As the second edition of a show that first took place two years ago, this summer’s Made in L.A. at the Hammer Museum satisfied the minimum requirements of being biennial. Though the show coincided with the sustained rush of artists relocating to Los Angeles from New York, Europe and elsewhere, something about the timing felt off; throwing another biennial into the ring seems more about striving to get a place on the map than celebrating its undeniable influence. Many critics of the inaugural exhibition expressed uncertainty about whether the endeavor is good for the city, like Michael Ned Holte, who wrote in Artforum: “The first edition of Made in L.A. left open the question of whether the city needs such a determinedly local biennial.”
Two years later, Holte organized Made in L.A. 2014 alongside the museum’s new chief curator Connie Butler (assisted by Emily Gonzalez), and though the format improved, the question still remained. And in its persistence lies an answer: no, Los Angeles probably doesn’t need a regionally focused survey exhibition every two years. Synopsizing the city in this way has not yet produced an exhibition greater than the sum of its parts. And to be fair, how could it?
With a total of 35 artists participating, Made in L.A. 2014 was tighter than its predecessor, in which 60 artists spanned five venues around town. Tighter and tidier. What the show could not escape was how democratic it felt. It was very Californian, very inclusive, very PC. What it reminded me of more than anything else was school. A school is not a dishonorable institution, but it’s rarely a transgressive one. This wasn’t always the case, particularly here. Southern California’s mythos as an art center is largely steeped in its golden age of art schools, the 1970s and ’80s. Since then, the dynamic between teacher and student has crystallized into the correlative categories of underrepresented and emerging artists, respectively, which Los Angeles establishments are obsessed with reifying through programs that emphasize the inclusion of underdogs to the exclusion of big shots.
The core problem with Made in L.A. was not in omissions; with the exception of Gabriel Kuri and maybe one or two others, internationally established artists of all kinds were not present, so it was difficult to name individuals sorely missed. It was that, overall, it felt like a meta-MFA show. This speaks nothing of the quality of the work, i.e., student versus professional, but of how the exhibiting artists were grouped circumstantially, by where they live and work, instead of by a more directed means.
Some works channeled the positive dimensions of art school. One of the most well integrated artist-working-in-situ-during-a-biennial pieces I have seen was Piero Golia’s The Comedy of Craft (Act 1: Carving George Washington’s Nose), 2014. It’s an eyesore: as one walks down the corridor that joins the two primary upstairs galleries, massive chunks of cut polystyrene foam began to appear as if a glacier had dropped crumbs. An entire span of the hall became Golia’s borderless studio, and while you might have caught him or his assistants fashioning these foam blocks into a life-size replica of Washington’s nose on Mount Rushmore, you just as easily might not have. This wasn’t a performance scripted for museum opening hours; it was an occupation around the clock, but one that came to life only on the artist’s schedule.
Another piece humming with collegiate self-indulgence was ex-con Jennifer Moon’s insane installation, which, yes, included rainbows on the walls and a spirit animal diorama within a sculptural egg. But more compelling was her magnum opus of exhaustive interpersonal engineering on the wall: a many-thousand-word, quantitative and qualitative flow chart chronicling her actual conversion of a stranger into her monogamous partner. It details every bump, real or imagined, along the way.
These were not necessarily the best works in the show, but they were the most generously unwieldy. The standouts were subtler: Kuri’s granite sculptures, in which cigarette butts were stuffed in the stones’ rounded seams, lining the same outdoor hallways as Golia’s work, and especially Ricky Swallow’s suite of “Object Studies,” small bronze sculptures cast from cardboard, rubber bands and other humble materials worked into curious compositions recalling modernist design.
In between there was a sea of A and B students. In the painting class there’s Lecia Dole-Recio with her painted and cut-paper triangles, Max Maslansky’s bedsheets painted in Easter-hued acrylics according to vintage porn stills, and Marcia Hafif’s off-monochromatic squares that are ever so slightly tinted black. Video was proportionally represented with Mariah Garnett’s docu-essay-poem tracing the existential economies of ex-soldiers who become stuntmen, Judy Fiskin’s old-school elegy to her mother and her worldly belongings, and Wu Tsang’s A day in the life of bliss, a new two-channel work in which the performance artist boychild plays a CK1-friendly protagonist on one screen, whose narrative she kinetically interprets on the other.
