Made in LA 2016: a, the, though, only

This year’s edition of the Hammer biennial luxuriates in the de-materialized, the ephemeral, and the transitory.

Installation view with “A Pilot for a Show about Nowhere” 2015, Martine Syms, Two-channel HD video, color, sound. 24:29 min.
Photo: courtesy the Hammer Museum

Organized by Hammer curator Aram Moshayedi and Hamza Walker, director of education and associate curator at the Renaissance Society in Chicago, Made in LA 2016: a, the, though, only is the third iteration of the Hammer’s official biennial. Where the previous two offered a sprawling anti-monumental collection of physically ambitious works, and a more confined but decidedly historiographic surveille, the latest edition is an amorphous show for a decentralized city; a conceptual pageant of emptiness reflecting a city that’s more idea than place. The show’s didactic text announces that it includes dance, fashion, literature, music, film, and performance, seeming quite proud of the exhibition’s relative shapelessness and its enchantment with the most self-consciously weird in-between practices to the exclusion of aesthetic or narrative. Painting, photography or sculpture are hardly mentioned, and are indeed included in sufficiently low ratio to underscore this shift in emphasis.

Made in LA 2016: a, the, though, only was subtitled by the minimalist poet Aram Saroyan, and perfectly encapsulates the institution’s approach and accurately reflects the current international fad for de-materialized, de-skilled, aggressively conceptual, sensorial elusive practices that deliberately conflate being avant-garde and being inaccessible. This approach luxuriates in the ephemeral, the transitory, the enacted rather than the produced-whether as circumstance or motif. Even the examples of conventionally understood art objects flirt with unbeautiful immateriality or a kind of automated gesturalism that focuses on idea rather than material, regional style, history, or identity.

Extreme examples of this include the contribution of Todd Gray, who wore the clothes of his friend Ray Manzarek (best known as co-founder and keyboardist of The Doors) for a year after the man died. However, the artist refused to document this action, “lest images be taken as the work itself. Throughout the run of this exhibition, the piece’s presence is noted only through this label and any encounters one might have with the artist either while going about one’s daily life or on the off-chance that Gray should visit the museum.” His thumbnail image on the show site is a blank gray square. It’s infuriating. Margaret Honda’s work is a film that is really a sculpture, because it was displayed in a way that privileged its formal mass but prevented viewing. In the end, Gray consented to one reading and Honda to one screening, so there’s that. Ambient sound installations by Guthrie Lonergan sent attendees on a bit of a scavenger hunt, but risked being totally overlooked by more casual viewers.

Another bit of the zeitgeist on display is the current zeal for approximating museum practices to create installations that tell stories by other means-by rearrangement instigating updated interpretation, or deconstructing institutional biases. Gala Porras-Kim borrowed ethnographic objects from the Fowler Museum that arrived without provenance, allowing her to build a thorough alternative history from their elements. Daniel R. Small presents a quasi-archeological installation documenting the meta-history of the movie set for Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 Ten Commandments, long buried in the desert lands outside the LA city limits. Sterling Ruby’s presentation of modified welding tables cleared out from the industrial studio digs he recently procured in Vernon are vernacular testimonies to changing urban economics and demographics, as well as sturdy and wry meditations on the operations shared by fine art and factory design.

“We Can’t Know Precisely What We Mean Until We Are Forced to Symbolize It” 2015, Joel Holmberg, Acrylic and oil on canvas, 60″ x 80″
Photo: courtesy of the artist

Among the most impressive works in the show are several contributed by mid- and early-career artists who, like Ruby, pay more satisfying attention to craft, fabrication, aesthetics, and optics than many of their conceptualist counterparts. Especially memorable are the contributions by Martine Syms, Rafa Esparza, and Joel Holmberg, three artists very much on the rise, whose practices are very much rooted in aspects of actual life in Los Angeles.

