Made in LA 2020
The Hammer Museum, Westwood
Huntington Library, San Marino
April 17 – August 1, 2021
Written by Mario Vasquez
What does it mean to be an artist in Los Angeles? What does Los Angeles mean to an artist? 2020 has been a challenging year. Combining a pandemic, social unrest and an election, the Made in LA 2020: a version is a timely exploration of both the concept and the idea of “Los Angeles” and the place. Curated jointly by Myriam Ben Salah, Lauren Mackler and Ikechukwu Onyewuenyi, this year’s Made in LA biennial is in two main locations: The Hammer Museum in Westwood and the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. However, there are off site venues by Larry Johnson, Kahili Joseph and Jill Mileady. The Biennial was supposed to open in June. However, the pandemic has delayed the opening since.
Featuring 30 artists, the 2020 edition of Made in LA is probably the best iteration since it began in 2012. First, the curators create a dichotomy where to frame the artists in the biennial. On one side is the mythical Los Angeles; the LA that is seen through the media and in culture. The other side is the real Los Angeles where the living in the city provides a stage where life plays out. This version of Los Angeles includes Hollywood, sunshine, surfing, the media. Through this dichotomy, the curators explore the meaning of Los Angeles to both artistic practice of the artists and the lives reflected to those living in the city.
Framed within the two bookends, Los Angeles becomes both the subject and the setting. Both the art and the artist in this biennial engage the city with zeal and confidence. Caught between the reality of the city and the magic that surrounds Los Angeles, the curators wanted the viewer to both engage and get a sense of the city. The two sites of the biennial feature the same artists. This allows for site specific work at the Huntington, as well as work installed at the Hammer of each artist individually.
Before covering the highlights of the biennial, a few aspects of the exhibition should be noted. First, painting plays an important and dominant role in this biennial. Painters such as Jill Mulleady, Katja Seib, Brandon D. Landers, Alexandra Noel, Omar Rashid, Mario Ayala, Mr. Wash and Monica Majoli resonates powerfully in this biennial. Each painter is at their best in conveying narrative and reflecting the general theme of this exhibition.
The two sites of the biennial offer interesting perspectives on the idea and concept of LA. The sites almost create two separate exhibitions while remaining within the curatorial and conceptual frame that the organizers and curators established. At the Huntington Library, the museum offers artists an opportunity to engage with the site, its collections and history. With a wink to Paul Thek’s “Tomb (Death of a Hippie),” Patrick Jackson places two bearded men prostrate on the floor laying near “Zenobia in Chains” (1859), the towering white marble sculpture by Harriet Goodhue Hosmer. The placement of the two figures creates an environment that relates and changes the setting of the museum as a site of a contemporary mausoleum. Buck Ellison’s photographs are placed in the American art gallery offers juxtapositions and comparisons that explore affluence and class exploring connections with wealth and affluence both in the past and in 21st Century Los Angeles. Ellison continues his investigation of affluence, wealth, class and privilege at the Hammer Museum with photography installations of wealthy Anglo families who live in Los Angeles. Aria Dean’s sculptural column presents a challenge to dominant Anglo culture that The Huntington is known to represent. Since the Huntington is known for its library and archives, Mario Ayala displays archival copies of underground Chicano queer and Latinx periodicals and zines. Thus, creating an alternative archive for the surrounding memory and trauma in the past and by implication the future.
If there is an overarching theme to the Huntington Library section is that the past is always present as it haunts Los Angeles as a city and the institutions within. There is an enchantment that surrounds the works and the artists at Huntington. This idea is illustrated brilliantly by the installation by Sabrina Tarasoff and Beyond Baroque. Set up as a haunted house, Tarasoff gathers video, film and works by Dennis Cooper, Bob Flanagan and Sheree Rose, Amy Gerstler, Jack Skelley, Ed Smith, and David Trinidad as well as ephemera from the Beyond Baroque archives and creates an immersive experience. Tarasoff by establishes a link between the past and the present. LA may be a cosmopolitan scene with rapid gentrification and an art scene that is increasing becoming a symbol of luxury, the avant-garde, which Beyond Baroque represents, is always a haunting presence where literature, poetry and the visual art coalesce into a reminder of a vibrant and compelling art scene.
