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As implied by its name, Made in L.A. 2020: a version, the Hammer’s fifth biennial of Los Angeles artists traffics in duality, multiplicity, doppelgangers, and fracturing. Organized by independent curators Myriam Ben Salah and Lauren Mackler, with Ikechukwu Onyewuenyi, assistant curator of performance at the Hammer, the biennial is split between two venues—the Hammer in Westwood and The Huntington in San Marino—with each setting displaying work by all 30 artists in somewhat mirrored exhibitions. The exhibition catalog, which resembles more of a hip fashion magazine, is billed as yet another “version” of the show. Specific artworks make the most of this conceptual framework, but the choice of venues—the wide physical chasm between them—and the museums’ unsatisfying response to the reality of the pandemic make for an ultimately frustrating duo of exhibitions. Originally slated to open last June, it is still largely unviewable, museums in Los Angeles largely shuttered since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic almost a year ago. For the time being, it exists as a specter, a haunted house frozen in time and off limits to all but a select few members of the media.
The bifurcation of the show has been described as linking the East and West sides of the city, however, it is a purely geographic conceit connecting upscale Westwood to stately San Marino. The Huntington, which comprises a museum, library, and sprawling gardens, is truly one of greater Los Angeles’ cultural and botanical treasures, but it still represents an old-world style of museum. Founded by a wealthy industrialist, it is located in the ZIP code with the third-highest median income in the county.1 A more meaningful choice to bridge the city’s broad demographic sweep might have been the Eastside’s Vincent Price Art Museum, a free museum located at East Los Angeles College in Monterey Park, an eight-mile drive almost due south of The Huntington. Given the current conversation around classism and white supremacy in the art world, this location would have been a more concrete gesture of inclusion and equity, giving the goal to unite east and west more teeth and purpose.
Providing, at least in part, valuable bridges for the public to engage the exhibition, two artists have their work installed in multiple locations outside the two institutional settings. Kahlil Joseph’s project BLKNWS®, a two-channel film presenting footage culled from current news broadcasts, pop culture, and social media, and focused on realities and representation of Black life, is primarily screening in Black-owned markets, barbershops, and cafés in South L.A. and Echo Park. Larry Johnson’s billboard interventions, enigmatic juxtapositions of text and image, are placed around MacArthur Park. Sadly, these are the only two works currently on public view, but they offer a blueprint for how other works in the show could have migrated beyond museum walls, and how they might in the future. The exhibits at the two main venues may not be viewable in person for some time (if ever), so it would have made sense for alternatives, either safely staged in public or built out online, to have been further developed as part of the exhibition.
While still unseen by the public, dividing the main exhibition across two museum venues does produce some moments of serendipity, where different contexts offer new perspectives on the participating artists. For instance, at the Hammer, Monica Majoli’s woodcut prints depicting male centerfolds from the 1974 gay magazine Blueboy—delicate, ghostly images of desire—are placed alongside Reynaldo Rivera’s wallpapered photographs documenting queer, Latinx nightlife in the Echo Park of the 1980s and ’90s. This proximity enhances Majoli’s melancholy remembrance of underground, queer subcultures. At The Huntington, however, Majoli’s works share space with Aria Dean’s Ironic Ionic Replica (2020), a reproduction of Robert Venturi’s 1977 Ironic Column, playing up the appropriative, referential nature of both works. Some solutions to spreading an artist’s work across two venues are puzzling: Mario Ayala’s gorgeous acrylic and airbrushed canvases, which draw on car culture, tattoo graphics, vernacular signage, and homegrown SoCal Latinx aesthetics are on view at the Hammer, while his collection of underground Chicano magazines, like Teen Angels and Mi Vida Loca—seminal documents of Chicano/a life in the ’80s and ’90s and a major influence on Ayala—are on display at The Huntington, completely isolated from the paintings they informed. This division misses a major opportunity to unify archive and artwork, a move that would have grounded Ayala’s graphic style and iconography in a larger cultural history, itself often overlooked by major art museums.
Although the conceptual mirroring of the show is awkward at times, individual works employ mirrors, fractures, and ghosts to greater success. At the Hammer, Kandis Williams’ vinyl collages on Plexiglas and mirrors feature imagery culled from historical and pop-cultural sources, such as in Cave Before Cocytus (2018). The work references the river of wailing in Greek mythology, pairing ancient Greek statuary with archival photographs of acclaimed Black women. The viewer is reflected in the background, making it hard to view these juxtapositions passively. Aria Dean’s installation King of the Loop (2020) features a substantial, reflective black cube-shaped structure affixed with monitors that playback a performance that took place inside. Like many of the performance works in the show, Dean had to adapt what was supposed to be a multi-person, live show into this single-actor video due to the Covid-19 restrictions.
These two artists, and others in the show, foreground marginalized histories and voices. Umar Rashid’s vibrant faux-historical tableaux reimagine scenes in which Indigenous peoples confront their colonial oppressors. In The Battle of Malibu (2020) triptych, Rashid depicts the maritime exploits of the Tongva and Chumash. Given the richness of the Hammer’s collection of European and American painting, it would have been fruitful to show Rashid’s work alongside examples of Eurocentric hegemony. At The Huntington, however, his two paintings frame a window opening onto the institution’s permanent collection, bringing into question the unitary view of history it proposes.