Martine Syms (b. 1988) exemplifies the exhibition’s affection for quasi-performative, category-defying, media savvy works with the artist’s experience as the organizing principle. Yet she neglects neither the potential for spectacle in video-based works nor the narrative and entertainment imperative of cinematic moving images. Based on the 1907 silent film Laughing Gas, in which an African-American woman leaves a trail of confusion and mirth as she traverses the city in the aftermath of a dentist visit, Syms casts herself in a modern-day reality-show version in which she is dosed by the dentist, then thrown out of the office for having no insurance. Her use of a multi-channel split-screen references the conventions of contemporary video art; and her inclusion of the text mural Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t both taps the history of black music’s incursions into mainstream culture and references more modernist tropes of text-based visual art a la Lawrence Weiner. The self-styled production of her own TV show sends up the cultural orientation of new generations who, largely thanks to social media, see themselves as stars-in-waiting. At the same time, she is reclaiming the power of the camera in order to tell these stories on the site of a black, female body, a perspective underscored by her work as the founder of Dominica, an indie publishing company she describes as “dedicated to exploring blackness as a topic, reference, marker, and audience in visual culture.”

“Tierra,” 2016, Rafa Esparza Installation view, “Made in L.A. 2016: a, the, though, only” June 12- August 28, 2016, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
Photo: Brian Forrest

Rafa Esparza (b. 1981) is profoundly interested in the ethnographic palimpsest of this region’s history, and its implications for the present-day shifts in social, cultural, and economic power structures. Especially in several recent large-scale, durational works-one in the LACE gallery space and another at an LA River site-Esparza’s medium, muse, and content has been the hand-production of traditional Mexican clay-brick architectural interventions. In some cases it’s the location that holds an archeological meaning in its particular story of indigenous displacement, eminent domain assertions, and civic policy. But the meaning of the spectacle of handmade brick “sculptures” as both a performative action and a literal means of production of actual, functional, allegorical objects makes a powerful white-box disruption as well. In this installation, the bricks form a wide and long walkway over which viewers are encouraged to tread, thereby offering a tactile experience that inherently results in the accelerated disintegration of the bricks. The walkway is strewn with an assortment of commonplace objects which had been buried and retrieved in a process approximating archeology-a mailbox, an armchair with a cactus growing out of its feral brocade frame, some corncobs. As an installation, it’s experiential, warm, engaging, eccentric and photogenic as can be; while as a conceptual statement it implicates even well-meaning cultural tourism in jeopardizing local histories.

Joel Holmberg (b. 1982) is a painter, with a snarky, punster sense of humor and an abundance of patience and skill to lavish on perfect, earnest satire. In a very real sense, his medium is his message, and indeed McLuhan would recognize some of his ideas in Holmberg’s thought process-updated for a more corporate, Internet-based commercial culture. Essentially, he starts with boilerplate corporate marketing and seminar-style graphics-your basic cartoonish watercolor of a somewhat diverse group of people in blazers smiling around a product launch display, a motivational quote about teamwork emblazoned on a postcard-worthy sky, or an advertising template for pitching wines. He tweaks them in subtle ways while expertly mimicking their style, then painstakingly paints the new versions on large-scale paintings on canvas. Too much work to be a joke, these are instead a fairly sober meditation on contemporary strategies of visual communication. His fundamental questions may address pop culture in a semiotic framework, but his craftsmanship speaks to his art historical methods and respect for the idea of backing up ideas with things and deeds.

There is much to admire along these lines elsewhere, as in the enigmatic business of Eckhaus Latta, a fashion label with an unconventional approach to garment production and distribution that self-consciously includes the partially deconstructed tools of marketing and promotion. They showed both clothes and an online-only promo video, butting up against both new wave filmmaking and actual commerce. Occupying adjacent realms to both Eckhaus Latta and the mass/social media strategies of Syms and Holmberg, are Mark Verabioff, who takes iconic fashion media as a starting point for epically scaled feminist critique of how societal messages are constructed and operatically staged; and Huguette Caland, whose focus on the desires of the female body variously takes the form of intricate paintings, awkwardly sumptuous sculptures, and starkly sensual hand-adorned garments. Finally, Wadada Leo Smith is in a way the heart and soul of the whole thing, a jazz musician who invented a graphically lively, Calder-esque system of functional score notation called Ankhrasmation. These mature, established artists, along with Esparza, offer the most powerful articulations of how concept and craftsmanship can coexist without compromise. They are how you know it’s possible.