Before she succumbed to uterine cancer last February at age 59, artist Miyoshi Barosh spent the better part of three decades cultivating an art practice that was compassionate yet contrarian, conceptual yet craft-made, and Pop yet profoundly personal.
She employed everything from rainbow teardrop tapestries made with thrift store afghans to oil paintings festooned with yarn and googly eyes to entropic sculptures crafted from upholstery foam and glitter, emblazoned with the imperative “Feel Better”. She even created a series of Monuments to the Failed Future, which speak to the failure of Modernism and the superfluousness of monuments, which she called “phantasmagorical, bloated, and irrational” in the era of social media. In doing so, Barosh carved out a lane in the Southern California art world that not only questioned the values of materiality, craft, and her own mortality, but elevated those issues to the forefront of the local discourse.
“The way she was able to mix this dichotomy of conflicting emotions in her work has always been a quality that I’ve been drawn to,” says Adam Miller, owner and director of Glendale gallery the Pit, which is helping stage a three-venue memorial exhibition that opened on January 11, along with downtown’s Night Gallery and Luis De Jesus in Culver City to pay tribute to the life and work of Barosh.
“The art world is such a fickle infuriating place, and it’s heartbreaking she’s not here to see this, but I accept any attention her work is getting and hope it ends up in collections and institutions,” says artist Jeff Colson, Barosh’s widower who helped to organize the three shows. “Her passing has forced people to address her work in its totality in way they didn’t while she was living and that’s the crazy thing about it.”
Though she was born in Los Angeles, the daughter of an American father and a Chinese mother, Barosh spent the better part of her twenties on the east coast, earning a BFA in painting from the Rhode Island School of Design before moving to New York, where she became the first Managing Editor of BOMB magazine while exhibiting at alternative spaces like Danceteria. In the late ’80s she returned to L.A. and completed an MFA at CalArts while working with A.R.T. Press, with whom she conducted book-length interviews with art stars like Vija Celmins, Mike Kelley, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and published and edited the lauded but short-lived arts journal Now Time. All along she was crafting a narrative that earned her a Guggenheim Fellowship and entree to institutions like the Los Angeles Municipal Gallery at Barnsdall Park, the San Diego Museum of Art, and L.A.’s Craft and Folk Art Museum (now Craft Contemporary, where a memorial was held for Barosh in July).
“The first artwork that I ever purchased from a commercial gallery was one of Miyoshi’s cat collages,” adds Miller, referring to saccharine Instagram images of fluffy felines printed on paper, which Barosh burned holes into, offering windows onto seductive, brightly colored fabrics that look like acid trips.
“The images of the kittens, the celebrity icons of the digital age, at once eye candy and hypnotic drug, reflect a culturally induced need to feel loved and relevant,” says Luis De Jesus, who represented Barosh for a decade. In addition to the cat works, De Jesus will exhibit a mammoth wall hanging titled “LOVE”, which Barosh created for “Delirium”, her 2008 solo debut with the gallery, then based in San Diego and known as Luis De Jesus Seminal Projects. The billboard-sized text-based soft work, an exuberant display of her no-holds-barred aesthetic, is the first major sculpture that Barosh created using discarded afghans. “She loved the overblown manifesto-like statement, this heart-on-your-sleeve type thing,” says Colson.
Adds De Jesus, “These traditional women’s craft objects refer to both the ideal of selfless love and to the idea of unconditional love. The giant letters fashioned from white pom-poms in a paisley pattern makes reading the word LOVE a challenge and subverts its purpose. The conceptual twist lies in the pseudo-retro styling of the original typeface which implies a nostalgic and idealized past. This superficiality was at the heart of Miyoshi’s criticism of love and other forms of sentimentality. ‘Love is so misused,’ she said. ‘The way people use the word lacks depth and has a tinge of hippie-dippiness, new-age BS. It’s a cliche in every sense.’ This combination of pathos and humor is what makes [her] work so brilliant and filled with contradictions—its poignancy to arouse sympathy with great amusement and comicality.”
The Pit is taking a slightly different tack by exhibiting works that Barosh made at the end of her life which haven’t been previously shown in Los Angeles. The Glendale leg of the exhibition consists of two large-scale mixed-media reliefs and a single sculpture in the round, all hewn from welded steel, neon, blown glass baubles (made during a residency at the Pilchuck Glass School in Washington state), and handwoven fabrics. The Pit will also show a series of pencil sketches on newsprint, with annotations, which show her intentions for her final body of sculptures. The juxtaposition emphasizes the intuitive, expressionistic audacity of her work.
“Most of Miyoshi’s work was a reflection on health, healing, death, and society’s attitudes towards these subjects in our country,” says Miller. “This body of work was made after she had been given the diagnosis that her cancer had returned. Obviously, death was weighing heavily on her mind.”
“This body of work was made after she had been given the diagnosis that her cancer had returned. Obviously, death was weighing heavily on her mind.”
One of the works in the show, The End, was exhibited in a group show Miller curated for the Verge Center in Sacramento in the summer of 2017. While he was unaware of Barosh’s latest diagnosis at that time, the title was emblematic of her ongoing battles with cancer. Hewn from fabric and a single plastic geode eye, with protruding abstractions in the form of roots and teardrops, the work offers a window onto the frustration, terror, and rebirth contained in death.
“I loved this work when I first saw it and have wanted to show it in Los Angeles, I only wish we had done it sooner. She is dealing with a somber subject, one’s mortality, and yet the work has playfulness to it.”
The Pit will also show “Untitled (Sad Round Face),” one of the last works Barosh made before her death, which comprises a series of metal armatures, fabric elements, and a blue neon blue tear merging with a blue canvas to create a forever falling teardrop down an abstracted face. The fact that Barosh was working on this piece in her last days in her studio gives a psychedelic melancholy to this cute gesture. “It’s like an overscaled knit with these comically overscaled glass baubles,” says Colson, who helped her weld the piece. “After she was diagnosed with uterine cancer my priorities shifted from my work to her work and I started welding things for her and sort of became her assistant.”
While Barosh’s work confronting her illness were always playfully bombastic, her most overly political work—a hand-knitted map of the United States coming unraveled (“Holey America, 2005-2006”) being shown at Night Gallery—may be Barosh’s most poignant piece for this politically fraught moment.
“In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the work can be read as an impassioned assessment of the U.S.’s failure to protect its own people,” says Night Gallery owner Davida Nemeroff. “Read today, the different colors of patchwork and the intentional holes in the piece, speak to divisive tactics used to separate and divide the country. The piece immediately evokes the crafting traditions that have defined American folk culture, its holes and rough edges suggesting unrest and the incompletion of the American dream.”
Adds Colson, ““I love how it deconstructs into little balls of yarn on the floor. Fifteen years ago there were challenges and uncertainty and it’s only more magnified now. I think a lot of Miyoshi’s work was about wanting to indulge and fall in love with something but at the same time being repelled or pushed away by it out of fear of being heartbroken.”
Ironically, the heartbreak of losing Barosh has only amplified the art world’s indulgence and love of her indelible, tender oeuvre.
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