Time Out New York / May 7–13, 2009

John Outterbridge

Coming straight outta Compton, 76-year-old John Outterbridge reflects on his experience as an African-American resident of the storied Los Angeles 'hood with lyricism of a rather different stripe than that of local gangsta rappers. Drawing on the folk-art traditions of his heritage, and using the flotsam and jetsam of the street, Outterbridge constructs modestly scaled but richly allusive assemblages that transcend their contemporary origins while avoiding parody and pretense.

A venerated local mentor (he was a longtime director of the Watts Towers Arts Center, and had a clearly discernible influence on the likes of David Hammons and Betye Saar), the artist has, unbelievably, never before exhibited solo in New York. This selection of works from the past two years is thus a special treat.

Adopting the look of ritualistic fetishes, Outterbridge's pieces might have been snatched from a shamanic toolkit. Dancer's Charm and Vertical Leap (both 2009) are typical. Enigmatic abstract charms cobbled together from irregular bits of metal, wood and fabric, they exhibit a quirky decorative charm that seems to veil a spiritual function. Figurative elements intercede from time to time; in Caged (2008), a diminutive figure sits inside a wooden hamster wheel, while the collections of bits 'n' bobs titled Portraits of Willie (2008) and I Mus Speak (2008) are crowned with tiny salt-and-pepper dreadlocks. Another recurring feature is the asafetida bag, a pouch of herbs designed to heal. In reclaiming and remixing the traditional and the modern, Outterbridge extracts magic from art and vice versa.

Image: John Outterbridge, Caged (detail), 2008