WE ARE CRITIC: Made in L.A. 2016

Part of the challenge of Made in L.A. is that the curators – in this case Aram Moshayedi and Hamza Walker – must work together to select a wide range of artists whose work they want to expose to a wider audience, with the hope that the show comes together more FRESH than AMATEUR. What follows in this review are the honest opinions of a group of people who came, pencil in hand, to take stabs at the amorphous beast that is Made in L.A. (Is it any wonder that ‘biennale’ sounds like the be-all end-all?) This writing experiment may serve as a counterpoint to the pervasive tendency to clean up amateurism’s rough edges; as a group, these amateurs can also be bold, critical, attentive. Like this review, the works presented as part of Made in L.A. 2016 are an eclectic reflection of whatever the selected artists and curators are presently interested in investigating. The multiple writers of this document present diverging views, but share authorship and mix subjectivities under a single pen name: “The Best Friends Learning Gang.”

The title of this year’s Made in L.A. Biennale – a, the, though, only – can be interpreted in many ways, but it is first and foremost an artwork, one of a handful of unexpected placements of art in an otherwise traditional exhibition. The piece is hidden in plain view by the poet Aram Saroyan. Stripped of information about its authorship, the curators were able to cleverly maximize the visibility of a minimalist text, precisely the kind of tactic that Made in L.A. hopes to continually foster and define itself by. What is less subtle is that this poem is one of two hidden works that can be discovered by voting for ‘Best in Show’ on an iPad. In the bottom corner Guthrie Lonergen’s hidden easter egg pops up to greet you with a message. It is an unflattering M&M avatar, possibly in the likeness of an exhibiting artist, programmed to reveal a clunky snippet off of an actual artist statement, presumably without anyone’s permission.

A, the, though, only succinctly expresses the show’s inadequate attempt to collect scattered fragments into some kind of charged or meaningful statement. The word “a” is a determiner, used when referring to a thing at its first appearance, or to indicate inclusion or membership in a group, category, or profession (a chair, a lawyer, a critic); “the” is an article that indicates specificity, implying common knowledge of that which is being referred to (The 101, The Hammer Museum, The chair that I am pointing to); “though” is a conjunction that implies contradiction (similar to “but”); “only” is an adverb or adjective that expresses singularity or scarcity. Translated into nouns, the show’s title could read: introduction or membership, assumptions of common knowledge, contradictions, and scarcity.

While the title-as-artwork breaks with syntax, rejecting the governing structure of instrumental language, most of the works in the show seem to fit neatly inside of limited disciplinary boxes. This unfortunate conservatism is acknowledged by the curators in their introductory wall text: “the boundaries between disciplines remain duly intact. The modes of self-examination and critical reflexivity that are particular to each are therefore met on their own terms, according to their distinct rules of engagement.” As an artist and critic who is passionate about undisciplinarity, crossbench praxis, and a celebratory irreverence for rules, it doesn’t surprise me that the curators’ deeply held belief in divisive and elitist disciplinary integrity gave the show its fusty pallor. It is tidy; it is safe.

On the other hand, a safe exhibition can expand the audience to whom it might appeal (this is a show my mom and I could go to together), and part of this means the work cannot be generationally specific or ageist. Its very clear resistance to being a flashy presentation of excited contemporary L.A. based artists was, in some ways, the most defined aspect of the show. Nothing was specific to L.A. or to a single generation. The vast array of themes and concerns that populated the show evidenced little or no explicit connection between the works of the artists, which left out any opportunity to engage the spectrum of discrete, suggestive, and complex curatorial contextualization that exhibitions can offer. Interestingly, the opposite also holds true. By not providing sufficient information specific to each work, understanding each section on its own terms is not an option either. Without a more definite framework for Martine Syms’ work, for example, her installation felt too specific to be legible in proximity to Kenzi Shiokeva’s assemblages or Artur Jafa’s notebooks. The exhibition missed an opportunity  to capture the intermingling of personalities that is unique to Los Angeles, the bubbling radicality and determination to set things right. More details could emerge between artists’ works if they were grouped thematically rather than by the traditional solo show format. What if Wadada Leo Smith’s 2D works were next to Gala Porras-Kim and Huguette Caland’s works on the wall. Perhaps even having Dena Yago and Margaret Honda’s pieces resting on Sterling Ruby’s tables (which on their own were a void that filled a void). Gallery monitors, guards or models could have been outfitted with the latest clothes by Eckhaus Latta & Huguette’s caftans.