While the Huntington Library focuses on the fantasy and LA’s relation with its past, the Hammer Museum part of Made in LA offers a different perspective. With the exception of a few, most of the artists shown at the Huntington also have work at the Hammer. The artists and their works at the Hammer demonstrate their skills in the ability to show strong works in the context of a museum space as well a museum with historical underpinnings like the Huntington. Aria Dean explores the intersection between technology, narrative, and Blackness. Dean’s King of the Loop a man finds himself on an abandoned plantation, in a metaphysical knot. King of the Loop ricochets between a variety of genres and literary forms— including epic poetry, epistle, soliloquy, social realist theater, absurdism, and stand-up comedy—and draws on southern and European gothic storytelling traditions as well as science fiction. Katja Seib’s paintings investigates the blurred line between magic, cyberspace and reality. Seib uses various images from her iPhone to create dreamlike worlds where magic and technological existence claims a different reality. Artificial Intelligence and language are the subject of Jacqueline Kiyomi Gork’s installation the input of this machine is the power an output contains. Gork’s performers move throughout the spaces reciting an AI-generated text culled from various forms of public speech. Jill Mulleady’s paintings and installations both at the Huntington and the Hammer Museum reflect on the experiences of being in Los Angeles as a site of new myths and legends. To Mulleady, Los Angeles is a ghostly world where myths, dreams and reality exists simultaneously.
Where myth ends, reality begins. With a focus on the real, the biennial shifts and formulates the experiences of African American, queer, and Latino (or Latinx), which encompass and are a part of the landscape of Los Angeles. Mario Ayala’s paintings and works on paper brings hand-painted signage, tattoos, advertising, auto customization, and elements of lowrider aesthetics culture to the biennial. The photography of Reynaldo Rivera bridges the world of Latinx drag queens and queer sites of the past by producing these images of lost underground clubs. They are haunting and melancholic in their subject and honesty. Monica Majoli uses images from gay pornographic films and magazines reflect on the confluence of politics and sexual power within the LGBTQ community both in the past and present.
When it comes to representing the past and present of the African American community in Los Angeles, Made in LA is at its best. The black artists in Made in LA are not confined to the present-day condition of African Americans living in the city. The artists also explore the past and the future. Harmony Holiday’s work connects the memory of her father, jazz musician Jimmy Holiday, with author James Baldwin in the wonderful film “The Two Jimmys.” Aria Dean’s performance and installation reflects on the intersection of blackness and the technological mediation of experience. American history is the subject of Umar Rashid’s paintings. Rashid explores alternative narratives to the past as it intersects with present day America. Brandon Landers’ paintings is meditation of family experience within the black community. By placing the family at the center of his personal experiences, Lander’s intimate works engages in an important and compelling aspect within the community. The media and the portrayal of blackness is the focus of Kahlil Joseph’s BLKNWS. Joseph’s work considers the relationship between the black community and sources from social media, popular culture, and actual news footage. Son (Justin Leroy) medium is the community. Son’s practice involves his father’s barbershop as place of memory and as a gathering place of community. Son’s work contemplates life and its connection with the community and the family.
The best of the Biennial is a new artist whose life and story are as compelling as his painting. Fulton Leroy Washington (aka Mr. Wash) is most surprising and the best. When Mr. Wash started painting, he was serving time in prison. His art caught the attention of then President Barack Obama and was subsequently granted a commutation of his prison sentence. Mr. Wash’s paintings are extremely personal focusing on his struggles with life and redemption after prison. Mr. Wash’s paintings show scenes from the neighborhood, his children, fellow inmates, and a few self-portraits. It is the paintings of Mr. Wash that reflect a Los Angeles struggling with fear and anxieties that exists in the present day. The tears in his paintings are reflection of those fears as containers of the lives past and present. What makes his paintings so compelling is the honesty and depth reflected in his work. Mr. Wash shines and deserves attention now and in the future.
The Made in LA 2020: a version is the probably the most important art exhibition on contemporary art in Los Angeles since 1992’s “Helter Skelter.” This biennial will define Los Angeles art for this decade because it reflects the gravity of this time and place. Despite its reflection of locality as a staging area, the themes, artwork and artists are global in their outlook and preoccupation of the current condition both before and after the pandemic and its consequences. The curators Myriam Ben Salah, Lauren Mackler and Ikechukwu Onyewuenyi have managed to establish go behind the veneer of Los Angeles and reveal the true city as it is perceived both in myth and reality of those that live within its periphery.
The Hammer Museum
10899 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, 90024
1151 Oxford Road, San Marino, 91108