EJ Hill stood at the far end of his installation in the Hammer Museum’s apse-like Vault Gallery, where the altar would be if this were an actual cathedral. He occupied the highest spot on the kind of three-tiered podium used at sports competitions to elevate winners. The gallery floor was carpeted in artificial turf, and three narrow lanes of running track hugged the curved walls. One stretch of the track was interrupted by an impossibly tall hurdle. An oversize extinguished torch lay on the ground like debris from a KKK rally. Photographs hanging on the walls documented Hill taking laps around each of the educational institutions he’s attended in Los Angeles, from preschool to graduate school. And now, in the exhibition, Hill himself stood, a victor of sorts by virtue of his education, his very survival—a young African American man in the barbaric Make America White Again present, a human pillar of affirmation in adversarial times. He stood and simply breathed, a testament to endurance. Behind him, white neon lighting spelled out the question WHERE ON EARTH, IN WHICH SOILS AND UNDER WHAT CONDITIONS WILL WE BLOOM BRILLIANTLY AND VIOLENTLY?
The fourth Hammer biennial carried no thematic title, but if it did, “The Reckoning” would have been apt. Curated by the museum’s Anne Ellegood and Erin Christovale, the show featured contributions by thirty-three artists working in the Los Angeles region, much of it made since the 2016 presidential election. Like Hill in his devastating installation/performance, many here wondered aloud what place they could call their own, where they might belong, where they could feel dignified and safe. They navigated space through the particularities of their bodies and with the rigor of engaged citizens. Much of the strongest work in the show occupied the charged terrain where the physical, political, geographical, and metaphorical intersect.
Reckoning with place today means reckoning with displacement, dislocation, disconnection. In her absorbing film Medina Wasl: Connecting Town (2018), Gelare Khoshgozaran, dressed as an Iranian soldier, wanders a mock Middle Eastern village contrived in the Southern California desert by the military for training exercises. Matched and yet tellingly discontinuous with scenes of the battle-ready stage set are voice-overs of American veterans recalling their service in places the site is meant to mimic. In Neha Choksi’s four-channel video installation Everything sunbright (2018), observations on the source of life on our planet interweave with a dancer’s elegiac tribute to her mother. From one projection to another, the tone shifts from scientific to sacred, and scale oscillates from the astronomical to the familial. A meditation on origins and inevitable loss, the piece feels searingly intimate throughout.
The exhibition spoke to a sense of vulnerability prevailing at every level—not weakness, but awareness of the damaging power of invisibility and injustice. Several works played out mainly as assertions of presence: taisha paggett’s piece orchestrating breath; Patrick Staff’s haunting video chronicling the movements of a unstable bather; Mercedes Dorame’s photographs of offering-like groupings of materials related to Tongva traditions; Lauren Halsey’s plywood-and-gypsum temple to the community of South Central LA; even Eamon Ore-Giron’s wall mural, its vivid geometric abstraction referring, albeit obliquely, to colonialism’s erasure of Indigenous populations.
Perhaps because the stakes feel higher now, there was far less solipsism in this iteration than in the 2016 one, whose title—“a, the, though, only”—goes some way in suggesting its self-indulgence. The latest edition felt relevant, the work activist in the broadest sense, all of it perceivable, in essence, as a form of social practice. Luchita Hurtado’s paintings, for instance, epitomize an embodied, empowered female gaze. They adopt the perspective of a woman seeing herself, not even once-removed as in a mirror reflection, but directly across and beyond the landscape of her own flesh. The images are invigorating and speak pointedly to the #MeToo era, even if painted in the ’60s and ’70s (the work constituting the show’s only substantial temporal deviation from the new).
“I think people really do feel sick . . . anxiety is palpable, it’s everywhere,” Ellegood surmises in the catalogue’s roundtable discussion. Among the best, time-tested forms of physical and psychic nourishment in such times is humor. Most of the laughs available here were concentrated in the intelligent, warm-hearted collaborative work of Jade Gordon and Megan Whitmarsh. Their affectionate parody of spiritual and feminist self-actualization filled a large, lilac-carpeted room. Earnestness and hilarity abounded in equal measure, and everything reeked of the ’70s, from the reclamation of handcraft (even the wall labels were embroidered) to the pumpkin-colored leotards worn by the artists in one of their low-tech, faux-instructional videos. These short, homespun lessons in enlightenment offered tips for sharpening vision, inviting the mystical into the everyday, self-healing, and more. If the soft-sculpture pack of Eve cigarettes and Laurel Burch mug loosened a warm flood of nostalgia, it came spiked with a pang of defeat: When, finally, are we going to realize all of our human potential? Is this it?
Los Angeles resists easy summary, of course, and the curators wisely didn’t claim Made in LA to be a comprehensive representation. It glossed over the city’s vibrant community of artists working with photography and omitted entirely its efflorescent clay scene. What—or rather who—was included, however, did say a good deal about the region’s demographic texture. Only six of the artists hailed from Southern California. Eight were born outside the United States, in Mexico, the United Kingdom, El Salvador, Japan, Venezuela, Iran, and Canada. Roughly two-thirds were women. Though the curators gave nods to a few artists in their later years (Hurtado, at ninety-seven, was the oldest), they focused almost exclusively on emerging artists in their thirties and forties. If the show was narrow in some respects, in others it was refreshingly broad. Its coherence came as much from without as within—from the stultifying toxicity of the new normal and the common determination to keep standing, like Hill, performing the self and bearing witness.