Gutherie Lonergan’s M&M piece is one work that engages the attempt of achieving accessibility without relying on outdated notions of disciplinarity. The digital M&M people who appear on The Hammer’s website spews seemingly autogenerated jargon that perfectly critiques the kind of generalized artspeak which dominates the wall text and accompanying literature at the exhibition. Wall texts are most useful when the curator is being informative, giving the audience enough information to decode the piece, rather than forcefully inflating the piece with meaning (and value); the point where the didactic crosses over into interpretation – that is, telling the audience what the work means – cheapens the experience, robs the audience of agency, and norms the diversity of responses that would otherwise have arisen in viewers. The M&M makes fun of an element of art display that can be very alienating for someone who doesn’t have insider, academic knowledge of artworld discourse; they’re physically more accessible because they’re online, and their content is more accessible – and more playful – than most of the physical work.

Game-developer Niantic also played a part in making the exhibition more accessible and drawing in audiences. The museum had great Pokemon. I found Pidgeys, Magmars, Growlithes, Spearows, Ratatas, Venonats, Nidorans, and a Zubat. The CP levels ranged from 10 – 662. There was an occasional Vulpix. There are plenty of Pokestops nearby and a gym across from The Hammer. Sitting on the dreidel-like chairs in The Hammer courtyard and spinning counts as steps! You can hatch many eggs while sitting. Much like the digital interventions that inflect the physical show, the augmented reality component of Pokemon Go! created a playful estrangement from the otherwise austere environment, proposing new ways of looking.                              

Although it is meant to highlight under-recognized artists, the solo show display brings to mind connections between artists who are present and their more successful counterparts. Rebecca Morris as Laura Owens, Kenneth Tam as Phil Collins, Mark Verabioff as Glenn Ligon. Strange pop culture figures in the early works of Kenzi Shiokara feel similar to Llyn Foulkes. His totemic natural sculptures are like someone crammed Isama Noguchi and Nick Cave into a tiny plot. The only collective featured is Labor Link TV whose radical work appears dated or inconsequential because the information seems too distant, like so much of this generation’s connection to Unions. All too hastily, this particular gallery was dubbed “the show’s Bernie Sanders gallery,” but its importance as an actual excavation is largely overlooked. Revealed is the often forgotten history of art, activism, public-access, and broadcasting technologies (like L.A. based Nancy Buchanan and Michael Zinzun’s television show called “Message To The Grassroots” on Pasadena Community Network’s Channel 56, which addressed everything from police brutality, gang rivalry and violence, the Iran-Contra Affair, to apartheid in South Africa; Andrea Sodomka’s State of Transition, made in 1994, which used radio and the world wide web to discuss immigration and border politics; or the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link, which started in 1985 and is one of the oldest online communications platforms, where topics were determined by its users). Daniel R. Small gets a funded take-away brochure, but why not Labor Link TV instead? In the case of Small’s work, it is almost patronizing. We get it… it’s ironic, everything is fake and a white guy probably played someone of African descent in a movie. Unless the work is about how gullible we are by buying into the Hollywood archetypes (See:Trump), do we really need a whole pamphlet? It would have been much more fitting to have an accessible take away flier for the dense information related to Labor Link TV. It could give examples of how to be an activist within your means, how to setup a pirate TV station or how to work towards similar goals with contemporary technologies.

This is a striking contrast to Martine Syms’ work that feels too caught up in an over-education in contemporary art. This could be an assumption, but I felt the influence of a  kind of MFA teacher/curator who suggests that their students/artists commodify their minority subjectivity. Usually it’s in the form of a self-reflective and self-conscious intellectual discourse that does a disservice to the kind of potential they’re striving for. Martine Syms’ piece was disappointing compared to works that spoke about race in a previous exhibition by Hamza Walker, Black is Black Ain’t (2008). For Made in L.A., Syms seemed overly conscious of the expectation that she could  fill the right amount of space with the appropriate quality of production. These attributes might make the works more appealing to institutions – as they can travel, museum-ready, on a relatively limited budget – but they struggle to sustain a conversation.

This said, the title of Syms’ work, “She Mad,” suggests the concern of the work might actually be more about a class-specific black feminism (in this case, the laughing hysteric performed by a black woman) than about packaging minority art for institutional standards. Watching Syms so fucked up on laughing gas might have been too much of a distraction from the core concern of the work. Or maybe that was the core concern afterall. What is distracting to some is a dog whistle for those of us who resent self-seriousness and appreciate the work’s accusatory slapstick.

Ya know the same goddamn thing happened to me that happened to Martine Syms at the dentist. I went to this quack dentist in midtown Manhattan. When I found out she wouldn’t put me under for a wisdom tooth extraction I was primed to run for it, but she told me to take a valium and think it over. Cut to me gushing blood on 14th street screaming at the top of my lungs “WHY DID SHE DO THIS TO ME?? WHY WOULD SHE DO THIS TO ME!?” Never get work done by Eva Breightman on 54th street. Check out her YELP reviews.

