A Meditation on Contemporary Art: “Made in L.A.: a, the, though, only”




Top Image: Labor Link TV. Episode #26B: “Good News at NASSCO? Before ESOP and After ESOP.”

Left Image: Kenzi Shiokava. From left to right: Untitled, 1996. Cardboard cube, yarn bundle, cork. Sculpture: 15 1/2 in. (39.3 cm); base: 5 x 5 in. (12.7 x 12.7 cm). Flail, 1994. Bamboo, wood. Sculpture: 24 1/2 in. (62.2 cm); base: 3 x 3 in. (7.6 x 6.6 cm). Figure, 1996. Wooden beads, macramé cord. Sculpture: 20 1/2 in. (52 cm); base: 5 in. (12.7 cm) diameter. Staff, 1994. Wood. Sculpture: 29 in. (73.6 cm); base: 4 x 3 in. (10.1 x 7.6 cm). Courtesy of Stremmel Gallery, Reno. Photograph by Brian Forrest.

IT MIGHT SEEM oxymoronic when discussing contemporary art, but the word suggested by the third iteration of the Made in L.A. biennial — which runs at the Hammer Museum from June 12 to August 28, 2016 — is “fresh.” From their selection of artists to their takes on the catalog and installation, curators Aram Moshayedi and Hamza Walker bring a thoughtful and innovative approach to their presentation of art in the region. The 26 artists have included work in a range of media and across disciplines, including photography, sculpture, painting, drawing, and installation, as well as film, music composition, dance, fashion, and poetry.

The first suggestion that this iteration of the biennial is fresh are the names of the artists included, the vast majority of whom are unfamiliar to most viewers, even those well versed in the L.A. art scene. This novelty is, to be fair, the mission of the biennial, which the Hammer has claimed is designed to present “an emphasis on emerging and under-recognized artists.” But the impulse to innovation is taken further in the 2016 version. The artists included live and work in the area, but they are not familiar names on the local gallery circuit. The curators’ interpretation of the L.A. area is vast and could more aptly be called Southern California; in preparing the show, they visited artists’ studios across the region, from Compton and East L.A. to San Diego and Joshua Tree.

The Made in L.A. brand was hatched when the Hammer entered the arguably overcrowded world of international biennials and art fairs in 2012. The name seems to aspire to the sort of trademark status enjoyed by, say, the Venice Biennale (established in 1895) or the Whitney Biennial (founded in 1932). But the subtitle remains the terrain of each distinct curatorial team. This year, Moshayedi and Walker integrated this textual space into the project, inviting poet Aram Saroyan to create a work for the exhibition that would double as its subtitle. The resulting a, the, though, only is a slight and tenuous portal through which to enter the porous and inviting space of the exhibition. In many ways, a, the, though, only represents a typical view of contemporary art today: multidisciplinary works in a variety of media, created by artists with hyphenated skill sets and identities, fill the space of the institution and beyond. Guthrie Lonergan’s contribution exists in the museum’s digital profile and Todd Gray’s Fluxus-inspired performance is carried out in the quotidian space of the everyday. It’s not unusual for artists to work in multiple media or for art to live outside the physical site of the museum, but this exhibition seeps into the textual and public spaces registered by the expansive subtitle.

ARAM SAROYAN

Aram Saroyan. Spread from Made in L.A. 2016: a, the, though, only (2016).

An exhibition catalog is typically reserved for images of the art and for essays commenting on it. In the end, Moshayedi and Walker’s book is not so different, but their route to it was unique: each artist was invited to participate in the making of their pages for the catalog so that, while it is in fact a book of words and pictures related to the exhibition, it is also an extension of that same exhibition, an expanded show in book form. For example, Saroyan includes additional minimalist poems, each paired with an image. This use of the catalog as a site for extended viewing is effective for other contributors — such as filmmaker Arthur Jafa and artist and educator Fred Lonidier — whose works are text heavy or invite further exploration. Thus, the catalog, normally a site for reflection and analysis, becomes an additional exhibition in itself. It’s an interesting gesture, but the logic is clouded by the inclusion of more traditional essays commenting on the exhibition by writers outside the curatorial team. These pieces are interesting and well crafted, but they raise the question: If the essayists are contributing here, why then, aren’t they also artists in the exhibition? The question is especially pertinent given that a, the, though, only persistently muses on what constitutes visual art today and the changing social role of the artist.

