This is Why People Keep Talking About the L.A. Art Scene
Images courtesy of the Hammer Museum unless otherwise noted.
Curators Hamza Walker and Aram Moshayedi love their prepositions. It makes sense that the name of this year’s Made in L.A. biennial doesn’t have a specific theme, but rather is simply a, the, through, only, a line from a poem by minimalist poet Aram Saroyan. If you want to think about it literally, L.A. is a place of prepositions, of freeways winding around and through, of a street that not even a native Angelino has heard of. Wide-ranging spaces and empty spaces make L.A. a place of seemingly endless opportunity for creatives. This calls to mind the SNL sketch “The Californians”, which makes fun of how the common banter for Angelenos truly is how they got from point A to point B.
Regardless of its L.A.-ness, a, the, through, only doesn’t dabble in pop culture references or L.A. art shoutouts. There are no such L.A. clichés in this show. There isn’t even any photography in this show, which is ironic considering that L.A. is one of the most imaged cities in the world. In selecting this collection of 26 artists that make up the heart of L.A.’s creativity in this cultural moment, Walker and Moshayedi have created a beautiful, thorough, and infinitely curious exhibition that touches every corner of L.A., which might be impossible since this is a place made up of curved lines, not right angles.
Walker and Moshayedi smartly utilize the gallery and courtyard levels of the Hammer Museum, spreading the artists out in an intuitive fashion. Of the 26 artists, 17 have galleries to themselves throughout the museum, while the other 9 pop up throughout the museum. In the courtyard, viewers find two hanging sculptures by Kelly Akashi. They appear to be luridly formed fleshy chunks, hanging from thick ropes. Dena Yago of trend forecasting group K-Hole has a photograph called “Do you ever feel like a plastic bag?” (2014), a reference to the most vapid lyric from the Katy Perry pop song “Firework.” In this photograph, which is mounted onto a metal grate, a bear head mask pokes up from below the water, pulling a giant plastic bag through a river in an otherwise scenic landscape. Yago’s poems also float about in light boxes in the courtyard, creating a hyperreal landscape. Guthrie Lonergan created the exhibition’s website; in the courtyard, visitors hear four musical interludes produced by Barefoot Music, each one programmed to induce a particular sensation much like sound effects in a film.
Casting an atmosphere through the courtyard arrangements seems like it preps viewers to take in the rest of the 17 artists, but that’s not necessarily true. There’s so much work here, it’s at times overwhelming and certainly worth multiple visits. In one of the first galleries, Shahryar Nashat’s minimalistic neon work, which creates blank spaces and enclosures, heavily references Bataille and the idea of sexuality as inherently queer. Nashat’s work creates interchanges between objects and bodies.
Brazilian-Japanese sculptor and assemblage artist Kenzie Shiokava shares roots with Noah Purifoy, creating wood sculptures that are suggest ritualistic usage, with beads wrapping about and wooden totem-like structures lodged into sturdy bases. Another underrepresented LA artist, Wadada Leo Smith, a free-jazz player who created a language called Ankhrasmation, has an entire gallery dedicated to music sheets and opportunities to listen. At times, bringing these artists to the fore feels like an LA renaissance of a time that the city for some reason didn’t previous pay attention to.
In the gallery next to Smith’s musical compositions, artist Daniel R. Small engages with museum culture, relying on artifacts, archaeology, and found or fictional histories to create a full-gallery installation. Small goes to site of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 film The 10 Commandments, and digs up the set that the director had buried in the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes when the film finished. Each of these artifacts is housed in its own case, as if from an archaeological dig. The director requested that the set be destroyed and buried, with the hope that one day it would not be accidentally dug up and mistaken for real history. Strangely, anything that remains under the ground form 75 years or more is considered a historical artifact, regardless of its original origin, so the set became a meta-history, or just part of Hollywood’s ongoing codification and commodification of culture and history.
L.A. art darling Martine Syms creates a pilot for a TV show called “She Mad,” in which a heightened version of Syms goes to the dentist and gets high off of nitrous oxide, then leaves and wanders the streets of L.A. This is a clear reference to Thomas Edison’s 1907 silent film Laughing Gas, which follows a Black woman who laughs her way through town after a trip to the dentist. In Syms’ version, however, her character is also trying to make it in L.A. In a similar yet completely non-media L.A. focus, Rafa Esparza takes over the Hammer’s Lindbrook Terrace, lining the entire floor with earthy, dirt-filled adobe bricks that he made with his father over the course of years. This piece also brings out another aspect of L.A.: The displacement of mostly Mexican families from Elysian Park in the 1950s, with the intention of luring the Dodgers baseball team to the city. Esparza first buried chairs and mailboxes, including one of his childhood mailboxes, in Elysian Park. Then he invited friends to excavate them with him. These objects end up on top of the bricks at the Hammer, unearthed for viewers to experience the metaphorical nature of displacement.
This biennial is fantastic for its wide breadth of artists, from lesser-known older folks getting their due to young/emerging visionaries to watch, but that is not all. Hamza and Moshayedi make incredible use of the Hammer, which can at times feel like a cold institutional space. Instead, they bring a liveliness and energy to it that is celebratory and endlessly fascinated with the rich culture and creativity that comes out of Los Angeles.