Art, Altruism and Social Action in 'The Pieces of Me'

“The Pieces of Me: L.A. GOAL,” a new exhibit at Los Angeles’s Skirball Cultural Center, inverts the challenge of most contemporary art shows.

Typically, genre-defying works by important-to-know names hang on a blank wall, demanding interpretation. A brief scholarly paragraph may accompany selected pieces, but the viewer must summon their own aesthetic lexicon to construct meaning and take something away from the experience. With “The Pieces of Me,” however, it is the unknown and non-professional artists who overcame significant obstacles to expression and interpretation — not by wooing curators or cultivating rarefied talents, but simply by working through developmental and perceptual disabilities to produce, at times, exceptional works.

L.A. GOAL is not an arts organization. The 41-year-old non-profit agency helps developmentally disabled adults in Los Angeles cultivate skill sets, and assists their families and caretakers. With this in mind, “The Pieces of Me” could read more as social action than as art. L.A. Goal’s mission “to create a more open society” and develop “the highest level of independence, employment, and inclusion in the community” for the developmentally disabled would be consonant with the larger aims of the Skirball Center, which highlights social initiatives at the intersection of Jewish and American values.

But to view L.A. GOAL only as altruism would miss the unique value of the artworks. The unifying theme of these 45 pieces, which include paintings, collage, ceramics and drawings, is simply personal history. According to this premise, each artist has written a text explaining his or her creation. These messages offer an affecting window into the inner worlds of people who have spent a lifetime navigating disruptions to the mental faculties that we assume necessary for basic communication, let alone artistic expression.

Alongside his painting “The Core of Me,” Neal Cooper writes: “One of my first projects was a mask — there was no body. This is just a body. I put aside thoughts and ideas and words that come too rapidly or are difficult to understand.” These messages, with their arresting directness and tangible self-consciousness, offer the opposite of the standard text that accompanies formal artworks. One can viscerally feel the artists putting themselves on the line. Some viewers may take the texts as maudlin or elementary, but there is something fundamentally artistic about the words in the context of this project.

The works also take us through the important family relationships that guide L.A. GOAL’s members, portraying their forebears’ journeys from Ireland, China, Africa, Mexico and Sweden. Religious themes are prevalent in works such as Adrienne Finkel’s “Shabbat” and Joe Allen’s portrait “The Minister.” There are also reconstructed memories of previous homes far from Los Angeles: Japan, Russia and the Louisiana bayou. Constantine Fama’s “The Offering” depicts the palm trees of her native Philippines with orange, red, purple, yellow and green leaves, matching the colors of a basket of local fruit being offered to a woman seated beneath the palm fronds. “I believe it is important to honor someone by offering a gift. If I could, I would give treasure,” Fama writes.

In “A Long Trip,” a road of nails is hammered into a wood background through a route of remade postcards showing family origins and hoped-for destinations. “I don’t want to stay in one place,” its maker, D’Marcus Baptist, writes. “I want to make things happen.”

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Art, Altruism and Social Action in 'The Pieces of Me'

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