The following is an audio tour made for the exhibition Milton Davis and Vickie Uyeda: Common Ground, which was on view at The Main from July 8 - September 2, 2018. To hear the audio for each section, click the accompanying audio file. The texts are transcriptions of the audio files.
Listen to the full playlist of 9 audio tracks here. Scroll down to view the transcripts with individual tracks and artwork images.
Hello, and welcome. I’m Allison Agsten, director of The Main Museum of Los Angeles Art. The Main is an institution that solely exhibits art by Los Angeles artists like Vickie Uyeda and Milton Davis, whose works are on view now. Several features of this exhibition are tailored for accessibility. Before we get started with our tour, I’d like to tell you about these features.
In this show, Milton Davis and Vickie Uyeda: Common Ground, we’ve hung all the works a bit lower to accommodate those who use wheelchairs or who are of shorter stature. Additionally, the art on the rear wall has been mounted significantly lower than is standard at most museums. With the center of the work being no higher than 40 inches above the floor, these paintings and drawings were installed specifically to be at an ideal height for looking while sitting. We also offer visual description tours in both Spanish and English. All materials in our space are available in both languages, including this audio tour. Printed materials use a large type size to aid those with low vision.
This tour is a little different from a typical museum audio tour. Today we’ll be learning about the works on view using the method of visual description. Visual description tours are typically offered for those with low vision or those who need help organizing and digesting visual information. People of all abilities will find that visual description can be a great way to think about art. Even as I was writing this tour, I found that I was engaging with the work in a more-focused way, taking note of the smallest details and how they impacted the overall composition of the work. We hope you enjoy listening to this tour and thinking about the art on view through the lens of visual description.
This tour starts with an introduction to our building and the exhibition. We’ll then cover six works in depth. We’ll be together for about half an hour.
Let’s start this tour by orienting you with the building and our surroundings. The Main Museum is located in Downtown Los Angeles, on 4th Street between Spring Street to the west and Main Street to the east. The Main’s entrance faces north. The museum is sited on a block that is lined with buildings dating from the early 20th century. We’re right in the middle of Downtown LA, which, in contrast to much of the rest of the city, feels as what you’d expect the “downtown” of a city to be like. There is plenty of historic architecture; the nearby structures top out at about a dozen stories and feature materials like brick and granite, as well as decorative cornices and other flourishes characteristic of a bygone time. This part of 4th Street is quite scenic and in fact is often used as a backdrop for film and TV shoots set in different eras, especially between the 1920s and 50s. You might be able to tell that we’re in the heart of the city by the ambient and discernable traffic sounds outside. Our bustling street also receives a lot of foot traffic, and we’re happy to report that most of our visitors are walk-ins.
The façade of The Main has been painted light gray, like the color of cement. This makes the building feel both modern yet within the palette of the other old buildings on the street. We have a lovely awning above our front door that is approximately 14 feet wide and cantilevers 8 feet over the sidewalk. This flat overhang features ornate, grapevine-like wrought iron decoration on either side, which contrasts with the minimalist-looking, gridded underside that has seventeen rows of ten lights. Each bulb is round and about the size of a large cherry tomato. In the evening, the lights are a distinguishing feature of the façade.
The double door entrance underneath the awning is all glass and placed right at the center of the building’s façade. Equidistant on each side of the entrance are large glass windows that look into The Main. Each window is about 12 feet wide, or twice the width of the double door entrance you’ve just passed through. The windows are the same height as the entrance doorway, but they’re placed about 3 feet off the ground. They let in plenty of natural light and tell passersby that this is a transparent and porous place that’s open to everyone. As people walk by, they often look in. On the right-hand side of the entrance, there’s a metal ramp that provides accessibility into the building.
