Through her films, objects, and installations, Los Angeles-based artist Cauleen Smith envisions a world that is black, feminist, spiritual, and unabashedly alive. Smith roots her work firmly within the discourse of mid-twentieth-century experimental film but operates in multiple materials and arenas. With this exhibition, she revises the coercive threat, “take it or leave it,” and proposes a new rule for a better world: create something, offer it, and gift it—regardless of whether the gesture is accepted or rejected. “Give it or leave it” is a rule for the self, not an ultimatum for the other, born of generosity, hospitality, and selflessness.
Featuring new films and banners, a site-specific light installation, and sculptural works, Give It or Leave It interweaves four distinct historical universes: Alice Coltrane (1937–2007) and her California ashram; a 1966 photo shoot by Bill Ray (b.1936) at Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers; Noah Purifoy (1917–2004) and his desert assemblages; and black spiritualist Rebecca Cox Jackson (1795–1871) and her Shaker community in Philadelphia. These locations, while not technically utopian societies, embody a spirit of speculation, self-determination, and radical generosity between artist and community.
The figures referenced by Smith do not turn their backs on the here and now: each exploration served as antidote to a pervasive hopelessness perceived in American society. This defiantly aspirational energy drives the exhibition, activating a historical cosmos to reimagine the future.
Cauleen Smith (American, b. 1967, Riverside, California) is an interdisciplinary artist, whose work reflects upon the everyday possibilities of the imagination. Drawing from structuralism, Third World Cinema, and science fiction, she makes things that deploy the tactics of these disciplines, while offering a phenomenological experience for spectators and participants. Her films, objects, and installations have been featured in numerous group exhibitions, including those at the Studio Museum in Harlem; the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston; the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco; the 2017 Whitney Biennial; Prospect.4, New Orleans; the New Museum, New York; D21, Leipzig; and Decad, Berlin. Smith has had solo shows of films and installations at The Kitchen, New York; the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago; the Art Institute of Chicago; and Threewalls, Chicago. She earned her BA in Creative Arts from San Francisco State University and her MFA from the University of California, Los Angeles’s School of Theater, Film, and Television. Smith teaches in the School of Art at CalArts.
Support for the exhibition has been provided by The Ellsworth Kelly Award. The Ellsworth Kelly Award made possible by The Ellsworth Kelly Foundation and the Foundation for Contemporary Arts. Additional support has been provided by B.Z. & Michael Schwartz, Meredith & Bryan Verona, and Susan Weiler.
The installation at the Frye Art Museum is overseen by Amanda Donnan, curator. Media sponsorship is provided by The Stranger.