While there’s a number of promising statements contained within Made in L.A. 2014, the show itself failed to make one of its own.
“Made in L.A.,” the ambitious biennial co-organized by the Hammer Museum and LAXART, provided undeniable proof (should any be required post-PST) that the city has arrived as an international art center. The exhibition boasted five curators: Anne Elle-good and Ali Subotnick of the Hammer, and Lauri Firstenberg, Malik Gaines and Cesar Garcia, all of LAXART. Although the Orange County Museum of Art has hosted the California Biennial since 1984, “Made in L.A.” is the first biennial to exclusively feature artists who live in Los Angeles. The 60 artists range in age from 20 to 80 (though most were born in the 1970s) and work in video, sculpture, painting, photography, installation and performance.
The prevailing sensibility, particularly at the Hammer, was one of fragmentation and disarray, which perhaps reflects a crumbling economy. Most of the works were groupings of odd and inscrutable objects cobbled together and/or found. Notable among these was a mixed-medium table by Joel Otterson. Tableau Vivant: Burned and Scarred (2008-12) has spindly green legs on wheels and an ornately shaped wooden top that is carved with graffiti. Kathryn Andrews offered a more minimal assembly. Simple yet deeply compelling is her Rainbow Successor (2011), a clown suit hung at a rakish angle within a metal cage; the duel between play and imprisonment serves as a mirror of the city, where the spectacle of Hollywood glitters alongside one of the most infamous prison systems in the nation.
Pieces that were less sprawling and disjunctive tended to attract attention at the Hammer. Roy Dowell and Ruby Neri each displayed sculptures that playfully poke at modernism—the former with paper, cardboard and acrylic abstractions and the latter with ceramic figuration. Other standouts were Morgan Fisher’s brightly elegant minimalist painting on an exterior wall of the museum and Meleko Mokgosi’s multi-canvas painting fusing imagery from the U.S. and Africa.
At LAMAG, the curators took advantage of the historic public gallery’s large spaces and high ceilings, exhibiting larger works and video projections. Viewers were greeted by Trance Plant (2003), a Suessian tree by Ry Rocklen made of copper pipe “branches” set in cement and draped with leafy ribbons of audiocassette tape. Videos were some of the strongest works here, including Michele O’Marah’s charming and poignant piece that explores the life of fashion icon Isabella Blow, and Michelle Dizon’s Civil Society (2008), which investigates memory, power and subjectivity through her experience as a teen during the 1992 L.A. riots. The Propeller Group (Phunam Thuc Ha, Matt Lucero and Tuan Andrew Nguyen) showed a two-part project titled TVC Communism (2011), for which they collaborated with an advertising firm (TBWA/Vietnam) to rebrand communism in a positive light for U.S. audiences. Five flat screens installed in a circle presented the ad team’s brainstorming sessions at the agency’s offices. Also on view, here and at the Hammer, was the feel-good commercial itself.
Overall the curators tended to neglect the eclecticism characteristic of art in Los Angeles in favor of an esthetic that could be called “global contemporary.” One hoped to see a wider breadth and depth of perspectives. The inclusion of the collective Slanguage, founded in 2002 by Mario Ybarra Jr. and Karla Diaz, countered this inclination. The grassroots group has been empowering youth through art in the underserved area of Wilmington for the past 10 years while simultaneously bringing international artists to their storefront space. Their truly community-based endeavors give agency to the participants rather than themselves. At LAXART, in addition to presenting a survey of their past work, Slanguage held various workshops and painted a mural on the facade.
Although the full range of L.A. artists’ cultural and economic diversity was not represented, this biennial offered one view. And in two years another will surface. In the meantime, the Hammer and LAXART provided plenty of public events and panels to address these issues.
Photos (right) Partial view of the Propeller Group’s TVC Communism (foreground), 2011, five-channel video installation, 5¾ hours, with (background) Nery Gabriel Lemus’s Until the Day Breaks and Shadows Flee #2, 2012; at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery. (left) View of works by Joel Otterson, including Tableau Vivant: Garden Table (left), 2011, and Tableau Vivant: Burned and Scarred (right), 2008-12; at the Hammer.