This building was built between 1903 and 1906 and, in the best way, you can feel its age when you are inside. We are fortunate to have 14 foot high ceilings in our 3,500 square foot space. That height, paired with the crisp white walls, gives the gallery a bright and airy quality. The space can be described as split equally into vertical thirds, with two rows of three columns each running down the middle. The columns have seen wear over their years and show signs of cosmetic deterioration. Their four corners aren’t always terribly sharp, and the columns are topped with lovely old capitals, some of which are also chipped. There is also crown molding that runs along the top edge of the walls at the intersection of the ceiling. Perhaps the most distinguishing architectural feature of The Main is its ceiling decks. In years past, when repairs were made to the pipes and wiring located above the ceiling, workers would simply cut enormous holes, fix the problem, and leave the ceilings open. Because of this, we have 14 large holes in a grid up above. They are framed by ceiling beams and reveal the inner workings of the building—mostly pipes. Feel free to stomp a foot or clap to get a sense of how sound reverberates in the space. You may even want to say “Main Museum” aloud a few times to explore how your voice resonates.
Also take note of the floors, which are covered with beautiful old tile that we discovered during renovation two years ago. There are borders, sometimes mismatched, in a pattern called Greek Key. One area to the right of the entrance has black and white tiles but mostly this detail work is light blue. We filled in with concrete the areas where there are missing tiles. If you are able, you might want to bend down to feel the texture of these small tiles, which are one inch deep by one inch wide. In other areas, the tiles are larger at three by three inches. Like a carpet rolled out for your welcome, larger cream-colored tiles run down the center third of the space, flanked by the columns I mentioned earlier. A ceramic pot sits at the front of each of the two columns closest to the entrance mounted midway up like sphinxes. Twenty-four paintings and drawings are hung on the walls except on the front left-hand side, where we have our welcome desk. Further back on the left wall sits a defunct elevator which we learned is technically a dumbwaiter. It looks like a cage, with interwoven wires on the top half of its front. It is painted white, like everything else in the space aside from the floors. The rear wall is eight feet high by 32 feet wide. Above it are floor-to-ceiling glass walls that are 7 feet high. They give a peek into our mezzanine gallery, which is currently closed.
Before we discuss the individual works in the show, I’d like to tell you about the artists and the exhibition.
This exhibition explores the work of two artists, Milton Davis, who was born in 1949 in Arkansas, and Vickie Uyeda, who was born in 1958 not far from here, in Beverly Hills. The artists make vibrant, complex drawings and paintings that range from serene depictions of the natural world to portraiture with an emphasis on pop culture. Davis’s work, which features forms created from tightly patterned lines and circles, is inspired by textile and folk art as well as the African diaspora. His approach to mark making reflects not only the fastidious character of his practice but is also the result of a condition that affects the joints in his hands. Uyeda’s sumptuous, expressive paintings use color in unexpected ways and—with their layered richness—possess a tactile quality. Her renderings of well-known figures like John Wayne and Dennis Rodman transcend conventional depictions, appearing sinister or heroic, respectively. And as with all of Uyeda’s subjects, these men return the viewer’s gaze with an unnervingly, penetrating stare.
Both Davis and Uyeda have been active for decades in the Exceptional Children’s Foundation Art Centers Program, or ECF, which has been creating artistic opportunities for adults with developmental disabilities across Los Angeles since 1968. Artists in ECF’s Art Centers create in a studio environment modeled after professional art studios, with mentorship by highly trained art instructors. ECF is the only organization of its kind in California that offers a full continuum of lifespan services for children and adults with special needs and developmental disabilities. As ECF’s longest participating artist, Davis has spent five days a week for the last 50 years honing his practice at ECF’s South LA and Westside Art Centers. Uyeda has participated in the ECF Art Centers since 2004.
This exhibition is curated by my colleague and curatorial associate here at The Main, Monica Rodriguez, and me, Allison Agsten, The Main’s director.
We’ll start our tour with a selection of works by Milton Davis that are hanging on the wall to the right as you enter the space. There are seven framed drawings of varying sizes on this side of the gallery; all are framed in one-inch-wide white frames with one-inch white mat inside between the outer frame and the artwork. The frames both protect the artworks and focus your attention to them.
Milton Davis, Untitled
Milton Davis made “Untitled” in 2000. It is a work done in ink and pen on paper and measures twenty-six and a half inches high by twenty inches wide. Here, the artist returns to a subject he has revisited again and again in his practice: mother and child.
