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News and culture through the lens of Southern California. Hosted by A Martínez

'SKIN' exhibition tackles race through art

by Take Two

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"41 Objects Arranged By Color" by Ken Gonzales-Day, now on display at "Skin" at the LA Municipal Art Gallery through April 17, 2016. Courtesy of the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles

It can be tough to have a conversation about race. Oftentimes, it's controversial and in your face.

But one way to explore how we feel about race in a more thoughtful way might be through art.

The Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery has debuted a new exhibition SKIN now on display through April 17th.

One piece by artist April Bey is different shades of brown smeared in vertical stripes against the canvas, inviting you to put your own hand against it to see where it fits on the spectrum. But the captions above and below change from words like "articulate" to "abrasive" as the shades get darker.

A piece by artist April Bey. KPCC's Leo Duran holds up his own hand to see what adjectives are associated with his skin tone.
A piece by artist April Bey. KPCC's Leo Duran holds up his own hand to see what adjectives are associated with his skin tone. Leo Duran/KPCC

"You do look for where you fit in," says SKIN curator Isabelle Lutterodt of the work, one of the many that are intentionally interactable. "Oftentimes where we fit in is based on who we are, what we look like."

The idea for the exhibition came about in conversations with her staff, and how to be a part of the national conversation on race and politics.

"When talking about race and identity, it's too easy to do a drive-by," she says. "We wanted moments of deep reflection."

Artist Ken Gonzales-Day contributed his own piece, "41 Objects Arranged by Color," as a way to explore how skin tone has been portrayed in sculpture through history.

The work, stretched across a massive canvass nearly the size of a billboard, organizes various busts and figures on a spectrum based on skin tone.

"Part of it was thinking about the changing way that skin signifies racial difference in Western European sculptural traditions," he says. "Even in the spectrum of figures that are black, they're painted black in a way that's not like human skin."

Meanwhile artist Audrey Chan tackles the idea of history in her own piece, "Center of the Universe, Ahma (detail)."

The face of a woman, Chan's grandmother, reappears throughout the painting against images of family, hope and violence.

Audrey Chan's "Center of the Universe, Ahma (detail)," on display at Skin, an exhibit at the LA Municipal Art Gallery.
Audrey Chan's "Center of the Universe, Ahma (detail)," on display at Skin, an exhibit at the LA Municipal Art Gallery. LA Municipal Art Gallery

"Something I really thought about were the depictions of the American dream, and how they're often idealistic and many smiling faces all aiming for a single, prosperous American life," she says. "I wanted to deal with the fact that my grandmother fled a very complicated, politically violent social context."

Curator Lutterodt says she hopes that this collection of art can spark thoughtful and challenging conversations.

"How do we talk about race, it being a very delicate subject for a lot of people?" she says. "What is wonderful about visual arts and the arts in general is that you have this moment of, 'We can talk about this [art] and I'm not talking about you."

SKIN is on exhibit at the LA Municipal Art Gallery through April 17, 2016. The gallery is located at Barnsdall Art Park at 4800 Hollywood Blvd, Los Angeles.

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