LOS ANGELES — Walking into the colorful sea of camping tents on the patio at Hauser & Wirth feels like peering into David Hammons’s first thoughts upon his return to Los Angeles. The nylon tents, visible from the tony terrace of the gallery’s Manuela restaurant, resemble those that extend from Downtown’s Skid Row and circle the adjoining neighborhoods. Imagining his first impression of the city he once called home, I suspect Hammons would have said: “You’ve let yourself go.” Conversely, he could have easily said, “I see you haven’t changed.” Homecomings reveal dichotomous reactions like this when memories of the past collide with the realities of the present, and in Hammons’s latest show — his first in Los Angeles in over 45 years — he combines relics from the past with potent symbols of the present.
Against a backdrop of rising rents, uncontrolled development, and lack of affordable housing, the tents are a clear visual reminder of the Los Angeles housing crisis. The odd juxtaposition of jovial diners overlooking a tented ghost town implicates the viewer’s own complicity in Los Angeles’s housing failures, suggesting that the burden and responsibility for this crisis is not equally shared by all. Despite bond measures and voter-approved sales tax increases made between 2016 and 2017 to provide funds and services to reduce homelessness, the homeless population increased by 16% to over 36,000 as of June this year. Hammons’s amplification of this issue is timely, but it also speaks to systemic issues of wealth inequality that have plagued this city for generations.
The artist lived in post-Watts Los Angeles in the 1960s and ’70s during a period of sustained economic disenfranchisement and discrimination that targeted Black residents through redlining, restrictive covenants, and police brutality. In the 1960s, civic developers bifurcated South Central Los Angeles, sacrificing Black neighborhoods for freeway development, just as commercial developers have transformed present-day working-class neighborhoods in and around Downtown’s Arts District. Hammons doesn’t draw overt connections between these dynamics; instead he subtly suggests similarities between them among clues that unfold like a subtweet.
Decoding the references in his objects requires some reverse engineering, but his wicked word play and subtle jabs at the human condition are devilishly entertaining.
A row of framed currency of varying denominations lines two walls. Beneath these “Found Objects” Hammons lays a tempting trap for visitors in the form of crumpled dollar bills that are left on the floor below, transforming the gallery into a social experiment that exposes the primal roots of greed. Want to try to guess how many times that dollar was stolen? Ask one of the guards — according to one I asked, the money was reportedly stolen (or attempted) five times in one day.
Hammons has a penchant for trickery: a white stand-alone freezer is filled with photos by Dawoud Bey who preserved moments from Hammons’s 1983 performance “Bliz-aard Ball Sale,” where the artist set up shop outside of Cooper Union and sold snowballs to passersby.
Elsewhere, a pair of Hammons’s basketball paintings resting atop a pile of rubble are placed next to a framed photo of Richard Serra’s “T.W.U.” (1980). In the image, a dozen pairs of tennis shoes are draped over Serra’s 36-foot tall steel structure. Hammons’s embellishment, titled “Shoe Tree” (1981), also conjures memories of “Pissed Off” (1981), another performance where Hammons contributed another unique addition to the same Serra sculpture by urinating on it.
Hammons shared his acerbic wit in his press release for the show. The cryptic announcement was a free-form, abstract stanza of hand-drawn lines that descend into a free fall and land on two simple lines of text:
This exhibition is dedicated to Ornette Coleman
For some fans of jazz, the musical reference aptly foreshadows Hammons’s theme. Coleman, a famed saxophonist and pioneer of the free jazz movement, ushered in a new wave of the genre in 1959 that radically disrupted how jazz was performed throughout the 1960s. He played without boundaries, urging fellow performers and listeners to “follow the idea of the song, not the song itself.” Coleman believed in tapping into the subconscious as a vehicle for growth, stressing the idea that musicians liberate themselves from their didactic attachment to traditional four-bar structure and melody. Doing so allows them to pursue broader pathways of creative expression.
Coleman’s music plays in the gallery. As his chaotic compositions reverberate, they offer some conceptual clues that connect the musician to Hammons.
The exhibition lacks introductory wall text or a curator’s narrative guide except for a heavy cardstock brochure that is a memorial tribute to Coleman. One page contains some of Coleman’s sheet music titled “Harmolodic Theory”; his musical notes aren’t immediately recognizable to classically trained readers of sheet music, but their spontaneous placement resembles Hammons’s abstracted rendition of sheet music in the exhibition’s announcement. This is where we begin to see how their respective trains of thought merge. Additionally, Coleman and Hammons spent their formative creative careers in Los Angeles (Coleman in the 1950s) and both made moves to New York to pursue their artistic careers more fervently.
Hammons’s own career was radically disruptive in its early years. Studying under Charles White at the Otis Art Institute in the 1960s, Hammons’s printmaking segued into more conceptual work that combined assemblage, painting, sculpture, and performance. Both Coleman and Hammons struggled with the commercial demands of their respective practices, and as a result both shifted toward conceptualism over formalism, eschewing more marketable forms of their artistic mediums.
Hammons’s discord with the commercial art world is a strong undercurrent in the show. It’s evident in the nylon tents that lead up to the gallery. Hammons’s wry observations are literally written on the walls, speaking in code to anyone willing to listen. Hammons doesn’t force easy interpretations of his work; instead he calls on viewers to apply their own lived experience to draw their own conclusions.
Denardo Coleman, a musician and son of Ornette Coleman, reflects on his father’s musical career in ways that could also describe Hammons’s artistic one:
For some his music was too complicated, too abstract, nothing to grab on to, just too out there. For others it was utterly profound because it spoke directly to the brain and to the soul simultaneously.
Perhaps Hammons’s most striking visual representation of Coleman’s Harmolodic Theory is his epic iteration of the Surrealist parlor game Exquisite Corpse, where one person draws an image on paper, then folds its, concealing all but a fragment of the image for the next person to continue. Without knowledge of the theme or idea that precedes it, one is free to express themselves with limited constraints.
The end result is a free-form stream of consciousness that maintains a thin thread of visual continuity. In the show Hammons assembled a herculean 36-foot Exquisite Corpse consisting of sketches by 74 artists including Romare Bearden, William S. Burroughs, Mel Edwards, Jacob Lawrence, Ishmael Reed, and Betye Saar, and culminates in a video where Hammons unfolds the illustrations on camera. The process reveals what’s possible when one leaves creative expression to chance, and it harkens back to an Ornette Coleman quote found in the gallery show’s memorial flyer: “if people aren’t trying to bring the kinds of ideas that they have in their subconscious to the surface, no one will ever experience the advancement of how each person could grow…”
In a sense, Hammons’s show unfolds like another Exquisite Corpse, this one of his own making. By taking remnants from his artistic experiments and connecting them to new, recontextualized works, Hammons relinquishes interpretation to the viewer, but creates continuity in his unrelenting critique of the art world that both profits from his genius and inspires his content.
David Hammons continues at Hauser & Wirth (901-909 E 3rd St, Downtown, Los Angeles) through August 11.