When visual art, as it has for at least half a century, enfolds media with practices and histories of their own (dance, music, fashion, film), then significant questions are raised regarding the parameters of visual art itself. More important, I think, is the value attached to art in our society and the fact that the very inclusion of an object in a museum renders it both highly valuable and, paradoxically, safely categorized and validated. This issue is relevant to a, the, though, only for two reasons. Not only have the curators chosen artists who are not typically well known, but they have also opted to include a significant amount and/or span of work equivalent to a mini-retrospective, thus strategically “entering” these artists into the institutional record in a way that only a major museum — even more so through a biennial — can do. As Moshayedi explains:

The thinking behind that was, I feel, that when shows of this kind reduce an artist’s work over 40 or 50 years into three signature pieces, as if that’s meant to kind of embody the whole long arc of their career, it’s a disservice. And especially artists like Huguette Caland and Kenzi Shiokava, they’re two artists that have been working consistently but have never had any kind of museum presence here. So, how do you reflect what they do, and what they’ve done over decades, rather than just trying to select or hand pick choice works?

In this way, the curators accelerate or expand the “value” — the acclaim or reputation — of all the artists in the exhibition, in particular those with more expansive showings. But by integrating such a variety of artistic disciplines, they also call into question their status as art. By no means is this integration of other disciplines — dance in particular — specific to this exhibition, but the increasing commonality of this aesthetic pluralism deserves to be interrogated, not simply reproduced. Walker and Moshayedi cite both personal experience and cultural history as reasons for the integration of multiple media. Moshayedi, a Hammer curator since 2013 (and, previously, associate curator at REDCAT in Downtown Los Angeles) says:

We both come at it from backgrounds that aren’t necessarily privileging visual art, and obviously, at a moment in time where you feel like a lot of practices are getting absorbed into museum culture and that aren’t necessarily sensitive to the ways that those things work and the places they operate. So we really wanted to think about how we could branch out into these spaces but also think about it in a mutually beneficial relationship.

Walker represents the first time that Made in L.A. has had a curator from outside the area. A prominent figure in the Chicago art scene (The New York Times named him one of the country’s seven most influential curators in 2001), he is director of education and associate curator at The Renaissance Society, an independent museum founded at the University of Chicago in 1915, where he has worked since 1994. Walker explains:

Both Aram and I are, curatorially, in terms of sensibilities, sort of jacks of all trades. I have an interest in poetry, music, dance, but at the same time, if we’re going to talk about postmodernism, all of those are older categories. At this point, pluralism has a history; we’re like 50 years out from the 1970s, the advent of postmodernism.

As animated as he is knowledgeable, Walker goes on to trace a history:

Even the rhetoric of a new interdisciplinarity, and I don’t like -ity words, let alone with “new” in front of them, but this one made possible what artists have been doing throughout the 20th century. You can’t retreat; even though we can talk about Modernism as a retreat, and as regressive in a certain fashion to the realm of strict visuality, you can’t think about Modernism without thinking about Merce Cunningham, John Cage, or the wild man that is Rauschenberg. All these operate together, like a good modernist library. […] Beckett, Pierre Boulez […] dimensions of post-1960s performance, video, dance — you gotta know about all those things. For Aram and me, that’s part of our canon. We can’t think about the visual arts in isolation.

One might question the use of the term “visual” for a discipline that has become increasingly analytical, ephemeral, and variegated over the past century. But Walker says that visual art

is a boundary that I am willing to abide by […] I’m not just going to have dance in the show for dance’s sake, music for music’s sake, or poetry for poetry’s sake. I still abide by the fact that the museums are given over to the visual arts. That said, the ground on which I do like having those [disciplines] here is basically self-reflexivity.

Indeed, this capacity to observe and critique practice or experience is a through line across visual art at least since the mid-20th century, positing the role of the artist as akin to that of an active witness — in many cases a wily, fervent, obsessive, or unreliable witness, but a valid witness nonetheless.

