Loosening Up the Edges: Interview with “Made in L.A.” Co-curator Connie Butler

Emily Mast, B!RDBRA!N (Epilogue), 2012, exhibition and performance as part of Public Fiction's Theatricality and Sets series. Photo Anitra Haendel.



When the Hammer Museum’s second “Made in L.A.” biennial opens this weekend, the show (June 15-Sept. 7) will include work by 28 L.A.-based artists and two collaborative teams. It will also feature five artist- or curator-helmed organizations, because the biennial’s organizers—independent curator Michael Ned Holte and Hammer chief curator Connie Butler—chose to invite certain venues that struck them as especially key to the current character of art in this city.

These include Public Fiction, the alternative space overseen by curator-designer Lauren Mackler; Los Angeles Museum of Art (LAMOA), the bedroom-sized museum artist Alice Könitz built behind her Eagle Rock studio; the artist-run radio station KCHUNG; the studio of choreographer Jmy James Kidd; and the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives, represented by curator David Frantz’s show about late painter and performer Tony Greene.

The decision to fold in these venues reflects Holte and Butler’s main interest: not to try to represent any one vision of Los Angeles, but, in Butler’s words, to explore the specific texture of the community here.

Butler, who was still chief drawings curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art when she agreed to collaborate with Holte on “Made in L.A. 2014,” at first assumed she would be staying in New York, flying back and forth to do studio visits. But she announced in May 2013 that she would return to L.A.—she previously worked at this city’s Museum of Contemporary Art—as the Hammer’s new chief curator. She recently spoke with A.i.A. at the museum about the approach she and Holte took to organizing the biennial.

CATHERINE WAGLEY Did the idea of including in the show exhibition venues like Public Fiction or Jmy James Kidd’s studio come about as you were doing studio visits or did you know all along it was what you wanted?

CONNIE BUTLER It definitely happened as we were making studio visits. It evolved out of thinking about the structure of the community in Los Angeles, a place where you don’t have as much of the commercial gallery framework that really structures a place like New York. We were interested in Jmy as an artist and as a person gathering artists around her. She’s got this bartering program—

WAGLEY Right—people make donations to the free boutique or free bar as the price of admission when they come to events she hosts. Visitors can also take items away from the boutique or have drinks from the bar.

BUTLER There’s a kind of currency and economy about what people contribute to her studio, what they can take from it, how they can use it. We didn’t necessarily know she was going to make a physical space at the museum, but I think she is one of those choreographers who’s really thinking about how dance can work in the museum. And I’m really interested in that.

WAGLEY Was it visits with other artists that led you to Public Fiction?

BUTLER I met Lauren a year and a half ago, when I was working with curatorial students at USC. They were interested in her space as a curatorial model. I just thought, “If we want to capture some of the most interesting up-and-coming talent and thinking in this city, she’s one of those people. Why shouldn’t she be in the show just because she happens to be more a curator than an artist?”

WAGLEY Lauren really does have a certain aesthetic that shapes what she does, though, as does Alice Könitz.

BUTLER They do, and I think we loved Alice’s own aesthetic in her work and we also loved this project where she’s supporting the work of other artists as an extension of her own practice. We didn’t ask her for her work, but what she’s exhibiting is kind of a synthesis of [Könitz’s own work and the Los Angeles Museum of Art in the form of] gorgeous sculptural objects she’s made as stand-ins for her museum.

WAGLEY In your catalogue essay, you write about how artist-run spaces like these didn’t exist in the same way when you were here, 10 years ago.

BUTLER Of course, there are always [alternative venues],  but in the early 2000s, the market was looking so intensely at Los Angeles. So you had young artists taking their work straight to galleries. It seemed like there was less of that artist-run activity at that point. Whereas now—and it’s not just in Los Angeles—somehow, when the market’s at its most crazy and its most conservative, and there’s so much money in it, you have artists turning away from it.

WAGLEY Talking to [artist-dancer duo] Gerard and Kelly, Jmy James Kidd, and even Lauren Mackler, you see that they’re trying to figure out ways to sustain what they’re doing outside the market.

BUTLER The Hammer is a place that wants to be and considers itself artist-centric, whatever that means, so bringing in spaces and being a little bit more experimental about the parameters of what the biennial could include made sense. Both Michael and I like the idea of opening up even our own authorship. Even though I hope the show has a kind of cohesion, at the same time we liked loosening up the edges.

WAGLEY There’s often boosterism involved in shows like this. But it doesn’t feel like this show is so much about Los Angeles.

BUTLER It’s really not. It is a biennial that happens to be here. L.A. is very like Berlin in this way—so many artists are coming here to practice that there isn’t any one thing that represents the place. The regionalism has more to do with why people choose to be here and the particular texture and character of the community. There’s something about its size and relationship to the commercial world that makes it very supportive. People have been really supportive of this show. But maybe once it’s been done another 10 times, they’ll start to be like they are with the Whitney Biennial, anticipating how they’re going to criticize it.

WAGLEY Both you and Michael mention Mike Kelley in your essays in the exhibition catalog—was he someone you talked about together?

BUTLER When we started working on this show his death had just happened, and I was working on the installation of the Mike Kelley show in New York, so as we embarked, the question of what Los Angeles is without Mike Kelley was huge. He and Lari Pittman were the first L.A. artists to have a huge international presence, and now with Mike gone and the art world itself being more international, it feels to me like something really important will shift. There’s no silver lining to Mike’s passing, but now maybe there’s a little more room to look at people outside of just that generation that so dominated the late 1980s and early ’90s. I’ve been thinking a lot about Daniel Joseph Martinez, who was a teacher of Juan Capistrán [an artist in the biennial] at [U.C.] Irvine. What’s the impact of someone like Daniel Martinez, who’s Mike Kelley’s age and a really brilliant artist working this whole time? With Norman Yonemoto’s passing, what about Bruce and Norman Yonemoto’s work? And with [curator] Karin Higa’s passing, I’ve thought a lot about the kind of Japanese-American, Asian-American identity in this city. What’s that incredibly important legacy that hasn’t been well represented in the institutions here?