Lauren Halsey is an installation artist who references the black experience of her neighborhood in South Central Los Angeles with immersive, collaborative works. Both her stand-alone and site-specific works are rooted in local themes with images and texts reflecting the buildings, businesses, and people of South Central L.A. Her work is part of her ongoing collaborative project to create a permanent, monumental structure that will serve the people in her community.
Halsey studied at El Camino College in Torrance, California and then spent a year at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco, studying architecture, which she didn’t like. She attended California Institute of the Arts, where she studied architecture from the perspective of art. She received her M.F.A. from Yale University. During a residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem four years ago, she began work on the “Crenshaw District Hieroglyphic Project” creating a series of carved panels inspired by Egyptian architecture.
This installation “The Crenshaw District Hieroglyph Project (Prototype Architecture),” was prominently featured in the “Made in L.A., 2018” biennial and won the Hammer Museum’s prestigious Mohn Award. This piece, begun at the Studio Museum in Harlem, is a version of the structure Halsey intends to build as part of a public community space in L.A. She will place it along Crenshaw Boulevard on the former site of an African bazaar that she often visited when young.
Her prototype, exhibited in the Hammer, was a mausoleum-like monument, an imposing white cube – 12 feet high and 20 feet deep – built of faux-marble walls and cobbled together from more than 600 bas-relief gypsum panels. Halsey’s aesthetic fused elements of ancient Egyptian architecture in the form of a cenotaph with South Central L.A.’s ‘Afrofuturism’ and ‘funk’. She has stated, “I just liked the intensity of committing to a line.” So her panels were composed of her own lines, her own version of hieroglyphics, markings, and inscriptions as well as storefront signs, landmarks, and portraits of family and friends. She added dozens of names of victims of racism, such as Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, Sandra Blank, and Philander Castile. These wall works are identical in form to the more than 3,000 panels needed for the outdoor structure she intends to build.
Halsey created another architectural piece, a plaster grotto installation, “we still here, there” for Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art, which spun off the Classical motif of Plato’s Cave. She transformed the museum’s entire gallery into a psychedelic grotto, a Day-Glo cavern that riffed on black mysticism. The museum’s walls were reconfigured into a cave with tunnels, grottoes, artificial plants growing out of crevices, trickling fountains, little waterfalls, and rock formations covered with plaster. Her cave contained signifiers of blackness: a logo for weave hair, black figurines playing basketball, cardboard street signs, Ghanian Kente cloth, Black Panther rugs, Egyptian sphinxes, rainbow-colored braids, and shiny CDs. It was made in modular sections in her grandmother’s backyard with the help of 20 friends and family members. Her grandmother especially helped out cutting CDs into scale-like pieces which were pasted around openings giving a silvery, jewel-like effect to her cave.
She made a pair of carved white columns to represent the death of her friend, rapper Nipsey Hussle, the founding creator of Destination Crenshaw, who – like her – was working to prevent gentrification of South Central. Just as Hussle intended to stay in South Central, Halsey also will stay. He was one of her biggest inspirations. “I can go on’n on. I framed my entire proposal for The Crenshaw District Hieroglyph Project around collaborating with him . . . I feel robbed. South Central feels robbed. No words can ever explain what we lost . . . “
Because of the vicissitudes of the Coronavirus, Halsey had been bringing organic fruits and vegetables – 600 organic produce boxes per week – to South Central Los Angeles residents. She started this initiative, “Summaeverythang,” at the start of the pandemic and was committed to keeping it going for at least 40 more weeks. Afterwards Halsey planned to build a community garden in South Central L.A.
Halsey’s latest and most ambitious installation is an altar-like structure on the rooftop of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. This 22-foot-tall structure pays homage to South Central Los Angeles through the lens of Afrofuturism. Her piece as 750 glass concrete tiles which create the walls of its structure. Each of its four pillars features a different face – of her family members and her partner – on each capital. The walls of the cube are decorated with Black-inspired imagery, graffiti, and L.A. street signage, recalling the graffiti on the Met’s Temple of Dendur. Her work will be on view through October 22, 2023.
Halsey was the winner of the 2019 Frieze Artist Award. She had a solo show with David Kordansky Gallery in Los Angeles featuring hand-carved engravings on gypsum. Her next project was the casting of concrete blocks. She was featured in the inaugural show for Kordansky’s new gallery in New York “bringing the L.A. energy and vibe to New York City.” In an exhibition of her work, the Seattle Art Museum noted that she received the Gwendolyn Knight/Jacob Lawrence Prize.