By Michael Herren | June 27, 2014 | Lifestyle
As institutional goliaths LACMA, MOCA, and the Getty battle for curatorial control of “Art City, USA,” the little Hammer Museum launches the event of the summer. Showcasing 35 exquisitely curated homegrown artists, who work in a provocative array of media, “Made in L.A. 2014” and the Hammer up the city’s art game once again.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Tala Madani came to LA for a two-week vacation—and stayed. Balding, paunchy men are the subjects of her latest paintings; A.L. Steiner’s work explores everything from gender identity to community activism; Lecia Dole-Recio’s practice includes elements of both painting and collage; Jibade-Khalil Huffman creates what he calls “long poems”—wall-and room-size images using text, photography, video, and performance.
Role ’em: a performance-based piece with a cast of characters that sounds like a setup for a crude (but not necessarily unfunny) joke involving a stuntman, a stutterer, a sign-language interpreter, a comedian, a child, and a theater director? Or two potters who have shared marriage, artistic collaboration, and a studio for more than half a century—without major breakage? A Russian-born photographer inspired by Dutch fabrics of African designs, a painter who reproduces vintage 1970s and ’80s porn production stills (many of which were shot before she was born), or a knitter who first dyes and spins fibers before weaving them into patterns determined by a bossy computer algorithm?
Such are trailers and teasers for some of the artists—and their works past and present—in “Made in L.A. 2014,” the second biennial arts-a-palooza at the Hammer Museum, on view through September 7. Focusing on work created in the Los Angeles region and with an emphasis on emerging and under-recognized artists, the artful extravaganza was curated by Connie Butler, in her first exhibition as the museum’s new chief curator, and independent curator Michael Ned Holte, who also counts the exhibition as his first “Hammertime.”
As with most biennial surveys, such as the Whitney Biennial in New York, which ended in May, and the Venice Biennale, which opens in May 2015, the goal of “Made in L.A. 2014” is hardly encyclopedic. “Of course it can’t be comprehensive,” says Butler, with Holte adding, “Lots of good artists aren’t included.” Rather the exhibition, which features 35 artists and collectives culled from hundreds of studio visits, aims to develop a snapshot, or in Butler’s words, “a core sample” of what she and Holte are seeing right now, right here, in the city and its immediate environs.
No easy task. But as any development executive in Hollywood will explain, before you can understand the scene, an appreciation of the story is in order. And the story of postwar and contemporary art in LA is a blockbuster. In the decades following World War II, a quake of artistic activity rocked the Left Coast from Santa Barbara to San Diego.
There were art manifestos and movements aplenty: “Light and Space” making “Finish Fetish” gleam all the more brilliantly while giving extra snap to “LA Pop,” to name but three. There was artistic rebellion and art enlisted for political ends, such as the Chicano Art Movement, the feminist happenings at the Woman’s Building, the films of the African American L.A. Rebellion. There were top-palette professional art schools, among them the Art Center College of Design, Otis College of Art and Design, Chouinard Art Institute (now the California Institute of the Arts), and a handful of cutting-edge galleries, Ferus Gallery first and foremost among them.
There was also space and the distance to experiment far from New York, the center of the art market and art world when such monikers had meaning; and s-p-a-c-e, the surf of the Pacific, the turf of the hills and valleys, and the sun-kissed horizontals, as particular as they are inspiring. And there were those who were inspired. Some, such as Ed Ruscha, David Hockney, and John Baldessari, have become world famous, their work part of global cultural currency. Many others—Betye Saar, Judith Baca, Maria Nordman, and Judy Chicago (to sing out but four women among hundreds of artists of both genders)—have remained lesser known but highly influential.
In short, it was a postwar, site-specific, utterly unique, creative “Big Bang,” one that made Los Angeles a production center for contemporary art and the genesis and development of which were extensively chronicled two years ago by “Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980”—a Getty initiative and cultural collusion on a colossal scale that involved the collaboration of more than 60 arts institutions and 68 coordinated exhibitions. What the city lacked in those early days, however, was an arts infrastructure to match its artistic output—a critical mass of museums, galleries, curators, critics, collectors, enthusiasts, and connected communities of artists that could fuel one another and thereby create an art scene. An art world.
