Made in L.A.: a, the, though, only

by Jonathan Griffin

Hammer Museum, Los Angeles

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Huguette Caland, installation view, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. Photograph: Jonathan Griffin

One of the best things about ‘Made in L.A. 2016: a, the, though, only’, is that – title notwithstanding – it is quite possible to forget that the work in the exhibition was made in LA. Now in its third edition, the biennial is still finding its purpose, torn as it is in different directions. Tasked with showcasing emerging and under-recognized artists, each iteration’s curators are widely expected to reflect back at the city an image of itself that is, at once, recognizably authentic but also unfamiliar, transcendent and subjective.

It’s a tall order, but one that curators Aram Moshayedi and Hamza Walker manage to fill. In his catalogue essay, Hammer curator Moshayedi writes that ‘with great regularity, a relationship to place is best articulated from the perch of a so-called outsider perspective’, decorously justifying his partnership with the outsider Walker, a Chicago resident and curator at the Renaissance Society.

Walker’s remote perspective manifests in subtle and refreshing ways. Welcoming visitors is a magnificent six-panel panorama, in grey watercolour on canvas, hanging high in the Hammer’s stairwell. Seascape (with moon) (2016), by Silke Otto-Knapp, recalls Georgia O’Keeffe’s Sky Above Clouds IV (1965), on permanent display in the stairwell of the Art Institute of Chicago, but it also represents the scattered islands off Fogo, Newfoundland, where Otto-Knapp lives for part of the year. It is a dreamy evocation of transience, a memory of a place already left. Like this exhibition, it is both hyperlocal and belonging to nowhere in particular.

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Silke Otto-Knapp, Seascape (with moon) (2016), installation view, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. Photograph: Brian Forrest

In his digressive text, Moshayedi moves through themes that circulate around the exhibition: the itinerancy of cultural workers; the normalization of medical marijuana in LA; the cultural ascendency of contemporary art; celebrity artist-dilettantes; curatorial hubris; the image wars fought by Daesh and al-Shabaab; the poet David Antin’s reflections on his own mortality. But ‘Made in L.A. 2016’ isn’t really about any of these things, though they may have inspired it. That is not to say that the exhibition does not cohere around certain themes, just that these aren’t the ones in my notebook.

With 26 participating artists, the roster is shorter than in previous years (there were 60 in 2012; 35 in 2014), and they each get more space – the Hammer’s collection having been de-installed to make room. Most are afforded their own gallery; the result is stately and considered, with juxtapositions occurring at the thresholds, but also cumulatively, as resonances stack up.

The most powerful accrual of thematic momentum takes place in the suite of galleries where a display of mannequins dressed by Eckhaus Latta – the Rhode Island School of Design-educated fashion-design duo whose quasi-promotional video, Smile (2016), is only viewable online – segues to vitrines of filmmaker Arthur Jafa’s ring-bound binders containing found images (mainly of bodies, most of them people of colour, often set against images of art) that are, to him, emblematic of a ‘black aesthetic’. Jafa reportedly has hundreds of these binders, made between 1990 and 2007; he does not consider them art.

Passing through Shahryar Nashat’s pink-lit installation Hard Up For Support (2016), in which a voiceover accompanies video close-ups of nostrils, ears and anuses, visitors arrive at the large retrospective display of work by Lebanese artist Huguette Caland, who lived in Los Angeles between 1987 and 2013. Now 85, she has returned to Beirut, but she retains a home in Venice, California. In the work here, which spans from a 1967 self-portrait to scintillating mixed-media abstractions on canvas from 2011 and 2012, she explores portraiture, eroticism and ecstasy – her experience of her own body and the bodies of others. Kaftans embroidered with faces in fluid, looping lines, from 1970 to 1975, are displayed on custom wooden mannequins from 1985, near selections of ceramic heads and torsos.

After Caland, to move back through Jafa’s gallery is almost painful, although the latter would no doubt insist that his photographs of scarified and abject bodies have every right to claim the same beauty as Caland’s paintings and sculptures. An immersive installation by Mark Verabioff, comprising the works Marxism and Art Beware of Fascist Broism I – VI(2016), extends Jafa’s détournement of mass-media imagery. Over wallpaper featuring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in black mink coats, framed photographs of iconic (white) men, taken from a Francesco Scavullo coffee-table book, are violated with chewing gum and inked-on tears.

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Kenneth Tam, Breakfast in Bed, 2016, installation view, Hammer Museum. Photograph: Brian Forrest

What emerges through these galleries is not so much a demonstration of the interdisciplinary nature of contemporary art (which, as Caland proves, is nothing new) but, rather, a treatment of the racialized, gendered or sexualized body as a site of personal freedom and imaginative potential as well as externally imposed prejudice, constraint and violence. Fashion is endowed here with a rare gravity, while grave issues are handled with a lightness of touch. Elsewhere, Martine Syms and Kenneth Tam deliver laugh-out-loud videos that deal with heavy themes of race and gender.

Across the Hammer’s courtyard, nine old welding tables, modified by Sterling Ruby, carry traces of the absent labouring body – which is depicted explicitly on ten nearby monitors showing episodes of Labor Link TV, a public-access television show established by photographer Fred Lonidier and other union activists in 1988. As if to puncture the solemnity, an adjacent room is given over to jazz trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith’s vibrant graphic scores, dating from 1967 to 2014, which adopted a system he termed – with reference to the ancient Egyptian word ankh, meaning life force – Ankhrasmation.

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Daniel R. Small, Excavation II, 2016, installation view, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. Photograph: Brian Forrest

In one of the most memorable installations of the exhibition, Daniel R. Small’s Excavation II (2016) also draws on Egyptology, albeit filtered through the archaeology of early-20th-century film history. Small has brought together fragments of the set for Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1923), recovered from sand dunes on the Central California coast and now in a local museum, with other artefacts, including 1990s murals from the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas. In a young city such as Los Angeles, archaeology can take many forms: Small’s idiosyncratic museology, Gala Porras-Kim’s reappraisal of unattributed objects from the ethnographic Fowler Museum or even the curatorial work of Moshayedi and Walker in excavating little-known art from Los Angeles’s recent past.

Despite the substantial installations of artists such as Small, Ruby and Porras-Kim, however, ‘Made in L.A. 2016’ may well be remembered for its ephemerality. The subtitle of the exhibition (‘a, the, though, only’) is a four-word poem, the sole contribution of minimalist poet Aram Saroyan: an inventive gesture that – to my ears – sadly falls flat in realization. Todd Gray, an artist who has made plenty of objects in the past, is represented at the Hammer only by a wall label explaining the premise of his ‘social sculpture’ Ray (2014–15/2016): during the course of the exhibition he will reprise a work in which, for a year, he went about wearing only clothes belonging to Ray Manzarek, the Doors’ keyboard player who died in 2013.

You probably won’t see Gray at ‘Made in L.A. 2016’, but you may occasionally catch the exhibition’s soundtrack, which is piped-in at various points. The four compositions – Intro Testimonial, Bumper, Judgment Sequence and Elimination Testimonial (all 2016) – were produced by Barefoot Music, a company creating soundtracks for television, advertising and film, in collaboration with Guthrie Lonergan. To frame the exhibition as a game show or reality-television programme seems glib and cynical, until you spot the numerous iPads placed throughout the museum on which you can vote for your favourite artist to receive a US$25,000 (GB£19,000) prize – in addition to two other juried awards totalling US$125,000 (GB£93,000). That amount of money is no laughing matter. As with the best of ‘Made in L.A. 2016’, levity does not preclude seriousness, and entertainment is a Trojan horse for criticality.

First published: Frieze, 30 June 2016

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