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The biennial occupies a particular space in the art ecosystem, often aiming to have a specific regional focus, and be of the moment. Given the pluralistic nature of art and culture in late capitalism, using contemporaneity and adjacency as an organizing principle often ends up forcing connections between too many aesthetic ideas, resulting in cacophony. Made in L.A. 2016: a, the, though, only upends those expectations, pretending to be neither local (the artists are not all Los Angeles-based), nor particularly current (many of the works in the show were made before 2000), nor comprehensive (there are only 26 artists in the exhibition). Much of the work was not even intended for a gallery or museum context when it was made. The curators Hamza Walker and Aram Moshayedi mostly eschewed traditional, self-contained objects, instead giving a small group of artists ample space for installations that in one way or another present cultural, archeological, or sociological inquiries: What kinds of systems are at play here? How does our labor create meaning? How can these processes become more open and expansive?
In Rafa Esparza’s work, tierra (2016), objects which have been buried and unearthed are displayed on a floor of bricks which were made by Esparza, his father, and other family and friends. The labor and the laborers, often elided in the artistic presentation, are here foregrounded. In burying these objects before putting them on display, Esparza employs a form of ritual that brings attention to how the earth is an active participant in all our human activities. Lauren Davis Fisher also emphasizes labor in her installation SET TESTS (2016), turning sculpture into an open-ended activity where the elements are changed every week. The work then culminated in a formal performance at the end of the exhibit. This ongoing performance changes the static nature of sculpture into a system of fluid aesthetic relationships, where the objects’ identity, function, and relationship to each other remains in motion, subject to change. Both these works, along with the films of Laida Lertxundi, integrate the materiality of their creation into their presentation so that the story of the making of the works was felt in their physical presence.
Across the exhibition, many other works are sites where different kinds of descriptive systems and categories of knowledge are rendered visible. The artist is sometimes creating, but more often gathering, organizing, transcribing, and unearthing. Often, this involves a transforming of that which is controlled, prescribed, and defined into something more open, interpretable, and felt. For instance, musical notation is traditionally a specialized language that is designed to precisely replicate the performance of a given piece of music. In the case of Wadada Leo Smith’s scores, this constrictive language is discarded and replaced with a form of visual syntax, that instead creates a loose, free-form structure upon which to improvise. Smith does this in part by combining the visual language of painting with the structure of musical notation, thereby cross contaminating both systems. Similarly, Arthur Jafa’s books are culled from magazines and other commercial sources, where they are part of a system intended either to sell a product or tell a story. Here, the images form a kind of open-ended cosmos, in which relationships are fluid and intuitive. In changing the dynamics of these images and their circulation, Jafa gives the viewer tacit permission to see all images differently, and to recombine them using logics other than the ones initially intended. Both Jafa’s and Smith’s recon- figurations have powerful ramifications, creating options and freedom out of prescription and definition.
However, the inclusion of so many large and fragmented installations came at the expense of more self-contained art objects, like painting, sculpture, and drawing. This, and the overuse of vitrines and other display systems, created a visual dryness that prompted viewer fatigue. Given the relative scarcity of painting and sculpture in the exhibition, the choice to include two frequently exhibited Los Angeles artists working in these mediums was disconcerting. In particular, Sterling Ruby’s welding tables felt extraneous and overweening, and the happily variegated paintings of Rebecca Morris felt out of place in this context. Counterbalancing these odd inclusions, Walker and Moshayedi unearthed dynamic oeuvres from relatively obscure artists: the unsettlingly beautiful assemblages of Kenzi Shiokava, and Huguette Caland’s heterogeneous, erotic body of work. It was a joy and a surprise to discover these artists here, in what was a deeply appreciated act of art historical excavation.
An important function of art objects is to engage the types of understanding that come through the senses, speaking to the body through a synesthetic engagement with intentional, haptic objects. Walker and Moshayedi instead chose works that unpack the complex systems and representations that are in play in contemporary global culture. When artists such as Daniel Small and Gala Porras Kim bring to light the inherent biases in Western constructions of race and cultural otherness, or Martine Syms and Kenneth Tam unfold the vulnerability in gendered bodies and spaces, they are speaking to how these cultural constructions play out in everyday life. The work in this iteration of Made in L.A. created space for imagining other kinds of structures by bringing our attention to these kinds of systems and the labor that operates in the creation of culture.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 6.