As any stroller on a Downtown Art Walk, museum visitor, art press peruser, or casual culture vulture can attest, after smoldering for years, the city’s arts scene is a red-hot conflagration. Not only have cornerstone museums like LACMA, MOCA, the Getty, and the Norton Simon attained the institutional confidence and clout of middle-aged maturity, they, along with the relative youngster Hammer, continue to innovate with the vigor of youth—even to grow.
LACMA added the 45,000-square-foot Resnick Exhibition Pavilion in 2010, following the 2008 addition of the 72,000-square-foot Broad Contemporary Art Museum, and last December, announced the launch of the Art + Technology Lab, which supports artist experiments with technology. The Getty Foundation is planning a 2017 sequel extraordinaire to the 2011-2012 “Pacific Standard Time,” to be called “Pacific Standard Time: L.A./L.A.,” exploring the relationship between Los Angeles and Latin America. And a new $140 million, 120,000-square-foot contemporary art museum, The Broad, is scheduled to open next year.
Well-established international art fairs are also testing LA waters. Paris Photo Los Angeles, the first satellite of the well-established photography fair Paris Photo, held its second successful edition last April, where 16,000 visitors (among them Hollywood heavies Brad Pitt, Judd Apatow, and Gwyneth Paltrow) perused the offerings of 81 dealers over a four-day period. And bigger still, FIAC LA, the first satellite of France’s biggest modern and contemporary art fair, and among the world’s most important, will have its inaugural run in April of 2015. Meanwhile, the number of galleries, both homegrown and out-of-town, continues to multiply, as do not-for-profit arts organizations, artist-run initiatives, art blogs, and, most on point for “Made in L.A.,” the number of working artists (still lured by s-p-a-c-e as well as very cheap rents relative to other major art cities).
Amid all this, there’s the Hammer. Following its opening in 1990 and a fraught first decade involving finances and direction, this youngest of the city’s major museums has emerged under the savvy direction of Ann Philbin as one of the coolest cultural cats not just in town or in Cali, but in the country. It’s done so by staying local, keeping a tight connection with LA artists, the arts community, and the community in general while simultaneously keeping a Big Picture perspective.
In addition to “Hammer Projects,” which has provided scores of emerging local and international artists with space to make and exhibit work, the Hammer annually hosts more than 250 public programs: readings, performances, film screenings, lectures, and dialogues, such as the remarkable “Hammer Conversations” series, which has included the likes of Joan Didion, Frank Gehry, David Mamet, Gore Vidal… the list goes on and on. Nor are the youngest members of the community neglected: the Kids’ Art Museum Project (K.A.M.P.) is an annual workshop for children led by Los Angeles art stars like Catherine Opie, Edgar Arceneaux, and Mark Grotjahn. And oh, everything—including general admission as of last February—is absolutely free.
It’s a catalog of characteristics and commitments that, augmented by an annual operating budget of $18 million (more than that of far larger arts institutions in town, such as MOCA) and estimated annual attendance that grew from 150,000 in 2009 to 200,000 last year, makes the Hammer a choice platform for the here and now in LA’s arts scene.
The first show to make use of the Hammer’s entire exhibition space—“and then some,” adds Butler, explaining that work will also be shown not just in galleries, but in connecting corridors and the central courtyard as well—“Made in L.A. 2014” includes 35 artists distinct in their media, praxis, politics, interests, obsessions, and points of origin (from Los Angeles and other areas of the United States to Australia, Belgium, Brazil, France, Germany, Iran, Italy, Kenya, Mexico, and Venezuela). The show also represents a spectrum of ages (a separation of more than 50 years), colors, creeds (or the negation thereof), sexual orientations, and gender identifications.