A mother is depicted from mid-hip up holding a baby, who appears to be a year old, perhaps a little less. The pair are centered in the drawing, and they occupy most of the field, which is a plain white background. The baby sits perched on the mother’s left forearm, which is bent at the elbow. Her right arm is also bent, and the hand of this arm extends up and upon the child’s back. The thumb on this hand is not visible, but we can guess that it is between her body and the baby. She is securing the child with this hand. There is a real intimacy between the pair. The baby’s head is nestled to the neck of the mother. The child looks out directly at the viewer with a world-weary expression that seems to say, I see you too. The relationship between mother and child cannot be breached. The mother’s gaze is elsewhere, her eyes looking up. There is an ever so slight rosy wash of paint on the left corner of her mouth.
This image is striking for its graphic quality. The artist uses black pen on white paper, creating a lot of contrast, with only very gentle peach-toned water color shading the skin. The baby’s hair is made by connecting hundreds of tiny circles, giving the effect of tight curls, closely cropped. Both the baby and the mother, whose hair is not visible under a turban, are adorned in clothing made from African textiles. The mother wears a collared dress with elbow-length sleeves and in a fabric that matches her head covering. The baby wears a tunic made of a differently patterned cloth. This patterning on the fabrics is perhaps the most distinguishing quality of this drawing. It is enormously detailed. The pattern on the mother’s dress features very thin ovals that look like the shape of almonds. They are positioned vertically and almost touch tip to tip in numerous lines that run up and down the dress. The ovals are filled in black and create a chainlike design along the length of the sleeves and body of the dress. These chains, which would probably be about an inch apart or less if they were printed on your shirt, are repetitively outlined in between one another. This same pattern runs horizontally down the mother’s turban. The baby’s tunic is boldly patterned with rows of black circles separated by rows of a triangle motif. Every other triangle in the pattern is inverted, and each triangle is filled with five or ten triangles inside of it. The fabrics worn by the mother and the child are extremely detailed; their complexity is magnified in the areas where their garments fold and drape: on the mother’s turban, on the loose fabric of the dress at her midsection, and on the back of the child. These patterns would be fascinating in any context, but they are even more dramatic against the simply drawn faces of the mother and the child.
Milton Davis, Trees in a Forest
Davis’s landscapes like this one ooze with mastery of his instrument – a black pen – and impress with the obvious labor required to make them. As with all of Davis’s work, there is a great deal of detail in this drawing, which took months to complete. It is one of his largest works at 24 inches high by 36 inches wide and is notable not only because of its scale but because it is made on wood, which is a departure from paper, Davis’s usual material. This is a recent work; the date on this drawing reads 04-25-18.
This drawing can be divided into seven horizontal bands. Imagine a cross section of earth, for example, the side of a desert cliff, that reveals fossilized soils from different eras. Stacked in contrast with one another, each of the “lines” is an impression of a period of time. Like in a geological textbook, the cross sections of earth are not always perfectly crisp or straight. In Davis’s drawings, there is a wavy, irregular delineation between one layer and the next. Starting from the top band, we observe a pale blue water color that is given dimension by the light-colored wood grain that shows through. Here, the grain enhances and supports the composition in a way that white paper would not. On the left-hand side, the blue is a little darker and ebbs a little as if to intimate clouds. A lighter blue comes in from the right to meet the darker blue in the middle, where they gently wash together. Beneath this skyscape is the second band, perhaps representing either the earth or clouds. It’s made up of closely knit lines, one after another after another like the lines that form our fingerprints. Davis loves dense lines, and we see that sensibility play out here. The third band is a band within a band. The sub-band, if you will, is a row of small trees with flat and narrow leafy tops – it almost looks like a fence. These tops are all connected and are made of countless black circles filled with green watercolor. This band is embedded within a band of natural, unpainted wood. The fifth band, similar to the second band, seems to represent earth or clouds and is made up of horizontal lines. The sixth and perhaps most impressive band is made up of ten large, irregularly shaped trees. Again, the leaves are rendered as tiny circles, thousands of them this time, filled with green. They undulate and connect with one another. Their trunks are substantially shorter than their lush leafy bonnets, and they sit, stump-like, on the final band of natural wood.
