black artists working in Los Angeles from the 1960s to the 1980s. Art Forum has credited the showing with the 2011-12 award for Best Exhibition. Dr. Kellie Jones, a guest curator at the museum and head curator for “Now Dig This!”, led a panel discussion at WCMA on Thursday night with featured artists Alonzo Davis, Maren Hassinger and Ian White. Jones began with a brief acknowledgement to artist Cecil Ferguson, who passed away the previous day at the age of 82 and whose art can be seen in the exhibit.

The lively Jones continued the night’s discussion by asking about the influences for each artist and proceeded to hand the microphone to Davis, a tall bearded man with a serious but congenial demeanor. Sitting back in his chair, Davis spoke of the culture shock he experienced moving from Alabama to Los Angeles as a young man. Most notably, he mentioned the geographical change and his rough introduction to the racially diverse streets of Los Angeles.

Davis also discussed his time studying at Pepperdine, emphasizing his disillusionment with their art department’s focus on nearly entirely western art. “I learned more from travel and seeing than I ever could in a Pepperdine classroom,” Davis said. He then continued into a story about the time he took a road trip across the U.S. with his brother in a Volkswagen beetle.

Hessinger took control of the microphone next. She joked about her time at Bennington College, drawing a few laughs from the crowd before explaining more seriously her influences at UCLA as a graduate student in their studio art program. Hessinger revealed she was the first at UCLA to earn a degree in fiber structure and touched on the difficulties of being an African-American woman in the art profession in the 1960s and 1970s before discussing her personal evolution of using fibers in 3D sculpture.

White, son of famous African-American social realist artist Charles White, was the last to comment. Considerably younger than Davis or Hessinger, White sat with his legs crossed in a wrinkled white shirt and slicked back ponytail. White expressed his gratitude of growing up “art privileged” as a child and conveyed his struggle with “always having to justify [his] foundation as an artist.” He was once told by a friend of his father to disregard fame as an artist and enjoy his own creativity. He has used that piece of advice as a major influence throughout his career.

From there, the microphone was passed around the panel for them to share stories. Davis, who seemed to be the most active in the social revolution in Los Angeles at the time, remarked that the social revolution was simply “blowing the top off a pot of boiling water.” Hessinger spoke about the difficulty of finding a Los Angeles gallery that would feature her art, criticizing the covert racism still present in the art world. Davis, who claims he is now “out of the [art] business,” made sure to casually mention the time he sold some of his work to Bill Cosby.

One man in the crowd asked how the art in “Now Dig This!” reflects on the social conditions in Los Angeles at the time, to which Davis replied, “That depends on if your approach to the exhibit is academic, grass roots, intellectual or revolutionary.” All of the artists agreed that more often their work took on greater activist symbolism afterwards than initially intended.

Hessinger specifically used her sculpture of rope and chain, which is featured in the collection. She recalls a simple artistic thought process when creating the work and only later was she conscious of the allusion to slavery implicit in this piece.

“Now Dig This!” will continue to be on display at WCMA for the majority of the semester.