What’s this all add up to? Not only does “Made in L.A. 2014” reflect the various microcosms and microclimates of Los Angeles, the parts mirroring an ever-changing whole, it’s a show that will in itself contribute substantially to that whole. It’s a show that, therefore, shouldn’t be missed. “Made in L.A. 2014” will be on view through September 7 at the Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., LA, 310-443-7000
“The way we move through the city, we’re constantly shifting through light, space, the grid, various architectures, and sounds,” says Lecia Dole-Recio, explaining what makes LA both particular and particularly inspiring as her base. “Where else would we get to see The Sweet and Tender Hooligans, an amazing Latino cover band of The Smiths?”
Born in NorCal, reared in SoCal, and educated between Rhode Island and Pasadena, Dole-Recio creates work that displays a similarly intriguing palimpsest of layers and confluence of influences. Not precisely paintings and not exactly collages, but displaying elements of both (as well as of drawing and architecture), her oeuvre is spare, delicate, intentionally imperfect, and created by a labor-intensive process the artist likens to an ancient Roman building technique called spolia, in which old bricks, stones or stone reliefs are incorporated into new structures.
“I’m interested in how the painting/collage becomes a temporal index of gestures and decisions when I include tools from my studio in the pieces themselves,” says Dole-Recio, a formalist at heart and self-proclaimed Goth who has an abiding interest in perspective, geometric abstraction, and space in general. Her gamut of influences is just as varied—from Jasper Johns (“His ‘Catenary’ paintings are incredible.”), Matisse, Gordon Matta-Clark, and David Cronenberg to 20th-century Viennese furniture, the nightclub in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï, and Wayne Koestenbaum’s “Excitement” essay on Frank O’Hara. “[It’s] a wonderful take on the energy in his work, but also Koestenbaum’s excitement for O’Hara’s excitement,” she says. “I’m feeling very committed to being enthusiastic about process.”
Jibade-Khalil Huffman works with text, photography, video, and performance to create room-and wall-sized installations, such as the piece he’s presenting at “Made in L.A. 2014.” But that’s not necessarily how he sees them. “To most people, they look like large-scale video installations, and that’s cool. But I’m thinking about the entire piece as text, about language, sound, and image without hierarchy,” says Huffman. “Basically, I’m making these long poems.”
The artist’s ties to text go far back. Born in 1981 in Detroit, Huffman moved at age 10 to Clearwater, Florida, and as a teen attended an arts high school with a discrete writing program. “I hated Florida, especially in high school. I couldn’t wait to get out and vowed never to go back—which invariably means it became the backdrop for all I wrote in college,” he says, humor evident. College was at Bard, followed by an MFA in poetry at Brown, four years in New York, several books of poems, and a move to Los Angeles in 2011 for an MFA at USC. “I became an artist who experiments with text, as opposed to a writer who experiments with different forms of art,” he says, adding that while his subjects change by project, themes such as boredom and suburbia continue to resonate from the Sunshine State.
It’s a resonance that, to a degree, extends to Los Angeles and increases the city’s appeal for Huffman. “As an artist, you could live in the middle of nowhere, get a job, earn a living, and make as much work as you can, but if you want to live as an artist, to have a community, LA is the easiest, most comfortable, resource-filled city in the country,” says Huffman, whose forthcoming book, Sleeper Hold (Fence, 2014), will be released later this year. “Then there’s the landscape, the flat space, and suburbia too.”
“There’s a kind of artist who thinks of something and executes it. I’m the opposite,” says Samara Golden, whose multisensory, multidimensional installations are often enveloping, alternate realities that incorporate materials such as mirrors, video monitors, foam, Plexiglas, and silvery, reflective Rmax insulation. “I approach something piece by piece, and it becomes itself through many different states.”
