Made in L.A. 2018, the latest iteration of the Hammer Museum’s biennial, is a powerful antidote to the fatalistic, apocolyptic imaginaries dominating 2018’s media landscape. Curators Anne Ellegood and Erin Christovale have assembled a show that takes catastrophe as a given, not a destination. It is a broadly inclusive exhibition of 34 Los Angeles area artists showcasing the voracious eclecticism of artists today while maintaining a clear focus on traditional media like painting.
The first piece most visitors encounter is by artist MPA — a pair of giant, red, broken sunglasses connected by a bright red line meandering through the museum. The line between the sunglasses, titled Faultline, stands for literal faultlines like the San Andreas, and metaphorical faultlines like the growing American political rift. “The fault line is actually a very productive place,” MPA says. “A fault can produce water in the desert, an oasis. So here’s this rigid collision, and it can produce the most essential thing to life.” The disembodied shades hint at the collapse of excess and a shift in vision — like being blinded by the sun when your sunglasses fall off your face. Or even a shift in vision like what John Nada undergoes when wearing the now-infamous shades in They Live.
I rounded the corner to see a room filled with Charles Long’s large, stump-like sculptures which appear alternately sliced, arranged, toppled and, in one instance, smoking. The forms conjure not only tree stumps, but severed penises — becoming analogues for both environmental and patriarchal destruction. In the next gallery hangs a series of black and white photographs depicting the artist, Daniel Joseph Martinez, standing in spots where the Berlin Wall once stood, holding a portrait banner of German left-wing militant Ulrike Marie Meinhof (1934–1976). The accompanying wall text reminds us to “heed the lessons of the past at an unprecedented time in American history, in which threats to democracy loom large.”
These artists are tuned to the same zeitgeist and vernacular, which isn’t surprising considering many of them are active in the same networks. “Nine artists, for example, have shown at Commonwealth & Council, a gallery that maintains the attitude of the artist-run space it once was, and 10 have shown at Human Resources, the communally run alt space in Chinatown,” Althogh future iterations must avoid such a reliance on the same networks, this grouping of artists is especially successful for the ways it “pulls the show away from the sprawling, Whitney Biennial-inspired amibtions it’s had in the past and toward a more intimate regional portrait.”
As a cross section of a group with shared concerns and parlance, it highlights the counterintuitive ways social movements can coalesce. The artists are not united by an ideology or even by clear solutions to today’s social ills. However, many of them share a concern for the environment, untold histories, and most especially, the body. “Overwhelmingly, that body is brown and black, female, queer, and indigenous,” writes Matt Stromberg for Hyperallergic. There are Luchita Hurtado’s paintings of patterned rugs as seen from the artist’s perspective. The soft fleshiness of her feet, stomach, and breasts, visible in the paintings, contrasts with the sharp geometry of the patterns. Then there are the virtuosic oil paintings of Linda Stark, who uses a unique mark making process to achieve dramatic ridged textures. She uses this texture to incredible effect in Stigmata, where the ridges mirror the barely visible lines on the surface of a human hand. In Rainbow Pierce, an innocuous rainbow streaking across a neutral background is punctuated by two erect nipples, fiercely returning the gaze of the viewer.
The show even includes two experimental dancer-choreographers, Flora Wiegmann and taisha paggett. Wiegmann’s work is a response both to recent wildfires in the American West and recent cultural and political “flare-ups” in the Global West. In paggett’s work, she uses solo and duet dance to “consider the liberatory potential of black and brown bodies moving within the galleries and beyond.” Laura Bleiberg, writing for the LA Times, points out that in spite of the special requirements it demands such as a changing room or a warm-up space, dance is on the rise in museums. Considering the prevalence of the body in the show, curators saw dance as a natural part of the conversation: “Having dancers in the space and having movement shown is very much in dialogue with other artists in the show.”
Perhaps the artist dealing most directly with the body is EJ Hill who, for every minute the exhibition has been open, has been engaged in a durational performance in which he stands on a podium in front of a neon sign asking, “Where on earth, in which soils, and under what conditions will we bloom brilliantly and violently?” Surrounding Hill in the gallery is documentation from his project “Excellentia, Mollitia, Victoria,” in which he ran a “victory lap” around each of the schools he’s ever attended. Around the perimeter of the gallery is a running track with a single wooden fence barricading the path forward. I walked into the gallery just before closing time and could just barely see Hill beginning to crumble under the weight of his own body. Seeing him on the podium brought numerous associations to mind, including Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ Black Power Salute during the National Anthem of the 1968 Olympics. Hill’s body echoes the fifty years of racial struggle since then, only to arrive in 2018 exhausted and still protesting the same anthem. There is even an association I made between the podium and the auction block — perhaps the most insiduous practice of slavery because of the ways it constantly threatened to tear apart any black family at any time, rendering children, parents, siblings, cousins, husbands and wives forever separated — a fate sometimes worse than death.
Even though many artists are engaging with politically charged material, “works dealing with bummer issues,” Jonathan Griffin points out, “never fall into moralizing self-righteousness.” Candice Lin’s installation La China Charada hints at illegal pot grows, 19th century opium wars, as well as slave and worker uprisings without feeling like a lecture or a sermon. Lin has created an immersive installation with special attention paid to materials, which include “Earth, red clay from the Dominican Republic and California, guano, cement, opium poppy seeds, sugarcane seeds, seeds of various poisonous Caribbean plants, grow lights, reflective Mylar, wooden and metal armature, soaker hose, pumping system.” Mercedes Dorame makes work cunningly grappling with her mixed ancestry as European and Gabrielino-Tongva — Los Angeles’ first people. The photographs she makes are taken at the home of her non-native grandparents and include 75,000 year old ‘cog stones’ from sacred indigenous sites. “They are meant to be healing gestures,” Dorame says. “They come from an impulse to make amends with the land, with these spaces that were witnesses to terrible things.” Finally, Lauren Halsey’s The Crenshaw District Hieroglyph Project is a functional space dedicated to South Central LA and inscribed with a range of text and images reflecting her community. The sculpture is intended as a prototype for a public space on Crenshaw Boulevard and after winning the Hammer’s 2018 Mohn Award she is $100,000 closer to realizing this project.
Made In LA 2018 is truly interdisciplinary even while it features a predominance of painters. Celeste Dupuy-Spencer’s gestural, expressive depictions of sociopolitically loaded scenery includes my personal favorite, Durham, August 14, 2017. The painting shows a statue crumpled at the base and surrounded by a throng of legs. It is significant because it memorializes that which we are quick to forget — the minor victories perpetually being washed away by naysayers and cynics. But I remember being a part of events that day, barely a year ago now. I remember watching in real time from my desk in Portland, Oregon as a crowd in Durham, North Carolina toppled a confederate monument, chanting “NO COPS, NO KKK, NO FASCIST USA.” I remember how energized I felt in the days following, like I’d discovered a wellspring of courage simply by witnessing the win. It makes perfect sense that the event would be narrated in paint because of a clear parallel between the practice of painting and the struggle for hope: it takes daily work and devotion to arrive at what sometimes feels like surprising victories. But those unforeseen wins would never happen without daily work and toil. As Christopher Knight writes, “The complex, hands-on demands of painting perhaps stand as an indicator of a continuing reaction to today’s gauzy, enveloping digital ether.” Indeed, in reaction to the all-too-neat cynicism of the apocalyptic narratives being sold by media conglomerates stands the active struggle for hope — a project just as complex and hands-on as painting.