The term “witness” has fascinating implications, linking art to the worlds of activism, judicial testimony, and spiritual practice. In Vedantic and Buddhist traditions, for example, a witness meditation is one in which the meditator focuses on the space out of which thought arises, letting cognition become the focus of thought itself. Meditation teacher and author Sally Kempton explains that awareness is “always a subject, never an object” — an apt lens through which to view contemporary art, in particular its interactive and ephemeral aspects. In activism, bearing witness is a vital part of social change. To bear witness is to validate. Made in LA: a, the, though, only is refreshing less because it highlights artists in the region that may be unfamiliar than because it opens up — or rather, reveals — this idea of artist as witness. Or, as Walker and Moshayedi might put it, the practice of self-reflexivity is vital to art: the object of reflection, the self, can be the artist him/herself, society, history, culture, or a combination of these.

Many artists included in the show — such as Rafa Esparza, Gala Porras-Kim, Martine Syms, and Kenneth Tam — take an aspect of culture as the primary subject of inquiry; as a result, their works ostensibly bear the closest relationship to activist practices. Labor Link TV (LLTV) is represented by a room with walls covered in documents, the floor space filled with small seating areas, each with a monitor and headphones to watch episodes of the public-access television show centered on issues of organized labor and free speech. Started by artist, union officer, and UCSD professor Fred Lonidier, along with activists and union members, LLTV produced 96 shows between 1988 and 2011. The practice of witnessing feels most literal here, with the relationship between art and activism shown to be profoundly fluid and interdependent. Filmmaker Arthur Jafa is represented by a series of notebooks, encased under glass, containing images he clipped from magazines, combined in plastic sleeves, and placed into over 200 binders from 1990–2007. Though Jafa did not intend them to be viewed as art — they were, rather, a means of processing his thinking about images and the construction of meaning — they are included here as a representation of his visual analysis of African-American culture and his theorization of a “black aesthetic.” The often emotional pairings include an image of a man with traditional African scarification next to one of an ex-slave showing welts from whippings.

Other artists, such as Adam Linder and Margaret Honda, interrogate their disciplines — dance and film, respectively — as part of their practice. The jazz performer and composer Wadada Leo Smith is represented by a room full of beautiful colored pencil renderings of compositions made between 1968 and 2014 using a musical notation system of his own invention, Ankhrasmation.

WADADA LEO SMITH

Wadada Leo Smith. Vision, from Kosmic Music, n.d. One of four parts matted together, 32 x 15 3/4 in. (81.2 x 40 cm). Courtesy of the artist and Corbett vs Dempsey, Chicago.

Daniel R. Small’s Excavation II (2012), displayed in one large room, includes mural-sized wall hangings, artifacts under glass, and clay objects. The project, which Small has been working on for the past six years, is an excavation of a film set, the site of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 The Ten Commandments. By displaying the film’s actual props alongside the detritus of life on set (playing cards, drinking cups, clothing), the project suggests the dangerously blurry overlap between history, life, and entertainment. Some artists take their own psychosocial or sexual experiences as subject — notably, Huguette Caland’s engaging drawings and paintings. Mark Verabioff’s installation, MARXISM AND ART BEWARE OF FASCIST BROISM (2016), critiques contemporary culture and the art world through the lens of feminism, exposing the patriarchy that underlies both art and intellectual histories and largely defines what is canonized.

MARK VERABIOFF

Mark Verabioff. MARXISM AND ART BEWARE OF FASCIST BROISM, 2016. Design by TAR Studio, San Francisco.

If there is a flat or discordant note in this multidisciplinary tour de force, it lies, interestingly enough, in two side-by-side rooms filled with what many still expect to see in a contemporary art exhibition: steel sculptures and abstract paintings. Sterling Ruby’s contribution of welding tables found in his new studio in Vernon is disappointing in its cynicism, while Rebecca Morris’s large canvases and muddy colors point to a kind of depressive state in painting. Their inclusion strikes a chord similar to that of the essays in the exhibition catalog: though illuminating, they feel out of place. Perhaps Moshayedi and Walker, in representing an institution, needed to nod to these time-honored markers of art exhibitions. But in light of the spacious freedom of the rest of the show, these traditional inclusions feel heavy, like the weight on the end of a kite.

As Walker stated, “I don’t think the idea of painting and modes of strict visuality really apply anymore. You have to be able to be flexible. Exhibitions like these have to breathe.” And Made in LA: a, the, though, only definitely does.

¤

Annie Buckley is an artist, writer, and educator, with an emphasis on art and social justice. She is a contributing editor to the Los Angeles Review of Books.


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