LAUREN HALSEY words by Dalya Benor
A South Central native, Lauren Halsey (American, b. 1987, lives and works in Los Angeles) rethinks the possibilities for art, architecture, and community engagement
To step into the cosmos of Lauren Halsey’s candy-colored dreamscape is to enter her surrealist world, which is filled to the brim with artifacts, Egyptian iconography and nostalgic ephemera from the South Central neighborhood in which she was born and raised.
The Los Angeles-based artist has always incorporated elements of cosmic mythology and urban architecture into her work, but her latest show at David Kordansky presents her rainbow-hued frame of mind on a dizzyingly extensive scale. Debuting a model for “ideal city blocks of South Central” by rearranging and juxtaposing businesses with one another, she has created a “dense visual archive” of her neighborhood before it is lost to gentrification. It’s an idea she’s been exploring since she was in graduate school at Yale’s MFA program in 2012, but has now had the opportunity to manifest formally.
Whether it’s towering building blocks or carved hieroglyphic panels made out of gypsum, everything Halsey creates is guided by an ethos of “deep love and admiration.” This lends itself to an outlook influenced by her neighborhood, where she’s inspired by things such as “the sun and how beautiful it is to drive down the street with a home that’s aqua. It’s a beautiful, syrupy portal that I've been obsessed with for as long as I've been alive.” Recreating a cityscape bathed in a technicolor version of LA, her show guides audiences on a journey through the artist’s expansive imagination.
Growing up in South Central, Halsey had an idyllic childhood. “It was a dream. It wasn't like Boyz n the Hood or anything.” Her tendency towards a saccharine synaesthesia conjures up memories of children playing outside, ice cream trucks, and playing tennis in the streets—a utopian memory archive that engulfs Halsey’s past, present and future.
Since 2016, all of Halsey’s projects have been built with the conceit of using people from her community, whether that’s her girlfriend, her grandmother, or childhood friends she grew up with. Like the late rapper Nipsey Hussle, her commitment to the betterment of her neighborhood is just as much a part of her work as her technicolor landscapes. “Community building is a mission for the work, and if that's not happening, then the artwork shouldn’t exist. That's the attitude of the project.”
At its core, Halsey’s show at Kordansky serves to reclaim Black space and reshape disempowering and oppressive narratives around South Central that she says “just aren't true.” She does this by creating a body of work that is less about fictive “mythmaking,” and is instead rooted in reality. “I wanted to propose a total view of a place, of a people, that has nothing to do with all that weight— [one] that is seductive and beautiful.”
With references that span a sense of time and space, Halsey draws heavily on everything from the histories of musicians such as George Clinton (frontman of Parliament Funkadelic and pioneer of psychedelic rock) to the pharaonic mythology of ancient Egypt. The Italian design collective Superstudio and their “Continuous Monument” model inspired Halsey’s boxes to become “exercises in architecture reduced to the essence of their forms.” Their belief that architecture can serve as a conceptual vehicle to engage social change lends heavily into Halsey’s practice as well.
Sampling from both the personal and the familiar, as well as archives ranging from the Library of Congress to the Getty, Halsey’s previous work serves as a testament to where she’s been and where she’s going. The title of a recent show at the Fondation Louis Vuitton, “Too Blessed 2 Be Stressed!,” reiterates Halsey’s sunny admiration for even the smallest details: like a sponge, she notices and collects everything around her, from a lavender-colored business to a woman walking by with neon pink hair, and then incorporates these memories into her work.
For the Hammer Museum’s “Made in L.A. 2018” biennial, Halsey created an ambitious prototype she calls The Crenshaw District Hieroglyph Project, a tomb-like mausoleum inscribed with hieroglyphic carvings of her own cultural signifiers, alongside columns painted with colorful portraits. MOCA’s we still here, there installation (also 2018), meanwhile, brought viewers into a womb-like space with warm purple lighting and amorphous forms that call to mind the underwater sea kingdoms of the Great Barrier Reef.
Time seems to slow down in Halsey’s worlds; those who enter her sanctuaries ooze through all-encompassing environments that force you to stop and smell the roses, literally. A fully immersive experience, her Kordansky show articulates the sights and sounds she inhabits. Incense with names like “Sexy Lady,” “Black Love” and “Fast Cash” are reminiscent of vendors lining 125th Street in Harlem, while hand-painted signs depicting corner store snacks such as Cheetos, Takis, SPAM and Aunt Jemima pancake mix serve as ethnographic representations of Black and brown communities.
On one silver-foil hieroglyphic block, spray-painted messages like “We in here” and “BLK OWNED THANKS” serve as reminders that Black communities—often overlooked—still exist. By documenting the history of place through her own magical realism, Halsey’s work reclaims Black space before “people, neighborhoods, and aesthetics get deleted.”
In Halsey’s city, streets are paved in ‘90s-era metallic CD flooring, but even reflective surfaces serve as tools for viewers to experience themselves with a “sort of beauty in mind.” While she pays homage to important community leaders such as Audre Lorde, Octavia E. Butler, basketball player Lisa Leslie and Sun Ra in The Black History Wall Of Respect (2020), her use of mirrors serves as a testament to the future where someone like her little cousin “can see themselves, literally, and be seen.”
This, in its essence, is what Halsey wants us to know: that seeing is different than looking. Her work jolts electricity into a city that needs to be woken up. The soul of LA can be felt again. For Halsey, that soul is South Central.