Los Angeles, a city of developers and opportunists, store-front mystics and varyingly legal working-class migrants, is also by some lights a city of artists. The Hammer Museum recently unveiled its first Los Angeles biennial, an inward-looking affair solely showcasing the work of locals.
Can an exhibition thus conceived add up to anything more than narcissism?
Sure, but whether this is possible in LA, a city with a profoundly neurotic self-regard, is a question left open by the biennial dubbed Made in LA. It's a shame, given that so much strong work by so many under-recognized artists is on display—yet it seems worth running the risk of pedantry to call into focus those curatorial issues that, in spite of the show's scope, hardly seem inevitable.
Browsing the catalogue, after all, the overarching premise seems to be little more than that Los Angeles has, after years of apparent yearning, become in its own dazzled eyes equal to New York, London, and Paris. Though there’s likely some loose relationship to the locavore movement here, such a geographically confined point of view is a pretty limited one, and the show suffers for it.
Take, for example, Kathryn Andrews’ Rainbow Successor, 2011, a clown’s costume woven into the bars of a shiny metal enclosure, featured on the cover of the exhibition catalogue. Key to this artist's practice, both in this piece and others—notably January 23, 2010—is the explicit interweaving of ephemerality with the economic dimensions of the work. Of course, any art that one encounters in a museum has some paperwork attesting its value and authenticity. Yet in Andrews' case, these contracts are self-consciously incorporated and integral to the work. In Rainbow Successor, the clown costume is rented; in January 23, the purchaser of the piece is left to decide whether to replace the party balloons tied to chromed steel window bars once deflated or to be left hanging, a choice that fundamentally affects a casual viewer's probable interpretation.
Unfortunately, this aspect of Andrews' work is largely sidelined by Made in LA, which focuses on the influence of “finish fetish” and frames her use of rented props in terms of a commentary on Hollywood. Admittedly, the element that addresses art’s meaning as an economic object owes less to local sources than to what's (barely) salvageable in certain of Jeff Koons' pieces, such as 1985's One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank, which requires biannual maintenance to keep its Spalding basketball in its eponymous balance. Here, however, the curators' evident interest in presenting Andrews' art primarily within Southern Californian art-historical and cultural contexts goes too far, and ends up blunting the work's critical edge.
More than this, though, what troubles me about Made in LA as a whole is its apparent embrace of the neo-boosterist notion of Los Angeles as an “art capital.” What does this even mean at a time when the internet has made geographical remoteness no obstacle to becoming informed about contemporary art, and many of the networks through which this knowledge circulates have evolved social dynamics as complex as those at any gallery or artist residency? Granted, there's obviously a lot of capital for art here, as a glance at the exhibition's major, generous, and additional supporters – not to mention its presenting sponsor, Wells Fargo – quickly establishes. But what's the point when the result is politically inflected by a hollow liberal pluralism unable to give voice to the anger and desperation of a city where unemployment has continued to soar and racial inequality remains a serious problem?
And yet, for me, attitudes like these, which Made in LA has hardly invented, are what season my commitment to this dystopian megalopolis, seen not as a capital or center but rather as the province of provinces, producing artists who flourish in a climate of indifference, willful or lazy misinterpretation, and even outright hostility, drawing strength from their remoteness and isolation.
I even feel a certain gratitude for the curatorial decisions I simultaneously decry, since they finally end up restating the necessity of taking a second look crucial to my favorite pieces in the show. Over and above the Vegas carpet collage and light show, for instance, my admiration for Cayetano Ferrer's contribution centers on his majestically patterned wall, whose Byzantine ridges and curves are all but invisible at first glance. Likewise, Vincent Ramos' outstanding installation initially made me feel I had mistakenly wandered into a back room of the Barnsdall, housing trinkets unintended for public display, creating a sense of uncertainty and even danger that turned out to directly anticipate his sophisticated exploration of what it means to be an outsider. In the end, I'll end up going back and likely finding more to love, for Made in LA is an exhibition like the urban landscape that contains it, at those moments when, driving for blocks past cheaply stuccoed houses bleached by sun and greyed by smog, it can seem at one and the same time utterly exhausted and endlessly pluripotent.
(Image on top right: Kathryn Andrews, Rainbow Successor, 2011, Stainless steel, rented costume, 73 x 51 x 48 in.; Courtesy the artist and David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles / Photo by Brian Forrest)