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Context always matters in the perception and reception of art, but in the case of annual or biennial exhibitions designed to take the pulse of a particular place at a particular time, context is crucial. Made in L.A. 2020: a version was, through no fault of its own, vexed in this regard. Between the show’s organization and its opening to the public, delayed by nearly a year, the political and social landscape of Los Angeles and the nation as a whole shifted radically with the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and too many others, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, the violent assault on the US Capitol, and more. The United States lost upward of half a million lives to the COVID-19 pandemic. Reckoning and redefinition were catalyzed on every level, from the individual to the institutional. Made in L.A. was bound to land differently in 2021 than in 2019 and early 2020, when curatorial decisions were finalized and the catalog went to press. Would the show—could the show—remain relevant?
Independent curators Lauren Mackler and Myriam Ben Salah worked with the Hammer Museum’s assistant curator of performance, Ikechukwu Onyewuenyi, to select thirty artists for the exhibition, which was staged in two “mirrored” parts: one at the Hammer and one at the Huntington, some twenty-five driving miles apart. Every artist was represented at both sites, but not necessarily with closely related work, and a few had pieces installed at additional locales across the city. The geographic split decentered what was already determined to be—given the lowercase subtitle, a version—an exercise in multiplicity and provisionality.
The curators counted the catalog as yet another venue for the show, and the publication does, indeed, function more as a vehicle for display (somewhere between upscale zine and Instagram feed) than for documentation, explication, or interpretation. An addendum to the catalog is planned after the show closes, to incorporate a record of presented work and conversations around the show, suggesting, Mackler states, “a model of contemporary art scholarship that is ‘live’” (145).
The curatorial team identified several conceptual and thematic threads: entertainment as subject and material; the genre and aesthetic of horror; and the convention of the fourth wall, through which fiction is constructed and dismantled. Their dedication to creating a show that privileges the unresolved kept these threads loose. Any evocations of horror inside the museum walls felt puny and inconsequential compared to the palpable horrors unspooling outside. Much of the work on view did engage props, costumes, or staging. Much of it addressed or assumed a performative stance (though actual performances were either prerecorded or postponed, due to pandemic restrictions) and embraced artifice unabashedly, strategically. There were other currents in play as well, having to do with cultural marginalization and historical remediation, the navigation of power, and the amplification of disempowered voices within historical narratives and archives.
BLKNWS amalgamates all of these big-ticket themes into a mesmerizing, stream-of-heightened-consciousness, piercing and poetic newsreel. The two-channel video montage by Kahlil Joseph screened continuously at the Hammer, as well as in a dozen sites throughout the city, most of them small, Black-owned businesses. The piece adopts a news broadcast format as general scaffold, but is less report than investigative, reverential, ferocious homage. Against a throbbing soundtrack runs excerpted footage of sports events, stand-up comedy, political protests, and much more. Voice, in the film, oscillates between individual and collective, as Joseph meditates on the relationship between representation and identity and, implicitly, on the fundamentally empowering influence of self-representation. The piece, which the artist continues to update and remix, serves as an inexhaustibly rich riposte to the reductive notion of a singular Black culture.
Black news of a quotidian sort plays itself out in the stirring, palette-knife paintings of Brandon D. Landers. Figures in his portraits and domestic scenes feel scraped or restlessly whittled into definition. They are all presence, posture, and expression, moving and posing within compressed, shallow spaces. Interiors and exteriors conflate, and in one canvas, a casual backyard cookout converges with an upscale, passed-tray event. Landers’s compositions work the way memory does, according to its own associative logic. Cousins to the paintings of Henry Taylor and Kerry James Marshall, Landers’s works chronicle everyday life with tensile energy and jittery, animate texture.
Overall, however, Made in L.A. possessed only middling visual verve, and the featured paintings provided a good share of what there was. Jill Mulleady imbues a triptych of the MacArthur Park neighborhood where she works with absorbing, symbolist strangeness, and Umar Rashid pictures freshly fabricated histories with roots in familiar dynamics of conquest and genocide. His canvases are rich, raucous, and trenchant, spiked with puns and dense with harsh truths.
Tactile immediacy was also in short supply in the show. One piece that promised a transformative bodily experience was, unfortunately, off limits due to COVID-19 restrictions on physical contact and proximity. La Chambre en Fourrure re-creates a 1969 installation by the late Nicola L., a freestanding room with walls of purple fake fur. In lieu of windows, partial body suits are sewn into the walls, so that participants can insert their arms, legs, and faces toward the interior. All who play acquire a new, outlandish sheath that renders them equal to and continuous with other participants, at least superficially, for the time that they engage with the artwork-cum-social experiment. A study for the piece declares its intention, its ideal: “SAME SKIN FOR EVERYBODY.” Nearby to Nicola L.’s installation (at the Hammer) hangs Christina Forrer’s Gebunden II, a large, entrancing, vaguely lurid weaving that also visualizes notions of interconnectedness in a purple-prevailing color scheme. Figures meld and morph; multiple heads share a single torso; legs extrude and curve beneath the bodies, doubling as branches of a common family tree.
Among the show’s other opportunities to experience psychic and physical reorientation were Sabrina Tarasoff’s archive-as-haunted house, a theatrical installation conjuring the characters and culture of the Beyond Baroque Literary Art Center from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, and Patrick Jackson’s jarring pair of decade-old, cinematically real male figures, positioned on the floor at the Huntington, lying on either side of a milky white monumental marble sculpture of a shackled queen of ancient lore. Jackson’s figures are uncanny, with their matching denim outfits, artificial hands, and near-human heads. The disjunction of their siting sets off a faint ripple of unease.
While these were among the works most overtly embodying the show’s stated themes, another piece, by Ser Serpas, came closest to exemplifying the show’s actual conditions. Serpas’s usual practice of gathering source materials from the area near an exhibition venue and creating what she calls “assisted readymades” on-site was nixed, since she resides in Switzerland and COVID travel restrictions meant she could not be present either to collect or install her work. In the Hammer’s closed, glass-fronted lobby gallery were laid out an assembly of found discards—bathroom sinks, a baby stroller, a car fender—that she didn’t choose or order but that hint at what she would have if able. At once relics and raw ingredients, the objects could only be seen through the glass, at a remove. Potential Indefinite Performance, This That and Now Again is a work that is not really a work, an assortment of fragments suspended in a sealed time capsule, a consolation prize, an analogy.
Charged moments—even inadvertent, ironically charged moments—did punctuate Made in L.A. 2020, but this fifth iteration of the biennial signaled a precipitous drop in energy, intimacy, urgency, and appealing materiality from its gripping predecessor of 2018. That show’s myriad offerings cohered as a kind of collective pushback against the disenfranchising, dehumanizing forces that elected Trump and sustained his administration. That show had a pounding heartbeat. It oozed relevance. This one mostly ticked along, responsible enough in the range of genres represented and in the demographic span of its participants. The show was long in credibility, seriousness, earnestness—but desperately short of vital juice.