Milton Davis, Portrait of Yayoi Kusama
Titled “Portrait of Yayoi Kusama,” this work on paper incorporates different colored inks as well as watercolor paint. Milton Davis made this between 2015 and 2016. It is 15 inches high by 18 inches wide. As the title suggests, this is a portrait of the famous Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. She is depicted from mid-chest up and head on, as if looking directly back at the viewer. As a figure, she occupies the lower two thirds of the picture plane and is set against a true yellow background that is painted with watercolor. Perhaps the most riveting part of this work is Kusama’s signature haircut, which is fashioned into a bob with bangs, and in Davis’s vision, is made up of hundreds of tiny blue ink circles that are about the diameter of the head of a pin. The circles are not filled in, so the white of the paper shows through.
Nonetheless, the density of the dots creates such a mass that, at first glance, the hair reads as only blue, not blue and white. It is almost as if Kusama is wearing the most delicate chainmail atop her head. In real life, Kusama typically wears a bright red wig of this same style. Here, Davis has given her blue and light green eyebrows, and her lips are created with fine, dense lines instead of circles. Kusama is now 89 years old, and Davis’s depiction of the lines around her mouth, under her eyes, and her drooping eyelids tell us that this is a recent portrait of the artist. The simple black pen lines that create her facial features are set against a background of white paper. Kusama’s expression is the one that she typically wears, which can be described as almost totally blank, except for a set of very aware, almost alarmed wide eyes. In Davis’s depiction, her gaze is penetrating yet with less alertness than we usually encounter in photographs of her. Kusama is wearing a boatneck-style top painted red with seven large white circles on it, three of which are wholly visible and four of which are obscured because they are at the bottom of the painting or are part of the drape of the fabric. If we imagine that this work is composed in horizontal thirds, the yellow background dominates the top third, Kusama’s face and hair consume the central bar, and the red shirt with white polka dots occupies the lower third of the picture plane, nearly covering the entire width of the paper. The overall sense is that this figure holds the weight of the space.
Davis often creates circles that are tightly composed, as shown in this work. His choice of subject matter seems fitting, as Kusama herself is best known for circles, which appear regularly in her large body of work. Kusama’s circles are also often arranged very closely in what she describes as “infinity nets.” She commonly wears clothing patterned with giant dots, as seen in Davis’s depiction of her. Davis revisits subjects often and, as one of his favorite artists, Kusama appears in several of his other drawings that are not on view in this exhibition.
Vickie Uyeda, John Wayne
One of the most notable facets of Vickie Uyeda’s paintings is the vibrant and sometimes surprising colors she uses, many of which she mixes herself. Another key feature is her lavish brushwork. Made in 2017 and titled “John Wayne,” this depiction of the movie star is a departure from her typical style because the subject is depicted only with lines and only in one color—black. The difference is in large part a product of Uyeda’s method of creation—John Wayne is a 21 inches high by 16 inches wide lithograph print, rather than a painting.
John Wayne’s bust, or his upper body, floats in the center of the print, and the form takes up nearly the length and width of the paper it is printed on. Here, in Uyeda’s version of a film still, Wayne’s torso is slightly angled, with one shoulder leaning back and with that same arm bent and holding a small gun. Chin downward and eyes up, this is the position of a man ready and willing to shoot if he needs to. Wayne is in Western attire—a button-down shirt with a vest on top and a characteristic bandana around his neck. He also wears a cowboy hat, a signature accessory of the Hollywood star. The most detailed parts of this work—in other words, where most of the lines are clustered—is at the center and right-hand side of the print. Here, the artist emphasizes the drape of the actor’s bandana and vest. This tightly grouped linework provides a great contrast to the few simple lines that make up his hat and his face, the latter of which has an eerie, blank quality to it. Along with the gun in hand, Wayne’s almost blank face lends an ominous quality to this print. His eyes are especially haunting. The iris of his left eye is so close to his top eyelid that it almost appears as though that eye only has whites. The iris of his right eye looks more standard. He doesn’t have eyebrows. These characteristics evoke something of a zombie shooter and intentionally or not, recast Wayne as more bad guy than good guy.
