LOS ANGELES — What does it mean to be an LA artist? This is the question that curators Aram Moshayedi and Hamza Walker came up against when organizing the Hammer Museum’s third Los Angeles Biennial, Made in LA 2016. Instead of trying to determine a decisive set of regional characteristics, they hewed closely to the show’s title, the only requirement being that the work was made in LA (and sometimes not even that is true).
“These are artists who are showing all over the world. They’re part of a global contemporary art world and are engaging in things that have as much to do with LA as they do with what’s happening in Syria,” Moshayedi said during the exhibition’s press preview. “People approached us and said, ‘we have the perfect LA work.’ I don’t even know what that means in some ways, because this place is so diverse and so disparate in terms of what people are interested in, that to try to reflect one theme, you’re asserting some kind of dominant narrative that by nature is exclusionary. In the past that has always tended towards whiteness, men, heterosexuality. LA is the seedbed all of those things, in an art historical sense, so we just kind of threw it out.”
Rather than attempt a comprehensive overview of contemporary art in LA, the curators selected only 26 artists or collectives this year, down from 35 in 2014 and a whopping 60 in 2012. In doing so, they were able to present a greater selection of work by each artist, offering the opportunity to explore their oeuvres in greater depth than if only one or two works by each were on view. “We’ve given the artists enormous space,” said Hammer Museum director Ann Philbin. “It’s like 26 different shows.”
If there is anything like a common theme running through the show, it is the ephemeral, the transitory, the evolving, the durational, the work in progress. This is evident even in the exhibition’s subtitle: “a, the, though, only” (try saying that five times fast). This cryptic string of words is actually one of the works in the show, a contribution from minimalist poet Aram Saroyan, that extend the Biennial out from the museum into the world whenever the words are uttered. Whether it successfully breaks down cultural hierarchies, or is simply a secret code for the already art-initiated is up for debate.
Another work that is meant to live out in the world is a performance by Todd Gray, who will be wearing the wardrobe of Ray Manzarek, the late keyboardist for LA band The Doors, as he goes about his daily routine for the show’s duration. This could be considered a third act for Manzarek, who was an important figure in classic rock and later punk, as a producer of the first four albums by the band X.
The Museum’s lobby gallery is occupied by a large, wooden installation by Lauren Davis Fisher that resembles something between a theatrical stage and a construction site. The work has developed throughout the show’s run as Fisher has added to it.
Upstairs, a gallery filled with long display cases has been dedicated to the collaged scrapbooks of Arthur Jafa, a cinematographer who worked on Spike Lee’s Crooklyn (1993) and Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991). “He never considered these as works of art. They were simply for him to process his thinking about meaning making as it occurs when you put two images together, the basis of montage,” said Walker.
Jafa pulled images from the books regularly, repurposing them in later juxtapositions. “There was nothing sacred about them, the books were always a work in progress,” Walker noted. These are indeed captivating documents, in spite of the fact, or perhaps because, they were never intended as complete artistic statements.
Gala Porras-Kim and Daniel Small both engage in institutional critique, highlighting how the identities we ascribe to objects can change over time. Porras-Kim presents objects from the collection of the Fowler Museum, stripped of any identifying information. These are paired with her detailed and delicate drawings of the objects, removing them from their earlier lives and placing them in a new aesthetic realm.
Daniel R. Small’s complex and layered room-sized installation is a fascinating study in cultural archaeology, with a Hollywood twist. On view are pieces from the set of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 blockbuster The Ten Commandments, which the filmmaker buried in the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes to ensure that they could not be re-used by other directors. The artist recently excavated these faux-Egyptian objects, thereby “discovering” bits of a real past that aspire to a fictional one. Lining the walls are monumental paintings depicting scenes from ancient Egypt that once hung in the Luxor Las Vegas, another place that, like Hollywood, claims to offer liberation from history’s limitations.
A different form of excavation characterizes Rafa Esparza’s installation, “Tierra,” that is composed of rows of adobe bricks made using a traditional Mexican technique he learned from his father. Esparza had buried various objects in Elysian Park, inviting others to dig them up, and these recently unearthed items — his father’s old mailbox, a recliner, ears of corn — are now scattered throughout this earthen grid. Visitors can walk out onto this dusty field that infuses the legacy of 1960s serial minimalism with personal narrative.
One of the most exciting discoveries was the inclusion of three artists who have been working for decades without the kind of recognition this show will hopefully ignite. Lebanese-born Huguette Caland (she’s actually the daughter of the country’s first president) has lived in Beirut, Paris, New York, and Los Angeles, where she was based from 1983–2013. She conveys a quirky eroticism through a diverse range of media, from painting, to ceramics, to textile design.
Wadada Leo Smith is known primarily as an avant-garde jazz trumpeter, however less well-known are his illustrated scores that aestheticize musical notation: part scientific formula, part abstract fantasy. They recall the works of the late Channa Horwitz, another artist whose conflations of music and art were featured in the first Made in LA in 2012.
The standout however was 78-year old Kenzi Shiokava, a Brazilian-born, ethnically Japanese sculptor, who was part of the assemblage art movement alongside Noah Purifoy and John Outterbridge, but has not achieved anywhere near their level of notoriety. On exhibit are two bodies of work: funky, rough-hewn totems composed of driftwood, textiles, nails, feathers, and odd Joseph Cornell-like constructions.
There are some weak points to be sure. Sterling Ruby’s contribution is a group of welding tables pulled from his studio, with all the marks and accretions left over from their former lives. Supposedly they are meant to allude to the city’s historical manufacturing base, but they do little more than take up space, man-spreading throughout the room like outdated monuments to masculinity.
Diagonally across the galleries, Mark Verabioff’s media-saturated works provide a welcome foil. He has appropriated Francesco Scavullo’s images of mostly white, male icons to call into question the role of gender and race in cultural production. A image of pop idol Nick Jonas, defaced by chewing gum, with the work’s title “Marxism and Art: Beware Fascist Broism” painted on top could be seen as a direct and delicious retort to Ruby’s macho posturing. Likewise Kenneth Tam’s hilarious video that captures men engaging in strange twists on male-bonding, like choreographing a circular dance with bells affixed to their waists.
Post-internet art gets a nod with Joel Holmberg’s analogue canvases that depict outdated websites. These paintings end up being just as pointless as their source material, however. Much more prescient is Guthrie Lonergan’s “Built with Indexhibit” (2016), which exists only on the Hammer’s website. Small M&M-like figures pop up in the lower right corner of the browser window, uttering artist statements via thought bubbles, which some patrons mistook for the work of a hacker, or worse, advertisements.
Perhaps the thread unifying the work in a, the, though, only seems so elusive because Moshayedi and Walker are not trying to summarize and codify movements that have passed. In “throwing out” past considerations that have been limiting, they are instead reflecting a glimpse of an expansive future.
Made in LA continues at the Hammer Museum (10899 Wilshire Boulevard, Westwood, Los Angeles) until August 28.