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The Venice Issue

Cauleen Smith Presents an Ode to Wanda Coleman

At 52 Walker, New York, the artist honours the poet by bridging her writing and her beloved Los Angeles

BY Jane Ursula Harris in Exhibition Reviews | 06 FEB 24

Wanda Coleman is a poet’s poet, known for her biting lyricism and deeply felt explorations of the quotidian and personal. Alternately dubbed ‘the LA Blueswoman’ (by poet Tim Joyce) and ‘LA’s unofficial poet laureate’ (by the Los Angeles Times in her 2013 obituary), her raw vulnerability and unwavering resilience recently inspired artist Cauleen Smith to turn Coleman’s work into a collaborative songbook. Featuring ten musical artists and bands – Kelsey Lu, Shala Miller, moor mother and Aquiles Navarro, Meshell Ndegeocello, Jeff Parker and Ruby Parker, Alice Smith, and Jamila Woods and Standing on the Corner – the resulting EP, The Wanda Coleman Songbook, like the eponymous exhibition it spawned (both 2024), is a remarkably tender ode to both the late poet and her native city.

Smith, who grew up in Sacramento, began digging into Coleman’s prodigious output in 2017, when she moved to LA and found herself trying to navigate its startling mix of natural beauty and sprawling poverty. That dissonance, along with the alienation limned by Coleman in her evocations of the racism she endured as a working-class Black woman in her hometown, imbue both the EP and the multi-sensory installation with a particularly elegiac or ‘bluesy’ register.

‘Cauleen Smith: The Wanda Coleman Songbook’, 2024, installation view. Courtesy: 52 Walker, New York

Walking into 52 Walker, the audience is plunged into a languid environment replete with plush couches and rugs, where a bespoke scent embodying the earthy splendours of LA’s Griffith Park wafts around you, and a large ottoman covered with Coleman’s published books encourages you to read. Wall-to-ceiling projections of an LA both majestic and mundane – shot mostly by the artist from the remove of a car – surround a turntable station in the centre of the gallery on which visitors can play tracks from the EP at will. Running the same length as the video loop, the album consists of A and B sides respectively titled ‘MILES IN THE NIGHT’ and ‘THE WEATHER’, with several songs, including ‘Wanda in Worryland’ and ‘Black Handed Curse’, taking their names directly from Coleman’s poems.

‘Cauleen Smith: The Wanda Coleman Songbook’, 2024, installation view. Courtesy: 52 Walker, New York

Occasionally, the noise of traffic and helicopters punctuates the exhibition’s cocoon-like vibe, obscuring the lilting, jazzy, discordant sounds emanating from the EP. Similarly, close-up images of Coleman’s poems cut into the hypnotic revelry of Smith’s panoramic LA – its famed sunsets and palm trees, for example, or iconic landmarks like the Sixth Street Bridge and the Getty Museum. The poems, impossible to read in their brief appearances, find their corollaries in less cliché scenes: the mesmerizing, slowed-down document of a South-Central classic-car parade; prosaic depictions of downtown LA’s Fashion District, where the unhoused roam; and the poet’s beloved Griffith Park.

Cauleen Smith, The Wanda Coleman Songbook, 2024, film still. Courtesy: the artist and 52 Walker, New York

Merging the poetic and the real, Smith’s affective realm not only speaks to Coleman’s writing but to its influence on the work of the artist and that of her collaborators. And this is the point. Smith is not interested in creating a traditional portrait here, hence the lack of footage – despite its availability – of Coleman reading her work, or even images of her face. Rather, The Wanda Coleman Songbook, like Smith’s other sojourns in the creative worlds of Black cultural visionaries such as Alice Coltrane, Rebecca Cox Jackson, Noah Purifoy and Sun Ra, aims to make work with and through its subject. Doing so, she enlivens the legacy of a poet many of us have never heard of through the voices – including her own – of those who will never forget her. At a time when the Black population of LA continues to dwindle in the face of rampant gentrification and ongoing racism, these voices form a necessary chorus whose collective song not only honours Coleman’s work and her hustle but also offers a lament and an antidote to such loss.

Cauleen Smith: The Wanda Coleman Songbook’ is on view at 52 Walker, New York, until 16 March.

Main Image: Cauleen Smith, The Wanda Coleman Songbook, 2024, film still. Courtesy: the artist and 52 Walker, New York

Jane Ursula Harris is an art historian and writer who has contributed to publications including Artforum, Art in America, The Believer, Brooklyn Rail, The Paris Review, New York, and others. She is a faculty member of the Art History department at the School of Visual Arts. She lives in Brooklyn, USA.