Cracked and imperfect, resting atop a section of otherwise crisp white marble floor, is a carpet of gridded reddish dirt.
At the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, in a biannual exhibition tasked with representing local creativity, a portrait of the region’s artistic practice takes shape—installed alongside the very firmament from which it was excavated. The earth, the grit, the material of the city—literal and imagined—makes its way into the museum.
“It's a dynamic moment in Los Angeles,” said Hamza Walker, standing on the rough terrain. Walker is Director of Education and Associate Curator at the Renaissance Society of Chicago and was brought in to co-organize this year’s Made in L.A. biennial with in-house curator, Aram Moshayedi.
“We were working well within the wake of Pacific Standard Time,” continued Walker, speaking of the 2011 effort funded by the J. Paul Getty Trust to document the history of art activity and movements in Los Angeles after World War II. The six-month exhibition was shown in dozens of arts institutions across the city. The newer biennial, initiated in 2012 and now in its third edition, aims “to both be mindful and respectful of that [effort] but also just to acknowledge a new day…an acknowledgement of Los Angeles as a very big place and a cosmopolitan town and not have the artists necessarily be answerable to older, more stereotyped notions of what Los Angeles is.”
“So that was really, I think, what we had in mind in terms of looking at these artists,” said Walker. “And a kind of scale of ambition,” Moshayedi added. The co-curators are synergetic in their ability to pick up and expand the other’s talking point. Their voices echoed across Lindbrook Terrace, a breezy outdoor space and the last stop on a tour of Made in L.A. 2016: a, the, though, only.
This year is the first time the Hammer brought in a curator from outside of the city for the biennial. In preparation—and with the muscle of the Hammer on their side—Walker and Moshayedi visited about 200 studios throughout Southern California over the course of 12 months. Their search spanned as far south as San Diego, east to Joshua Tree, and back up just north of the city to Ventura.
The first iteration of Made in L.A. featured a whopping 60 artists; the 2014 biennial showed 35. This year the exhibition features work from 26 artists and offers more in-depth presentations of individual bodies of work than previous iterations, extending beyond visual art into such disciplines as dance, fashion, literature, music, film, and even those which defy categorization. Todd Gray’s contribution, for example, is not physically present at the Hammer but instead exists in his day-to-day life. The curators asked the artist to “remount” a memorial gesture he made to his late friend and collaborator Ray Manzarek (co-founder and keyboardist for The Doors) when he wore the musician’s clothing for a year after his passing, not at all certain whether or not he could call it a work of art.
For the duration of the biennial, Gray will be wearing Manzarek's actual wardrobe. “So if you happen to see him, there's the work,” Walker said with a laugh.
Guthrie Lonergan, Screengrab of the Hammer Museum website with widgets by the artist, June 2016
The 26 artists occupy the entire museum, down to the Hammer’s website, which incorporates widgets by Guthrie Lonergan. The artist also created an explorative, tonal soundtrack based on popular reality television shows—Top Chef, the Real Housewives franchise—that recurs at five separate points throughout the museum, spliced with other artists’ work.
The highly compartmentalized exhibition is laid out as an extension of the Hammer itself, meandering in and out of its every pocket, each room like a mini solo show. These in-depth surveys of individual bodies of work function like condensed retrospectives that effectively give artists who have been producing work in Los Angeles for many years their due.
Labor Link TV, Installation view, Made in L.A. 2016: a, the, though, only, June 12–August 28, 2016, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. Photo: Brian Forrest
There’s an entire room full of viewing stations playing episodes of Labor Link TV, a initiative of artist Fred Lonidier, which produced public-access television programs about Southern California labor movements and union activities from 1988 to 2011; we find walls lined with new paintings by Rebecca Morris; there’s a presentation of Arthur Jafa’s “cookbooks,” which were used to develop an authentic black aesthetic for his 1991 film Daughters of the Dust. Jafa, a director and cinematographer, collected hundreds of clipped images in over 200 notebooks never meant to be shared, let alone put on display until Walker and Moshayedi suggested it.
“...it was something of a revelation that there had been somebody who had been so prolific with his output but not had any career recognition...”
Kenzi Shiokava, one of the older artists featured in the biennial, moved to Los Angeles in 1964 from Brazil (he is ethnically Japanese). At the Hammer, the artist is exhibiting part of his large collection of timeworn found objects, carved wooden totems, and assemblages in a display that mimics his long-time Compton studio.
“The density we wanted to reflect was the density we encountered when we first visited Kenzi in his studio, where he's lived since 1994,” said Moshayedi. “I think for both of us it was something of a revelation that there had been somebody who had been so prolific with his output but not had any career recognition or any attention per se; we were completely mesmerized.”
Rebecca Morris, Installation view, Made in L.A. 2016: a, the, though, only, June 12–August 28, 2016, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. Photo: Brian Forrest
“This potential, to not only introduce the work of emerging artists but also important artists that have not received adequate exhibition opportunities in recent years, is a real strength of this exhibition and a major reason I am thrilled to be a part of this iteration,” biennial artist Kelly Akashi told me. “I have always admired Aram’s pursuit of finding artists working with new ways of communicating meaning through their work, and how to bring the energy of the artist's studio to an exhibition.”
The 2016 biennial brings the outside into the museum space, in both material and historical registers.
Akashi is among the younger, emerging artists participating this year. Born and raised in Los Angeles, she chose the Hammer’s courtyard to represent a relationship between bodies, objects, and architecture. Her two sculptural works comprise objects modeled after her own hands and enlarged layers of onions, molded in rubber. These are bound together and suspended above the courtyard by rope as a means to enhance its corporeal qualities.