Figurative works by Brandon D. Landers and Fulton Leroy Washington (MR. WASH) offer further alternatives to historic white subjectivity. Landers’ palette-knife paintings depict expressionistic memories of his childhood in South Central Los Angeles, while Washington’s realistic teardrop-filled portraits convey a pathos that cuts across class and race, featuring figures from politics and entertainment, alongside individuals the artist met while he was incarcerated. Washington began painting in prison after receiving a life sentence for a nonviolent drug offense. Having served 21 years, he was granted clemency by then-President Barack Obama.
Considering that the two halves of the exhibition are staged at museums founded by kings of industry around their personal collections of American and European art, The Huntington does a better job of engaging with the museum’s permanent collection, drawing sometimes uncomfortable, but thoughtful comparisons with the contemporary works. In a gallery alongside Zenobia in Chains, an 1859 sculpture by Harriet Goodhue Hosmer, Patrick Jackson’s two male sculptural figures lie on their backs (Head, Hands and Feet, 2011). Bearded and barefoot, clad in denim with hands folded over their chests as if in death, they stand in stark contrast to the proud, third-century Palmyrene queen who challenged Rome, and whose chains appear more as decoration than bondage.
Inserted into one of the actual galleries of The Huntington Collection is Buck Ellison’s photographic Untitled (Cufflinks) (2020), depicting mundane symbols of high society: fresh tennis balls, prep school gym shorts, and an art book opened to a painting of two fancy lads. Just feet from this work hangs a similar image of charmed youth, John Singleton Copley’s 1783 portrait The Western Brothers, the proximity providing an aesthetic link and a critical bent.
Aside from the choice to divide the show, which at times frustrates a coherent viewing, the pandemic has limited our ability to experience it at all. In many ways, this is disappointing but unavoidable. Many works by the late Moroccan-born artist, Nicola L. were intended to be interactive, encouraging corporeal playfulness. A reconstruction of La Chambre en Fourrure (1969)—a large, plush, purple room with cavities through which viewers can insert body parts—now sits vacant at the Hammer, a reminder of forbidden touch.
Another work that emphasizes just how much we are missing by not being able to see these works in person is a literal haunted house created by Sabrina Tarasoff with Twisted Minds Production. Based around the Venice alt-poetry hangout Beyond Baroque, this mini-maze offers a window into a transgressive milieu active from 1976 to 1986 that included writer Dennis Cooper, artists Sheree Rose and Bob Flanagan, musicians John Doe and Exene Cervenka, and writer/artist Benjamin Weissman. A corridor of Cooper’s GIF art, Rose and Flanagan’s BDSM installation (including a robotic phallus emerging from a glory hole), theatrical lighting, and ephemera from the venue swirl together in a phantasmagoric and haunted blur—more experiential trip than local history lesson.
Performance has largely been relegated to a limbo, neither viewable in person nor, in most cases, online. Ligia Lewis’ deader than dead (2020) was originally intended as a live performance and is now represented at the Hammer with a simple placeholder—a yellow mat in a corner and a QR code that brings up a spellbinding video online. In it, Lewis and her fellow masked dancers and singers ricochet between tragedy and comedy, death and deadpan, recalling the violence that has been enacted upon Black and brown bodies, as well as the embodiments of jubilation and resistance. The Hammer plans to stage a live performance at the end of the show’s run, and hopefully that will be possible, as it is one of the freshest, most vital works included. Curiously, it is the only performance or video work currently represented on the museums’ websites.
Given the reality of the pandemic, and the six months that have elapsed since the intended opening, it is unfortunate that the Hammer has not developed a more robust online experience of the exhibition accessible by the broader public. By contrast, galleries have been quick to adapt, throwing up online viewing rooms days after shutting their doors and adopting virtual walkthrough technologies. While an exhibition of this scope calls for a more nuanced and sophisticated digital presence, it is frustrating, but not surprising, that commerce is often a more effective agent of progress than community engagement.
Los Angeles is an unwieldy city that defies easy definition, and Made in L.A. 2020: a version sets out to capture some of that heterogeneity by disrupting the singular exhibition model. There are certainly thoughtful connections teased out between artists in each version—however, overall, the separation creates more disjuncture than connection, offering versions that feel both incomplete and unnecessarily contrived. The pandemic has put up challenges to be sure, but the virtual space presents an opportunity to create another Covid-safe version of the show. In the wake of the pandemic, alternative forms of display, both online and beyond institutional confines, could go a long way toward capturing contemporary Angeleno multiplicity.
Matt Stromberg is a freelance arts writer based in Los Angeles. In addition to Carla, he has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, KCET Artbound, The Guardian, The Art Newspaper, Hyperallergic, Terremoto, Artsy, Frieze, and Daily Serving.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 23.