Vickie Uyeda, Kitty come back
Titled “Kitty come back,” this painting of a cat by Uyeda is the largest of her works on view here—it’s twenty inches high by sixteen inches wide. The animal occupies four fifths of the paper, its head dominates the center of the painting, and its narrower chest and legs occupy the very bottom. The position of the cat’s head and the very erect sides of its body indicate that it is sitting, although we don’t see past mid-leg before the paper ends. The cat is cast against a black background. This work is created with acrylic paint and, compared with Davis’s work that we previously discussed, its surface has a dramatic texture. Davis uses ink and watercolors, which alter the texture of paper only minimally. Uyeda, on the other hand, uses acrylic paint, which is water soluble, but has a plastic base that, after it hardens and dries, literally turns into plastic. Acrylic is well-suited to the subject matter, as the paint can be applied to behave like cat fur. Similar to the way cake icing is thickly smeared, the paint used for this cat is viscous, and the lines made by Uyeda’s strokes with a brush function as a hairy and furry surface.
The standout feature of this painting is, without doubt, the cat’s outsized eyes. They are wide, two shades of green, and defined with black eyeliner, if you will. Surrounding the oblong blackish blue iris is a vibrant spring green, the color of a Granny Smith Apple. And surrounding that shade is a lighter, muted green that reminds you of mint ice cream. This animal wears a very evocative yet enigmatic expression. Do the wide eyes display fear or curiosity? Perhaps, as the black background suggests, the large size of the cat’s eyes allow it to let in the available light of the inky dark around it. The ears seem to give a clue. They are ever so slightly cocked back.
Moving downward on the body, a thin black collar peeks out of its tabby coat. Though this is a short-haired cat, the thick paint gives the cat’s fur a dense, plush quality. Your fingers might sink in an inch if you were holding this animal. Its body is gray, the sides of its mouth are whiter, and the chest is white. Black dots smudge to form lines on the top its head. The cat also has black markings atop the lighter paint on either side of its mouth. Uyeda is a lover of animals; a pair of her bird paintings as well as a painting of a frog and a tiger are also on view in this exhibition.
Vickie Uyeda, Dennis Rodman
At 23 inches high by 24 inches wide, this is one of Uyeda’s largest and most complex paintings. Made in 2015 and titled “Dennis Rodman,” it depicts the colorful former Chicago Bulls basketball player from the chest up. Uyeda has painted the athlete several times and is a big fan of his. Through Uyeda’s lens, Rodman is flamboyant as ever, the height of dark majesty, wearing a billowing yellow-edged red cape to match his red Bulls jersey. Starting from the top, Uyeda has painted a small bull head on the left corner in a yellow triangle. On the top right corner is a small cow head, also in a yellow triangle. These may be read as the devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other. Red intersecting squiggles outline the tops and sides of the yellow corners. A halo-like golden arc, broken intermittently by white lines, stretches the width of the painting, starting beneath the bull head, arching up, then coming back down beneath the cow head. Pinks and lavenders of varying shades occupy the inside of the arc. So too does Rodman’s head, topped with bleached hair and a gaze that is both diabolical and satisfied. A serpent-like red tail, banded with white and devilishly pointed at the end, winds back and forth in the halo-like feature. Along with Rodman’s head, the halo occupies the top third of the painting. In the middle of the painting, Rodman’s hands are folded just beneath his chin, and witchy nails, long and black, adorn each finger. The word “BULLS” peaks out from his intertwined fingers. The block letters are capitalized in black with a white outline. Flames fill the area beneath Rodman’s chest at the bottom of the painting. Atop the flames, Uyeda has painted this Bible verse, in all capital letters.
He will be a wild man his hand will be against every man and every man’s hand against him: Genesis 16:12
The text is an unusual feature of this painting, as Uyeda does not typically include such features in her work. A more common feature, and one that is a component of this portrait, is a painted border. Here, it is one and a half inches wide in light blue, a gentle contrast to the assertive colors used in the rest of the image. Rodman’s face, for example, is made up of orange cheeks, which are outlined in yellow to suggest the contours of his face. His skin is brown with dark red highlighting under his eyes and between his red lips and black goatee. His arms are purple and brown, but more purple than brown. In real life, Rodman is in fact quite colorful and known to dye his hair often, wear flamboyant outfits, and wear makeup occasionally.
This activity was supported in part by the California Arts Council, a state agency, and the National Arts and Disability Center at the University of California Los Angeles.