But since before her 2007 seminal project, “Power Ballad,” in which she sought to express the turmoil of confusion, Golden has become equally concerned with the addition of a nonphysical component to her work, one that can’t be seen or touched but sensed. She calls it the sixth dimension, where a multitude of pasts, presents, and futures, as well as their myriad possibilities, are happening at once and in one location. “It’s a convocation, a spirit in the room, a kind of time travel that can be summoned by all the parts in conversation with one another,” explains Golden. “Obviously it’s not based on physics, it’s just my way to talk about my aim, which is to reach a high emotional peak.”
Born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1973, the Columbia MFA grad moved from New York to Los Angeles five years ago, accompanying a boyfriend bound for graduate school. “It was right at the beginning of the economic crash, and I really hated it at first. But now I really like it,” says the artist, who in those five years has lived in five different places, and who originally had hoped Los Angeles would more closely resemble the city as seen in TV and films from the 1970s and ’80s. “I wanted to see the fantasy, the cinematic possibility, which I find inspiring, and be in a more expansive place.” As for how Los Angeles has affected her work, which has been exhibited at LACMA, MOCA, and Frieze New York, she says, “It’s given me space to develop ideas away from others’ opinions… time to make my work without knowing what it is or will be.”
“Los Angeles doesn’t ask you to love it, it’s just there for you. Palm trees in concrete!” says Tala Madani, an internationally recognized talent who’s showing her work here for the first time at “Made in L.A. 2014.” Her paintings, drawings, and stop-motion animations of men—balding, paunchy and Middle Eastern—characterize, caricature, criticize, and sometimes even humanize the general buffoonery of the male gender (often in soft-hued pastels and bearing art-history references to color field painting, action painting, and expressionist works by icons such as Helen Frankenthaler).
Born in Tehran in 1981, at age 15 Madani moved with her mother to Oregon. After becoming not just proficient but eloquent in English (“It wasn’t very good at all when I arrived.”) and graduating from Oregon State University with a degree in political science and visual arts, she moved cross-country to New Haven, where she earned her MFA in painting at Yale, two years that she calls “hard and great.” It was only afterward, at “the conclusion of thinking, experimenting, of trial and error” during her four subsequent years in Amsterdam, which included a residency at the prestigious Rijksakademie, that Madani’s focus turned to what she’s called the phenomena of men. “I found it freeing, invigorating, a way to explore and play with stereotypes and what creates them,” she says, adding, “I don’t judge inadequacy, I create space for it.”
Nor does Madani, who moved to Los Angeles three years ago with her partner, British artist Nathaniel Mellors, condemn sudden seismic shifts in domicile. “We came to LA for a two-week vacation in June, and by September we were living in a house in Mount Washington,” she says, laughing.
“Los Angeles is one of the few places in the Western Hemisphere that offers first-class—for lack of a better term—access to cultural and civic life while still being affordable,” says Wu Tsang, a 32-year-old UCLA MFA grad whose work includes performance, events, installation, film, and video. “You can have cheap rent, space to work, and time—and not feel like you are compromising in any way in terms of participating in an international cultural dialogue.”
Universal dialogue is indeed immediately evident in Tsang’s work, which is often collaborative and focused on questions of perception and experience—questions such as who is speaking for whom; whose voices are heard; whose voices are silenced? As Tsang explains, “I’m someone who experiences the world as a mixed-race transgender person, which also means that I experience the world as a variety of other things that I may not identify as, identities people put on me. I think a lot of people, to varying degrees, have to negotiate the world this way.”
Examples of how this exploration translates to Tsang’s work include “Pilot Television”—a large-scale collab Tsang corner-stoned in 2005 following his BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago—which he describes as “a two-day convergence in which more than 200 people came together to collectively produce artist-television shows, videos, and live performances.”
More recently, there’s Wildness, Tsang’s 74-minute video inspired by the Silver Platter, a MacArthur Park nightclub that has served LA’s Latin/LGBT community for more than 50 years and which was catalyzed by a weekly venue—also called Wildness—for performance art and partying produced by Tsang along with DJs Nguzunguzu and Total Freedom from 2008 through 2010. “As a filmmaker, LA is a great place to live because there are so many amazingly talented people to collaborate with,” says the artist, whose work has been shown at the Whitney Museum, the New Museum, and MOCA. “Often people in the movie industry are excited to collaborate with artists and generous with their resources….It’s a different experience than they have in their everyday [lives].”
