Noah Purifoy & a community of admirers

On Sunday a few weekends ago, I had a wonderful, unexpected experience at LACMA.  I’d like to write more about this later, but I’ve been wanting to get it down in a post, however draft-like this post may be.

Marlene and I went to see the Ingres Madonna and Sam Doyle’s painting of Jackie Robinson from the 50 for 50 exhibit, and then to visit the Noah Purifoy exhibit again.   I had fallen in love with Purifoy’s work when we visited his Outdoor Museum in Joshua Tree at spring break.  We enjoyed the Last Supper, which, with its 13 sardine tins, calls powerfully to mind the image of Jesus as a minister to the poor, sick, and outcast.  We marveled again at the assemblage titled Summer of 1965 that features a “meticulous arrangement of photos, pigments, a skull and various objects” and juxtaposes an idyllic tourist image of the Golden Gate Bridge with images from the wreckage of the Watts Riots.  I sat and watched the documentary that was playing on a loop and had a reverie at the idea of going to the Purifoy Outdoor Museum and actually seeing the artist there working on his creations.

As we were looking at the last room, almost ready to leave, suddenly we heard a trombone. We had seen instruments in the room with the portrait of musician Earl Fatha Hines, but I had assumed they were part of the exhibit.  (Marlene confirmed later that the instruments were not there when we first saw the exhibit in the summer.)

We wandered over to the first room of the exhibit, where an older gentleman was soloing on the trombone and three young people were performing a dance.  The trombonist, who I learned later was Phil Ranelin, was positioned as if he was soloing to one of the Purifoy assemblages.  It was incredibly moving, and it got better.

The dancers moved into the next room, and Ranelin followed.  There was a bass line, as well, which I assumed was recorded; there was no bass player in sight.  The dancers performed a piece that riffed off another of the Purifoy pieces; one of the men gestured as if he was trying to cool himself off, while the other male dancer and the female dancer fanned him.  They backed away from the art, still metaphorically on fire.  Meanwhile, Ranelin soloed in front of another Purifoy piece.

Finally, the dancers and Ranelin moved into the other room, where we saw that the bass was live;  the bassist had been playing in this room the whole time.  (I don’t know for certain but I think the bassist was Wendall Williams, who, according to my brief online research, has been a frequent collaborator with Ranelin.)

It is difficult to explain how beautiful this performance was.  Especially when Ranelin soloed in front of and facing the art, I felt as though these talented performers were honoring this artist, an artist whom I of course never met but have come to admire deeply.  I felt as though I were part of a community of admirers.

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