Lacquered wood box with velvet lining and cast resin
5.5 x 19 x 8 in. (13.97 x 48.26 x 20.32 cm)
Gift of the Kathryn C. Wanlass Foundation
Doug Edge was teaching sculpture at California Institute of the Arts when he, Judy Chicago, and DeWain Valentine were invited to curate a “plastics” exhibition for the school’s gallery. Their show, following the opening of the new Valencia campus in the fall of 1971, would feature art employing the advanced industrial materials and techniques the three favored in their own work. However, the sunny technological optimism once associated with California was dimming, as attested by the hostile reception accorded the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s 1970 blockbuster Art and Technology exhibition. Anticipating nostalgia for a past that wasn’t even past yet, Edge and the others named their exhibition The Last Plastics Show.
Malcolm X, one of two sculptures Edge contributed to the show, refers to the African American activist who was murdered in 1965. Its central element is a wavelike cast-resin form that Edge dubs the “abstract nature shape.” This vaguely scientific shape is a recurring motif in his work, with different identities in different contexts. Everything in this funereal artwork is black except for some bits of tarnished brass hardware and—as ominous as it is elegant—a single white-painted indentation set into the object’s polished resin surface.
“An image is a substitute for someone or something not present,” wrote art historian E. H. Gombrich, suggestively identifying art with absence or loss. When a twin dies in childbirth, the Yoruba people of Nigeria commission a doll-sized sculpture to take its place. That this ritual practice is foreign to the modern mind makes it all the more effective as realized here in industrial-age materials. Like the wistful title given to the CalArts show where it was once displayed, Edge’s Malcolm X executes an elegant sleight of hand, conveying a sense of loss and compensating for it in the same gesture.
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