“Art to question, art to challenge, art as resistance and as dialogue, that’s what attracted me as a kid. I was a hopeless romantic,” says Juan Capistrán, whose multidisciplinary practice continues to find fuel in these quixotic principles as well as focusing on subversively critiquing the current power structure and status quo.
Whatever the medium, which for Capistrán ranges widely depending on the project at hand, his approach and process can be compared to his early days as a DJ: “This is back when there were just two turntables… you had an A and B conversation, seeing where the source material could be combined, where it interlocked, and where it didn’t, where it broke down; I’m interested in those gray areas, which mirror what we do and how we function in society.”
It’s a dialogue of hybridization with which Capistrán has had a firsthand acquaintance over his lifetime. Born in 1976 in Guadalajara, Mexico, he was 3 when his family moved to Los Angeles, first to Venice Beach and soon afterward to South Central. “I had an African-American filter, but I’m not black, and I live in the United States as a person of color,” he says.
It’s also a dialogue of hybridization that, for Capistrán, is highly personal in other ways as well—reflecting his passion for peripheries and undergrounds that stretch back to the punk rock and graffiti of his adolescence. “In junior high, you either had no identity and no protection, or you joined a gang, or you did graffiti.”
From his particular mix have come multi layered, cross-referencing works such as …my hobby is throwing stones (foolishness can move mountains), 2014. One side of the piece is a photograph of his wife’s hand holding a paper rock; the image’s reverse side is a quote from Camus discussing the individual’s role in the quest for social justice, which Capistrán has edited to refer to the community’s role. The title refers to a 2013 New York Times article about West Bank Palestinian youths throwing stones, the only weapon readily at hand, at Israelis; and in the photograph’s background, behind the hand and the rock, stands the former headquarters of the Black Panthers. “Right now [the piece] is a billboard off the 10 Freeway at Robertson,” says the artist, a UC Irvine MFA grad whose work has been shown in both the US and Mexico. Hence the power of the hybridized idea.
The artist A.L. Steiner defines “androgyne” as a form of gender identity that is malleable, flexible, and, above all, open, “which is maybe where I want to be left… my work, too,” she says.
That work—intellectually provocative, politically charged, personal, and often collaborative and humorously perverse—spans a range of media, including film, video, performance, collage, and photography, a medium Steiner has explored creatively since her undergraduate years at George Washington University, where she majored in communication. “I built darkrooms practically everywhere I’ve lived in since,” she says.
Born in Miami in 1967, Steiner grew up surrounded by art and artists. “My mom had a gallery long before Miami had an art scene; she passionately grew her interest and was self-taught,” says Steiner. “She found agency within herself as opposed to learning through institutions. I really admire that.”
Steiner, too, found a path in the arts through her own agency. As a cofounder of Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.), collective member of Chicks on Speed, and cocurator of “Ridykeulous,” she has combined community activism and direct action, an acute awareness of messaging within mass media and mainstream culture, and pedagogy.
Following college, Steiner worked in Washington, DC, San Francisco, and New York for and with HIV/AIDS service organizations and activist groups such as Queer Nation and Lesbian Avengers. Concurrent with her private photographic practice, which resulted in shows at such venues as New York’s White Columns, she also worked in commercial photography, as a photo editor for Vogue, O, The Oprah Magazine, and Entertainment Tonight.
She also became increasingly interested in teaching, which is ultimately what brought her to Los Angeles after 18 years in New York. “I was back and forth for a few years, teaching classes at UCLA, and eventually moved in 2011 to teach at USC,” she says, adding that while she misses New York profoundly and finds LA totally illogical, “There’s also a lot of community support—a whole not-for-profit industrial complex—that has emerged over the last 10 years or so, and that’s incredibly exciting.”
Photography by Brad Swonetz; by wu tsang (tsang)