Los Angeles Poverty Department @ Armory Center for the Arts

By Hyunjee Nicole Kim

As hordes of youthful “creatives” both scrape by and prosper in revitalized cities, shouldn’t we ask ourselves what is at stake in our enthusiastic colonization? We don’t find time to take note of the poverty problem, the Skid Row problem, the homeless problem — unsavory local and historical issues that the fresh-faced and eager find difficult to confront. So what happens when those questions are tackled internally by those who understand the struggle of homelessness and poverty most clearly? An exhibition at Pasadena’s Armory Center for the Arts titled, Do you want the cosmetic version or the real deal? chronicles the radical efforts of the Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD), a community organization and performance group, comprising homeless or formerly homeless individuals, established by artist-activist John Malpede in 1985. The LAPD aims to be completely inclusive, to absorb others not accepted by other organizations “because they don’t act right,” in order to reflect the opinions of the deeply marginalized, as well as to provide an outlet for artists who have no physical space to create.

 Photo by Jeff McLane, courtesy of the Armory Center for the Arts.

Photo by Jeff McLane, courtesy of the Armory Center for the Arts.

The LAPD maintains a small archival space in Downtown Los Angeles, but the temporary exhibition is being hosted in the Armory’s Caldwell Gallery, which has the trappings of a respected white cube (retrofit, naturally), exposed ceiling and all. There’s a paradox introduced, of course, by this presentation of scummy Skid Row in lovely, leafy Pasadena, and by a ramshackle troupe showing in an established community arts hub. There’s also the marked irony of “LAPD,” an acronym shared with the oft-ruthless body that enforces and perpetuates the astonishing pain already associated with homelessness. But this exhibition juxtaposes these contradictions in a telling way, highlighting the absurdities, frustrations and gratification of making art where one expects none.

The exhibition opens with a timeline, which kicks off with a one-minute video of the performer LeRoy “Sunshine” Mills addressing his participation in the group as an act of therapy, declaring his lack of interest in substance abuse and his desire to be a writer. Beginning in 1891, the timeline indicates significant events that shaped the Los Angeles neighborhood of Skid Row. The handwritten labels become more numerous, the press clippings and various legal notices more densely packed, as time surges to the present. A shopping cart is positioned in the corner of the entrance, through which the timeline passes. Visitors must awkwardly skirt around the vehicle to read the fine print. It’s a brilliant curatorial move, forcing the viewer to challenge her own privilege and mimicking encounters with the homeless on the street. The timeline runs into a room showcasing early LAPD work from the 1980s and 1990s, including documented performances, scripts and ephemera. A tour of Skid Row from 1988, featuring Mills, Frank Christian and Javier Serrano, illustrates how homelessness tends to strike the institutionally oppressed of American society. Racial minorities. So-called sexual deviants. The disease-stricken and drug-addled. The formerly incarcerated.

I was mesmerized by “LAPD Rehearsal (Lyn Tars),” a short clip from 1991 never intended to be a complete work. The opening bars of Madonna’s “Holiday” trill tinnily and an attractive black woman begins dancing, synchronizing her body to the beat. The song fades out, and she starts talking; her hips pump forward and backward; her arms cross and uncross in front of her beaming face. The flash of her silvery outfit contrasts with a fuzzy rainbow background. The soft electromagnetic waves flicker: Tars is literally incandescent. Her girlish voice is confident, relaying a story about “one particular guy” who sexually assaulted her. Tars, who resided on Skid Row and worked as an exotic dancer, radiates enormous charisma while recounting her story. The wall label informs us that she was murdered shortly after the rehearsal was filmed, but she is memorialized through this video, her presence immortalized.

Aside from its local projects, LAPD has pursued national and international collaborations, sustaining an effort to deconstruct the pejorative language and hypocritical postures that plague discussions of homelessness and to shake off the prejudices that develop in turn. Do you want the cosmetic version or the real deal? attempts an exhaustive catalog of the LAPD’s thirty-plus years, which contributes at times to the unwieldiness characteristic of many retrospectives, but one would be hopeless to leave without understanding the organization’s self-determination and spark. Abandoned — this term is not hyperbole — the members of LAPD have interrupted a willful legacy of ignorance and produced an oeuvre that thwarts our pitiless historical trajectory.

Do you want the cosmetic version or the real deal? Los Angeles Poverty Department, 1985-2016

Do you want the cosmetic version or the real deal? Los Angeles Poverty Department, 1985-2016 runs in the Caldwell Gallery of the Armory Center for the Arts from January 24 through May 15, 2016. A new LAPD work and installation, "What Fuels Development?” will be performed March 25 and 26, April 1, 2, and 3.

Hyunjee Nicole Kim is a writer / editor living in Los Angeles.