Though underserved by a lack of contextualization, the possibility that Martine Syms’ installation might have been placed there to expose a crevice in a social landscape is interesting in that it ties into an archaeological theme that so many have written about, but in terms far too broad to successfully capture a pertinent curatorial intent. Inclusion or visibility come at the expense of someone else’s exclusion or invisibility, and with this, the sometimes awkward use of personal archaeology as a theme – with greater and lesser degrees of success – is a noncommittal way of acknowledging the stratification of information and access to it in our society.

On the recognizably famous end of the “emerging” artists spectrum was Sterling Ruby’s “Personal Archeology” (read: Sterling Ruby’s “Self Mythology”). Taking old worktables out of a factory and sticking those tables in a gallery is NOT making work about labor. ESPECIALLY when you found them in the building you bought to use as your blue chip studio. ESPECIALLY when you plan to sell them for (tens of?) thousands of dollars. The piece may be about naive exploitation and bourgeois fetishization of labor (which would be far more interesting) but the curators’ (and presumably the artist’s) blindness to this subtext is glaring. Perhaps the artist could have acknowledged his parasitic relationship to laborers (those whose old worktables he is capitalizing on, and hell, those of the laborers he currently employs to make his work in that factory). He could have given us some Serra-style complicity: hiring day laborers to sit at those benches, having them work a little for the crowds. He could raise the price of the worktables every time a worker gets a blister; double the price if there’s a really gruesome factory accident.

Dena Yago was flat out given the worst venue at the Hammer and like any of the paper works in vitrines, they appeared to suffocate inside of their display cases. The installation of Kelly Akashi’s pieces provided further proof that this kind of work needs more room to breathe. There were references to satellite projects such as the advertisement by Eckhaus Latta, but really the simplicity of the advertisement carrying Aram Saroyan’s minimal poem held more weight.

“I really like the video in there.” someone says to me. They point to the dark room where Kenneth Tam’s work is looping. The video shows a bunch of men gluing cheerios to another man’s half naked body. I’m inclined to like it. They’re genuinely nervous, desperately informing one another about their respective girlfriends and wives. I keep listening, hoping to hear someone mention a male partner. Or their confusing relationship with their elderly aunt. Or their relationship with a shower head. Anything but wives and girlfriends. I’m pretty sure Tam is queer, but the part never comes when the notion of MEN is divorced from the notion of STRAIGHTNESS. Is it an anthropological look at straight men, a queer study of them?  This is a video about the awkwardness of male sexuality that does nothing but let you know how straight the men are. How important it is to them that the men around them – participating in this erotic procedure – know they are straight. This would make sense if the project was about how self-identified straight men associate with each other in intimate scenarios, but the wall text says that this is a video about how men associate with other men, and apparently only straight men are allowed that gender identity. This missive in the wall text only makes the gaze employed within the work all the more uncomfortable as it suggests there is a joke at play that the participants are not privy to. So where does that leave us faggots? It left me squirming in my seat, feeling annoyed and alienated: just like I do in a group of straight men sitting around talking about their girlfriends.

Arthur Jafa’s installation of binders comprised of the artists’ research are simply fantastic. Not overthought or contextualized, the images show what appears to be years worth of research compiled into spare collages. The juxtaposition of imagery reflects a spontaneous moment in the artist’s practice. While the binders and collages were interesting and illuminated something about Jafa’s working process, as a piece it seems to be more about the ego of the curator-as-artist at the expense of Jafa himself. Arthur Jafa doesn’t see his research notebooks as art; the accompanying text says so. The curators clearly disagree since the binders are locked inside long, white vitrines. The first time I saw Mike Kelley’s handmade stuffed animals I almost cried, only their black eyes visible through the small windows of their coffins. The tension of the piece is relational, an emotional institutional critique. I realized looking at them that no one would ever get to look at those stuffed animals again, or hug them, or sleep close to them. Not because they’re ruined, but because they’re art. Simply put, once something becomes priceless, it might as well be dead. Museums and galleries are in the business of transforming the everyday into near-priceless commodities: the funeral business. As I wondered whether these notebooks would be let free after the exhibition, I saw a small and beautiful spider crawl slowly across the white base of the vitrine, locked behind the glass with Jafa’s notebooks. To quote a brilliant film about the dangers of making a spectacle out of the dead: “life finds a way.”

I’m relieved that Arthur Jafa’s work was originally not intended to be public; it is then not an overly conscious work that deals with race, because we lack the language (but not the prejudice). So then, at what point was he convinced to show these ‘sketches’ rather than to present his films? There are no films to reference in comparison to these look-books. The flashes of imagery in the binders reflect the way that cultural construction of race functions; there is a freedom of association that, when expressed, gives a raw look into Jafa’s mental (and creative) process. The imagery can still be scrutinized, but it’s presented as an alternative to overly contrived presentations of race. In these binders, the imagery of blackness is visceral. Not relegated to something just personal, it showed what is at stake with objectification.  

