California Über Alles

Left: Artist Joel Otterson. Right: Hammer Museum director Ann Philbin with LA MoCA director Jeffrey Deitch.

THE CAVALCADE of colorful cars clogging the entrance to the parking garage at the Hammer Museum was perhaps one of several handy metaphors for the launch of the first major Los Angeles biennial, which opened at three venues scattered across the city the weekend before last. Another might be the long storefront window of the American Apparel shop on Sunset Boulevard, where the tricolor posters for the exhibition commingle with mannequins dressed in the company’s trademark T-shirts, the brand and the exhibition coalescing around variations on the same slogan: Made in LA.

Is “Made in LA” a locavore’s response to the obscene excess of jet-setting international art carnivals? Is it another example of SoCal boosterism and myopic self-importance? Both, maybe. Frank Lloyd Wright once quipped that if you tipped the world on its side, anything not nailed down would land in Los Angeles. One might say that if you shook Los Angeles, anything not nailed down landed in this biennial. I could add that I’ve always taken Wright’s insult as a compliment.

Left: LAXART director Lauri Firstenburg with Annabelle Ostin. Right: Artist Elliott Hundley and Cirrus Gallery's Jean Milant.

Los Angeles loves Los Angeles as much as outsiders without driver’s licenses have traditionally hated it. This latest iteration of that phenomenon follows a year of celebrating LA art of yesteryear through the tentacular exhibition series “Pacific Standard Time.” With PST done, the localist biennial begins. Leading up to the opening night festivities, the main result of the Los Angeles biennial, coorganized by the Hammer Museum and LAXART, appeared to have been to make LA artists as competitive as their peers in New York, who have a longer history with exclusionary exhibitions. To ratchet up the rivalries, the Hammer has initiated a $100,000 award, the Mohn Prize: A professional jury will whittle the sixty biennial artists down to five, who will then be voted on by the public, a populism some find crass and other democratic. Many of the participating artists are uncomfortable with it; few are rich enough to turn it down should it tumble their way. A certain spirit seems to have infected at least one of the curators as well. Cesar Garcia, a member of the five-person biennial team, quit on the night of the opening dinner. When I ran into him at the opening, Garcia told me about his plans to open up a new space right across the street from LAXART.

Left: Artist Glenn Kaino, curator Cesar Garcia, and artist Brenna Youngblood. Right: Dealer Erica Redling and artist Liz Glynn.

As I made my way upstairs into the galleries, I bumped into artist Stanya Kahn with her son Lenny in tow. “I’ve seen three things and I’m already confused. It’s going to be a long walk,” she said. The scene has grown to such a degree that it’s happily fragmenting into multiples, and the biennial samples more than a few of them. Almost an entire generation—my generation—of artists were largely getting their first nods from a museum and many easily earned it. Lisa Williamson took the best room in the museum, the Vault Gallery, originally built to house a Da Vinci codex, and made it one of the best rooms in the biennial with a series of twisting abstractions, paintings, and objects, each imbued with a sense of humor, play, and an ice-creamy palette. Liz Glynn had a room near the front of the exhibition in which she encapsulated a couple years of rapid activities that collapsed “needs and desires” into a ramshackle tomb, a vehicle for eternal ambitions made of pyramidal packing crates and cast in lead. While trying to avoid the urge to step on artist Joel Otterson’s tiled floors, I bumped into Jarl Mohn, the philanthropist who along with his wife, Pamela, inaugurated the prize with a promise to fund it for a few iterations. He wore a candy-cane-striped suit whose immoderate flair matched the iridescence of the art.

Two days later was another big public opening for the show, this time at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery in East Hollywood’s Barnsdall Art Park (which incidentally also hosts a house designed by Wright). Standouts there included Henry Taylor’s distinctively graceful econo-assemblage and folksy paintings, Allison Miller’s droll abstractions, and Miljohn Ruperto’s cascading multichannel installation. This venue really did look like a clusterfuck of things that had landed after the big tilt—in a good way. Even though the space might make any show seem chaotic, how else could one curate an exhibition about LA? Los Angeles is defined by its lack of homogeneity, its historic disregard for urban planning, and a sense that the whole thing was invented yesterday, which, with some exceptions, it was. LA is raucous, indefinable, occasionally pornographic, anarchic good fun. Why should its biennial be any different?

Left: Artist Ry Rocklen and dealer Mara McCarthy. Right: Collectors Susan and Leonard Nimoy.