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What’s so L.A. about Made in L.A. 2018? Well, for starters, you have sunsets (which happen everywhere, but especially in the Golden State), the defining feature in Neha Choksi’s rueful video rumination on mortality and/or existence. You have water, L.A.’s perennial source of life, anxiety, and breezy, beachy identity— Patrick Staff’s afflicted, depressive performers crawl out of a shallow, rectangular metal pan, half-filled with water, and never dry off. You have junk food—Michael Queenland’s austere shelves of cereal—and actual junk, retooled in the works of Nancy Lupo, Rosha Yaghmai, and Aaron Fowler to the (mixed) effect of either weak ecopolitics or the arty romanticization of L.A.’s chronic litter problem. Lastly, you have illusion—Gelare Khoshgozaran’s uneven rumination on a desert stretch of California serving as a simulation (battle)ground for soldiers training to go to the Middle East. An overlaid Google map of a stretch of border between Iraq and Iran reminds the viewer that they’re seeing a mirage, lest they forget.
You would be forgiven for coming away from Made in L.A. 2018 with the impression of L.A. as a land of restless, if not necessarily meaningful, production. The exhibition—sometimes to its credit—doesn’t resist the dominant and problematic figuration of L.A. proper as a land of fantasy, desire, and pleasure, rather than, say, history, or deep thought. That this neatly dovetails with an art world precipitously aligned with power and capital sheds an often-unflattering light on the works here centered around the intertwined claims of identity politics and the deconstruction of power, in turn amplifying the L.A.-isms of Made in L.A. 2018 to a level of slickness that is often hard to trust.
In the first main gallery at the Hammer, one arm of MPA’s pair of broken, large-scale red knockoff Ray-Bans leans against a gallery wall, the lens facing down into the floor. An Oldenberg-y throwback to consumer culture as kitsch, the sculpture also functions as an oversize name-drop (these frames aren’t Oakleys). At a time when our choice of grocery store can reveal our political affiliation, describing these broken frames, as the exhibition text does, as “[a] metaphor for the current state of political affairs” strikes as particularly tone-deaf. Perhaps this explains why Lauren Halsey’s outdoor drywall temple, with it’s emblazoned, but colorless formality, space-clearing size, neighborhood-y vernacular, and total absence of on-the-nose metaphor, succeeds, whereas EJ Hill’s vault—a running track interrupted by a tall, wooden blockade, augmented by hand-wringing, but ruefully aspirational neon—falls a bit flat. Even considering its most salient, albeit oddly self-aggrandizing wrinkle—Hill’s enduring, actual physical presence throughout the exhibition’s run, standing on top of a three-tiered wooden plinth—the work leaves little to unpack in its generally agreeable politicking.
Four artists in two adjacent rooms showcase an unrefined, née fashionably distressed, materiality. Nikita Gale and Aaron Fowler leave a messy racket in a shared gallery space, the former’s kinetic, yet opaque, sculptural installation of amplifying elements paired with the latter’s flattened junk assemblages. In the neighboring space, Christina Quarles’ casually overlapping, vividly-hued figural drawings show opposite Diedrick Brackens’ frayed weavings, the latter employing an irresistible combination of historical form and contemporary subject. Weighted by a poignant and tragic narrative, Brackens’ nuanced and meaningful textiles stand out in their subtlety of politic, leaving other nearby works feeling a bit ham-fisted. To counter the loose aesthetic of Gale, Fowler, Quarles, and Brackens, Made in L.A. 2018 offers the graphical, tightly-controlled works of Luchita Hurtado, John Houck, Eamon Ore-Giron, and Linda Stark as contrast, if not apology.
Made in L.A. 2018’s most successful works occur where the artists forget anxiety of place (whether social or geographic) and trade identity for its subtler, less fraught, cousin: experience. Alison O’Daniel’s engagingly strange installation, The Tuba Thieves (2013-ongoing)—a rumination on acoustics, hearing loss, and a strange local news story—situates its subjects (human or otherwise) squarely at the center, interpreting rather than reacting to the world through which they move. Michael Queensland’s perverse, clever installation of breakfast cereal, naked in unopened cellophane and re-boxed into wire mesh cages, is paired with a tiny video showing cereal commercials on a loop, most zeroing in on the zany-making prospects of eating sugared corn by the bowlful. Queensland finds a rare language of dispersive, rather than rote, identity politics, “the body” here merely a cultural-collective recipient (and target) of sugar-based pleasure. Lastly, and ironically, one of Made in L.A. 2018’s best works engages L.A. stereotypes head-on: Megan Whitmarsh and Jade Gordon’s frothy, hilarious installation and video meditation on self-help and vaguely defined universal energies. The two contemplate the endless circular path of life (or something) with cutting humor and campy costuming. Rather than anxiety of place, Whitmarsh and Gordon simply forget to have anxiety, poking fun at a new-age milieu with which they also have an obvious sympathy.
This essay was originally published in Carla issue 13.