Is there a way to ask a viewer to pay attention to an object that doesn’t make the thing precious, that doesn’t take the life out of it? Gala Porras-Kim’s display of obscure artifacts from UCLA’s Fowler Museum is a confusing commentary on museology curatorial practices. Rather than critique the methods by which museums create value, Porras-Kim trades one value creation process for another, placing herself and the contemporary art world as messianic saviors of all things discarded and silenced. The installation consists of artifacts that have otherwise remained hidden in the Fowler Museum’s archives due to their lack of known origin, medium, and age. Material culture such as necklaces and pieces of carved bone are displayed on a long white, theatrical platform with descriptive pieces of paper placed carefully next to the objects. There is no vitrine housing these objects. At the back of the room there are multiple small and realistic drawings of the artifacts on display pinned to the wall. On the adjacent walls hang large framed drawings and a singular massive painting, the content of each of the artifacts in the room.

Why do Gala Porras-Kim’s objects need to be on theatrical platforms? Would they seem less important to the people passing by if they were housed inside Kenzi Shiokava’s rusted bread boxes? Or is this a framing technique for displaying “unconventional” art objects? If they are on a platform, they are at least within a rubric of museum display. Porras-Kim’s aestheticization of these artifacts elevates them to “high art.” It is thus through the artist’s hand that the public comes to see the value inherent in the discarded artifact. This is another example of an artist employing extremely loose ethnographic methods in a completely uncritical and unconsidered manner. The art world loves to exalt artists that critique anthropology’s colonial history as they turn the viewer’s critical gaze away from the failings of the contemporary art world and onto an obvious subject of critique. But what exactly is being exhumed here? What is being reified?

The piece most written about in relation to archaeology is Daniel Small and Jack Green’s “Excavating The Ten Commandments,” a dig of a film set meant to address representations in film of Ancient Egypt. However, I am less interested in the site that the work unearths and then becomes, than I am in the fact that it is placed right next to the work of Wadada Leo Smith, whose scores are based on his musical language, Ankhrasmation (from the Egyptian symbol for life ‘Ankh’ and the Ethiopian word for leader and universal term for mother ‘Ma’) which he has been working with for the past fifty years. While I thought their vicinity was a little too unambiguous, it was refreshing because it reined in the rest of the show. These two pieces conversed in a way that echoed well into the rest of the exhibition, by concentrating on the way culture has been re-imagined – a  query rife with both liberating fugitivity and a critique of the correctional tendencies of the exoticizing and orientalizing of popular imagination. In this way, the failed attempt at unity actually becomes the most critical and interesting aspect of Made in L.A. Treating the whole biennial as an archaeological site, rather than simply Daniel Small and Jack Green’s piece allows for all of these findings to exist without having to be understood in a relational way, somehow accounting for the biennial’s failure to amalgamate everything in a way that is accessible.

Because the show is called “Made in L.A.,” a flock of tourists might leave the show with the idea that the contemporary art scene in L.A. is more transgressive than it actually is and that artists in L.A. really love archaeology. If Made in L.A. in 2014 was a survey of contemporary artists based in L.A. that felt vibrant in its nowness, this one covers artists born anywhere between 1938 and 1984 and has an overall 90s sense of multiculturalism and celebration of diversity: that is to say, the artists who were not white or American either made work about that difference, or it was referenced in the wall text (i.e. Lebanese artist, Brazilian artist of Japanese ethnicity, etc, but Sterling Ruby was not referenced as a white artist).

Somehow, this show is a weird mixture between craft and political work. Political like a Buzzfeed listicle (I’m thinking specifically of Mark Verabioff’s unfortunate installation “Marxism and Art, beware of fascist broism”). The old and the new, a juxtaposition between generations and their artistic concerns; it makes young contemporary artists’ work feel belabored, overwrought with meaning, context, and forced political message, more like self-branding for a politically conscious art world than deeply considered content.  Why does it feel like there is an unbridgeable schism between the artworks produced by different generations? And why does it all feel so formulaic? The formula goes something like this: older artists + craft in a well defined medium x younger artists + coded political message and the digital = FUTURE! Such a conservative vision of art in L.A. leaves little to be excited about, despite the vibrant art scene we regularly experience.

With so much emphasis on digging up aspects of the past, the most exciting promise of the Biennial was Rafa Esparza’s “Tierra,” which might as well be a new floor on the bridge-like gallery at the Hammer. Simultaneously expansive and highly specific, Esparza’s labor is apparent in the work and the politics of that labor is both potent and poetic. Using 5,000 adobe bricks, he leveled the institution with dirt from Chavez Ravine, presenting the actual artifacts from the ravine as sculptures. Amidst all the archaeological clamor, by building something through excavation, he brought the whole fucking house down.




Made in L.A. 2016: a, the, though, only was on view at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles June 12 -thru August 28, 2016.

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