“Cauleen Smith: The Wanda Coleman Songbook” at 52 Walker, New York

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The Wanda Coleman Songbook is an immersive video installation that enlists scent, sight, and sound to explore the multidimensional depth of poems by Wanda Coleman (1946–2013). Coleman was widely considered the unofficial poet laureate of Los Angeles, and her work guided Smith’s reacquaintance with the city after a sixteen-year absence. At the heart of The Wanda Coleman Songbook listening room, visitors are invited to drop a needle on the eponymously titled, limited-edition two-color vinyl 12-inch EP with commissioned contributions by 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.

Also called the “LA Blueswoman,” Coleman cultivated her fearless voice through the
city’s myriad cultural and political landscapes, as well as through initiatives like the Studio Watts Workshop and her experiences writing for television, editing, teaching, and performing. Invigorated by Coleman’s intimacies with and revelations in the city, Smith familiarized herself deeply with the poet’s oeuvre after returning to Los Angeles in 2017 and considered them alongside her own histories and feelings of rediscovery there. At 52 Walker, Smith not only creates a cinematic environment translating Coleman’s lyrical and adventurous verse but also a contemporary soundscape that captures the longing, tenderness, fury, and grief of the writer’s poetry and prose, which so often revealed the unruly and untamed aspects of the major West Coast metropolis.

Carpeted in rugs and furnished with comfortable couches, The Wanda Coleman Songbook switches on all senses. Smith transforms the gallery space to create an atmosphere akin to that of a live recording studio: friends and familiars hanging out and symbiotically absorbing energies while advancing their respective projects. The central hub of The Wanda Coleman Songbook is the record itself: Smith shared a selection of Coleman’s poetry with the participating artists and invited them to interpret the writer’s words. Spanning genres and experimentations, the commissioned songs on the EP reflect the collaborators’ heterogenous approaches to Coleman’s euphonious poems and ultimately cohere to present a narrative that is sensitive to the textures of her Los Angeles. Cloaked in a new film that Smith shot on location in fall of 2023, the walls of the gallery envelop visitors in panoramic moving images that capture the expected Los Angeles clichés—the Hollywood Hills, palm trees, Griffith Observatory—as well as a Black Los Angeles that is slowly disappearing into the cultural and geographical periphery.

A bespoke fragrance designed by agustine zegers greets gallery attendees and brings to mind a hike in Griffith Park, Los Angeles’s largest public recreational area and the site of many impressionistic moments in Coleman’s life. Parts of her poems are printed onto blotters so that visitors can extend the temporal experience of migrating scent beyond the gallery walls while activating olfactory memories of their own.

at 52 Walker, New York
until March 16, 2024

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