The Los Angeles art scene coalesced in the late 1950s and ’60s around artists including Ed Ruscha, Billy Al Bengston, De Wain Valentine, and others associated with the pioneering Ferus Gallery. Dubbed the “Cool School,” the Ferus artists were known not only for their work but also for their activities outside of the art world: surfing, womanizing, and generally carousing on the city’s sunny boulevards and beaches. The third iteration of the Hammer Museum’s Made in LA biennial—organized by the museum’s Aram Moshayedi and the Renaissance Society’s Hamza Walker—proposed a current art scene that is much more diverse, with artists whose backgrounds and practices are as wide-ranging as the city’s notorious sprawl. The contributions by the show’s twenty-six participants spanned the fields of film, fashion, television, the internet, literature, and music, as well as painting and sculpture.
The exhibition began with its very title: “a, the, though, only,” a work commissioned from the poet Aram Saroyan. In theory, anyone who passed the banners, billboards, and other advertisements placed throughout the city experienced a small part of the show. Similarly, internet artist Guthrie Lonergan’s Built with Indexhibit (2016)—M&M’s candy widgets with speech bubbles containing text from artists’ statements found in online portfolios—could be viewed from anywhere via the Hammer website. Other artworks that lived outside the museum’s confines included Todd Gray’s restaging (in abridged form) of a 2013 work in which he wore the clothes of his friend Ray Manzarek, founding member and keyboardist of the Doors, for one year. Gray did not document any portion of the piece for the biennial, and thus to experience the performance one had to rely on a chance encounter with the artist out in public during the three-month run of the exhibition.
A number of works at the Hammer took full advantage of the museum’s various spaces. Kelly Akashi’s Eat Me (Interior), 2016, a captivating polyurethane sculpture based on the form of a dried-out onion though provocatively suggesting female genitalia, hung delicately across the museum’s open-air courtyard. Handmade adobe bricks shaped by activist artist Rafa Esparza and his father, an immigrant with experience in manufacturing adobe bricks in his native Mexico, sprawled across the expansive second-floor terrace in Tierra (2016). Visitors were invited to walk on the installation and ponder the politics of property, place, power, and labor.
Gala Porras-Kim presented ethnographic artifacts borrowed from the Fowler Museum (which, like the Hammer, is on the UCLA campus), such as horn fragments and basket weavings, that lack definitive dates, provenance, and other pertinent information. Over two dozen such items were on view, along with their incomplete filing materials (including Post-its with notations written by museum staff at the Fowler), as well as to-scale pencil renderings Porras-Kim made of the items—her own version of the cataloguing process. The artist also created two works that were inspired by Fowler artifacts but invented new contexts for them: a large-scale pattern painting based on a piece of embroidery, and a decorative ceramic vessel with cutouts in the shape of various pottery shards.
Daniel R. Small’s installation likewise centered on artifacts. His project Excavation II (2012) revolves around the history of the Egyptian-themed sets constructed for Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 movie The Ten Commandments; after filming was completed, DeMille had the sets dismantled and buried on-site, in the sands of Guadalupe, California, so that no other director could use them. Small shows how the sets figured in another fictional portrayal of Egypt—paintings once installed in the Luxor hotel in Las Vegas—and how the history of the sets’ construction and excavation echo those of the actual sites in Egypt.
What Made in LA seems to do best is to bring wider attention to under-recognized artists, as it did in 2012 with Channa Horwitz (1932–2013) and in 2014 with husband-wife team Magdalena Suarez Frimkess (b. 1929) and Michael Frimkess (b. 1937). This year, the show contained mini-retrospectives of four artists: jazz musician Wadada Leo Smith (b. 1941), photographer and labor activist Fred Lonidier (b. 1942), and, providing the most captivating of the displays, assemblage artist Kenzi Shiokava (b. 1938) and painter and sculptor Huguette Caland (b. 1931).
Friendly with better-known figures like Noah Purifoy, John Outterbridge, and Betye Saar, the Japanese-Brazilian Shiokava received his BFA from LA’s renowned Chouinard Art Institute in 1972 and for the past two decades has occupied a spacious studio in Compton. Inspired by Japanese and Brazilian carving traditions, Shiokava often produces sculptures using trees and plants he has grown himself in a garden outside his studio. His presentation in the exhibition consisted of small assemblages that lined the walls and a striking group of tall totems he made between approximately 1990 and 2005. Fashioned from materials like cork, strands of beads, macramé, and wood that he burnished by hand, these somewhat figural sculptures have a presence at once corporeal and mystical.
Caland, the daughter of Lebanon’s first post-republic president, left her family in Beirut to pursue a bohemian lifestyle in Paris and New York before settling in Los Angeles in 1987, and her body of work is as colorful and eccentric as her storied past. Caland’s gallery in the biennial contained a mix of bold abstract paintings suggesting body parts; motley, hand-wrought clay sculptures; fine felt-tipped pen drawings with Klimtian patterns of decoration; and the type of embroidered caftans that caught the attention of fashion designer Pierre Cardin, for whom she designed over a hundred such garments in the 1970s. Caland’s Venice home, where she lived and worked from 1987 to 2013, served as a gathering place for a disparate cast of American, European, and Middle Eastern artists and characters that Los Angeles abstract painter and “Cool School” artist Ed Moses, in an interview in the biennial’s catalogue, compared to Gertrude Stein’s Paris salon.
More familiar artists participated in Made in LA as well. Rebecca Morris showed a selection of her colorful, geometric abstractions, and Sterling Ruby exhibited a group of readymade welding tables from his studio, but both presentations fell flat, feeling rote and predictable. The displays devoted to Shiokava and Caland were much more compelling—not only providing in-depth treatments of these lesser-known figures but also showing how the city has been able to foster talent over time to produce its own rich history.