“Hamza and Aram were excited by the space I chose, but also wanted to challenge me to push the temporal and handmade qualities of my previous work,” said Akashi. “They encouraged me to push my materials, process, and the defining boundaries of the work itself.”
This pushing of boundaries is a defining characteristic of the 2016 biennial, which in many ways brings the outside into the museum space, in both material and historical registers. Emblematic of this script flipping is Rafa Esparza’s la tierra, an elevated walking surface paved with 1,900 square feet of adobe bricks.
Looking down toward my feet, I can see handprints and finger marks in the solid chunks of hardened dirt. The bricks themselves were “Made in L.A.” by Esparza and his father with dirt sourced from South L.A. and the Eastside communities of San Fernando and the San Gabriel Valley, and mixed with water from the L.A. River.
Rafa Esparza, la tierra, 2016, Adobe bricks, found objects. Installation view, Made in L.A. 2016: a, the, though, only,
June 12–August 28, 2016, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Brian Forrest
Leading up to the installation, Esparza invited Walker and Moshayedi, along with close friends, to unearth various objects he had buried back in January around the historic region of Chavez Ravine, partially located in Elysian Park. Largely recognized today as the home of Dodger Stadium, the site was once a multigenerational Mexican-American town that has since become a classic example of displacement by development.
What you'll find in la tierra are four different pieces that live atop the adobe surface—including a cactus still sprouting new growth from a royal blue upholstered chair excavated by Esparza and Moshayedi. Another object is an old mailbox, unearthed by Walker and the artist. It’s from Esparza’s childhood home in East Pasadena and still has a bullet hole from a drive-by shooting pierced through its corner (despite his father’s best efforts to repair the hole over the years with Bondo).
“I think of [the objects] as sort of synchronous site-specific actions or gestures,” Esparza told me the day after he finished installing the work, “meaning that when they were being made, they were conceived as a peek into the physical aspect of Elysian Park, its history, the place of home, as well as each individual that would be invited to dig each object up. The site was simultaneously like a psychic and physical space, both materially tangible as well as fleeting and ephemeral.”
“There's layers and layers to this work,” said the artist. “I was interested in approaching or treating the Hammer as a site, and incorporating or thinking about archaeology as a practice we use to consider how museums apply value to found or discovered objects and then designate where they exist after they're brought up from the ground.”
“Galleries and traditional art spaces should never be a default designation for artworks.”
Esparza had initial apprehensions about participating in the biennial. He typically works and performs in public sites across the city, rather than museums or institutional spaces, and he doesn’t believe artwork needs biennial or museum recognition to validate it. “For me,” he said, “what it meant to agree to participate was the opportunity to speak to museum culture, to speak to the institution directly. I was critical of the two prior exhibitions and I feel like here's an opportunity where you could speak directly to what you see is problematic about how museums function; I'm excited to see what the presence of this work does.”
He went on: “I'm also interested in the sort of conversations that can happen about displacement and the sort of role artists, art spaces, and art in general—this like capital “A” art—and how that impacts communities that are facing and fighting gentrification.”
“I feel like there are communities that have historically been marginalized from the mainstream art world. I'm thinking about the Chicano art community and the Eastside.” The artist mused about how such communities might participate in future biennials: “It would be really interesting to make those invitations and invested inquiries into practices that have been formed, made, and evolved through a lot of resilience in Los Angeles.” He wondered what those conversations would look like, and how artists might respond. “Galleries and traditional art spaces should never be a default designation for artworks.”
“Museums tend to be happy when things are static and quiet and don't talk back.”
Like Esparza, Made in L.A. 2016 thinks hard about museum value systems and their roles as repositories and presenters of culture. With a reach extending beyond art world pre-approved candidates—and beyond the visual arts more generally—the curators acknowledge the responsibility they have in bestowing value, in representing a city. Inevitably bestowing institutional recognition, the curators nevertheless allow artists working primarily outside of traditional art spaces to continue to work on their own terms—expanding on previous work while showing a more complete portrait of themselves to a new audience. Walker and Moshayedi were also thoughtful in their attempt to bring some essence of the artists’ studios into the exhibition, pushing work forward toward new audiences—in some cases, early in the artists’ careers and as the work evolves in real time. Lauren Davis Fisher, for example, works her large-scale installation practice into the Hammer, integrating sculpture and architecture. Fisher will alter her installation weekly throughout the run of the exhibition, reflecting the changing of forms and the types of labor that are key to her practice.
Lauren Davis Fisher, Installation view, Made in L.A. 2016: a, the, though, only,
June 12–August 28, 2016, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Brian Forrest
Moshayedi considered bringing practices like Esparza’s into the Hammer. “In some ways it was a push I think for artists like…Rafa to push their practice, to think about how things that they had done in more experimental contexts could happen within a museum,” Moshayedi said. “Most often, museums are resistant to this kind of work because of the challenges that it obviously faces for every single department within here…Museums tend to be happy when things are static and quiet and don't talk back.”
“We really have to thank [Director] Annie [Philbin] and Co. for allowing this much dirt to be brought into the museum,” said Walker. “On that note if we can all use the mats when you exit that'd be great.”
Lauren McQuade is an LA-based writer, photojournalist and editor with interest in social issues and the representation of culture in the city of Los Angeles.
(Image at top: Kenzi Shiokava, Installation view, Made in L.A. 2016: a, the, though, only, June 12 –August 28, 2016, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. Photo: Brian Forrest)