Los Angeles

Daniel R. Small, Excavation II, 2016–, mixed media. Installation view. Photo: Brian Forrest.

Daniel R. Small, Excavation II, 2016–, mixed media. Installation view. Photo: Brian Forrest.

Made in L.A.

Daniel R. Small, Excavation II, 2016–, mixed media. Installation view. Photo: Brian Forrest.

OVER THE FOUR YEARS of its existence, Made in L.A. has developed into a reliably exciting biennial—capitalizing on the city’s rapidly expanding coterie of local emerging and midcareer artists. But the biennial’s third edition, on view this past summer, broke with convention to highlight older artists with long-standing but relatively unknown practices rather than the bright young things who usually dominate such group shows. Curated by Aram Moshayedi and Hamza Walker, the show was titled “a, the, though, only”—the amorphous, somewhat confusing string of articles and conjunctions serving as poet Aram Saroyan’s contribution to the exhibition. Yet these textual shards bridged a constellation of diverse Angeleno practices installed in the museum’s expansive galleries, several of which could easily stand alone as exhibitions in their own right. Such points of depth enhanced the sense of historical range and longue durée of the work being featured.

Like cats, late-career artists have lived many lives, as two mini-retrospectives here demonstrated. Abutting each other were the sculptures, paintings, and caftans of Huguette Caland and the totemic carved-wood sculptures and assemblages of Kenzi Shiokava. Each artist has a complex biography spanning decades and countries. Their inclusion should serve as a provocation to curators everywhere to spurn the obvious biennial candidates and look harder, deeper, and less rashly. An unintended consequence was that, comparatively, the contributions of nearly all the emerging artists seemed either too tentative to merit legitimation or overwrought.

The Lebanese-born Caland had a decade-long fashion stint in Paris in the 1970s, during which she produced caftans for Pierre Cardin in addition to the painterly abstractions for which she is now so celebrated. In sculptural fabric works and stunning mixed-media canvases, this octogenarian at the periphery of the feminist movement maps the female body with a Surrealist’s eye. Shiokava, a Brazilian-born artist of Japanese ancestry, combines beadwork, macramé, and wood to make ornate sculptures that reflect his own history as a peer of assemblagists John Outterbridge and Noah Purifoy. Yet the septuagenarian sculptor has exhibited these carvings only sporadically and makes his living primarily as a gardener. This unearthing of his work thus felt all the more revelatory.

Two younger artists, Rafa Esparza and Daniel R. Small, picked up the show’s focus on excavation and presented large-scale works that had been literally dug up: Esparza’s tierra, 2016, and Small’s Excavation II, 2016–. Tierra is a nearly two-thousand-square-foot installation of adobe bricks salvaged from the Chavez Ravine, a working-class Latino barrio that was razed to make way for Dodger Stadium. The handmade bricks spanned the upper-level terrace of the Hammer’s second-floor exhibition space. The artist invited the audience to walk on them, in a nod to Carl Andre’s floor pieces. But in pointed contrast to Andre’s industrial-looking plates, Esparza’s laboriously crafted bricks evidence the labor of their handiwork, reminding the viewer of the literal flattening of a formerly diverse and vibrant residential neighborhood. Tierra’s massive scale is also symbolic of the intensive manual labor performed by Mexican and Chicano men throughout the West and highlights a material that served as a building block of Mexican civilization, used in ancient pyramids and contemporary homes alike. Atop the bricks, Esparza positioned found objects including a cactus; the artist’s childhood mailbox, one of whose sides is pierced by a bullet hole from a drive-by shooting; and a well-used recliner that has lost its plush and was seemingly unceremoniously discarded—a sobering reminder of the insidious capacity of American society to do the same to its Chicano citizenry.

Small’s Excavation II is another intriguing combination of Hollywood history and pseudoarchaeology in which the artist worked to track down, borrow, and excavate relics of early Hollywood, when a more distant past was simultaneously re-created and fabulized. He classified and assembled assorted props and ephemera from the vast stage set of ancient Egypt created for Cecil B. DeMille’s epic silent film The Ten Commandments (1923). The legendary filmmaker had the set blown up and buried in the dunes outside Guadalupe, a town three hours north of Los Angeles. In a gallery-wide installation, Small paired these fragments with other examples of Egyptomania from twentieth-century popular culture and architecture, including a mural previously housed in the Luxor Las Vegas.

Beyond these massive installations, the show featured several poignant quieter moments, such as Rebecca Morris’s signature abstract canvases, full of off-kilter grids in a new untitled series created over the past two years, and Margaret Honda’s painterly films, which utilize the basic exposure of light-sensitive film stock in an homage to analog filmmaking, awakening the audience to the simple beauty of tints that occur when strips are color-balanced during postproduction. The films are glorious washes of color reminiscent of the work of historic SoCal Light and Space artists and contemporary peers such as Ceal Floyer.

In addition, the exhibition showcased an ample selection of screen-based work that reflected its progressive aims: for example, episodes of Labor Link TV, a television program produced by the eponymous collective between 1988 and 2011 with the intent of giving Southern California’s longshoremen, teachers, and other union activists visibility on cable. Many of the group’s members were of color, and the program served as an important record of the role of unions in securing a living wage for working-class minorities. This project resonated both thematically and temporally with Arthur Jafa’s Untitled, 1990–2007/2016, a set of over two-hundred three-ring binders featuring images and individual prints clipped from myriad publications that the director/cinematographer uses as source material, and which cumulatively chart African American representations in the media. The emerging filmmaker Laida Lertxundi also offered an intimate, nonnarrative view of the Southern California desert landscape juxtaposed with the body.

With its emphasis on diverse productions across years and even decades, Made in L.A. 2016 dove deep, offering much-needed historical ballast to our preoccupation with presentism and attending to duration, archaeology, and excavation in a city built on distraction.

Jenni Sorkin is assistant professor of contemporary art history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the author of the recent book Live Form: Women, Ceramics, and Community (University of Chicago Press, 2016).

Read reviews of the 2012 and 2014 iterations of Made in L.A. by Michael Ned Holte and Thomas Lawson, respectively.