Last winter in Los Angeles, city residents and their thirsty gardens eagerly awaited El Niño, the influx of warm ocean waters that brings the rain to the desert. But once again the rain did not come. After years of drought—clear skies, dry riverbeds, and brown lawns—Southern Californians crave greenery. It was surprising, therefore, that it felt like such a relief to encounter Mexican-American artist Rafa Esparza’s piece in “Made in L.A. 2016: a, the, though, only,” the Hammer’s third iteration of its regional biennial. A tan-colored field of dry mud bricks, Esparza’s tierra (2016) nevertheless functioned as a kind of oasis: a true work of homegrown Angeleno art in an exhibition that claims to be L.A.-centric but—this year, at least—featured a number of globe-trotting artists.
Esparza’s installation consisted of an adobe block floor scattered with battered-looking domestic objects, like a sun-faded armchair and a mailbox. To make the blocks, he and his assistants used dirt from Elysian Park, next to Dodgers Stadium. This choice of material has historical resonance: the land occupied by the stadium was once a vibrant Mexican-American neighborhood known as Chavez Ravine, razed by the city after a ten-year battle with residents to make way for public housing. The project was eventually abandoned and the land sold to the Dodgers in 1958. As for those battered-looking objects, before placing them in his installation, Esparza buried them in the park, as though they were the remnants of long-vanished homes, and then invited people to dig them up.
It’s no secret that L.A.’s latest wave of development is taking place downtown, bringing with it outposts of New York and European galleries like Maccarone and Hauser & Wirth, the attention of major art collectors, and a whole community of transplanted artists. According to its boosterism-tinged press materials, Aram Moshayedi and Hamza Walker’s Made in L.A. “focuses exclusively on artists from the L.A. region with an emphasis on emerging and under-recognized artists” and “offers insight into the current trends and practices coming out of Los Angeles, one of the most active and energetic art communities in the world.” In reality, the show mostly positions L.A. not as a city with a distinctive local art scene but as the newest marketplace for global contemporary art.
Take the work of Shahryar Nashat. His installation at the Hammer, washed with hot-pink light, included a geometric marble sculpture and a looped video of close-ups of human orifices. The arrangement’s combination of anodyne abstraction and unsettling image is depressingly familiar; if it were displayed in a German or Chinese art fair, nothing would mark it as having anything to do with L.A, though Nashat currently lives and works there and in Berlin.
This is not to suggest that artists need to be from Los Angeles for their work to feel genuinely shaped and informed by the city. From its earliest days as a colony—first of Spain, then of Mexico, and finally of the United States—L.A. has been a city of transplants, transients, and travelers from around the globe. The Lebanese artist Huguette Caland, for example, made the beachfront neighborhood of Venice her base between 1987 and 2013; Made in L.A.’s 40-year mini-retrospective of her art included such works as the series “Homage to Pubic Hair” (1992), a set of exquisite and erotic small-scale paintings of women’s bodies, marked by curvilinear forms and concentrated bursts of color. In one dreamlike image, two figures’ torsos, limbs, and head adornments are made up of various faces; they are the children of Venice’s bohemian culture. Caland was 20 years into her career before she moved to California, and erotic figures have been a bedrock of her practice since the beginning. Her work wasn’t born in L.A., but it flourished here.
The fashion house Eckhaus Latta is bicoastal, but their collaborative video, Smile (2016), directed by Berlin-born filmmaker Alex Karolinski and made for the exhibition, is another work that is strongly rooted in place. The vignette is shot in L.A. architect Ray Kappe’s light-filled, 1960s house in Rustic Canyon; its characters pose and smile aggressively, perhaps in a nod to the mythical superficiality and sunshine of this city. In one particularly striking moment, a bearded man looks directly at the camera, stone-faced, before bursting into laughter. It’s clearly a performance, a laugh born from will rather than amusement, but by the time the camera moves away from him, the viewer is almost convinced of the man’s happiness.
This piece felt much more thematically relevant than, say, the contribution of Joel Holmberg, who lives and works in L.A. but whose post-internet art could be from anywhere. Holmberg distorts the visual source code of existing websites and then renders the alterations in photorealistic paintings. In Old Spaghetti Factory Employer Profile (Collision, Gravity), 2015, links from a peer-review job-listing site are turned on a diagonal, creating the appearance of a chaotic and user-unfriendly webpage. Other paintings, like Capabilities (2015), are made to look like corporate advertising decks as they explore the intersection of art and branding. Holmberg’s methodology may be clever, but the resulting works feel as stock as the images they’re ostensibly critiquing; if there’s supposed to be some kind of critique of online capitalism here, it is, at best, a broad and generic one.
Arthur Jafa’s series “Notebooks” (1990–2007), on the other hand, which juxtaposes clippings from various publications in plastic sleeves of more than 200 three-ring binders, uses advertising and other images to make rigorous and specific cultural commentaries. In one grouping, a painting of a fair-haired, rosy-cheeked woman laughing and drinking a martini with a smiling white man is set against a collage of pink roses, an ad for the Noah Baumbach/Greta Gerwig indie film Frances Ha, and a photo of two young black men smiling and throwing up hand signs. Here, Jafa showed us what sells—the images of white life and black life that the culture machine churns out and profits from.
Jafa, a filmmaker and cinematographer who began his scrapbooks while working as director of photography on Julie Dash’s seminal film, Daughters of the Dust (1991), engages with L.A. as a hub of image dissemination and decision making about who, and whose cultural production, gets seen.
In Martine Syms’s comedic video piece She Mad: Laughing Gas (2016), an installment in a fictional sitcom, the artist plays a dental patient navigating her way home while still high on nitrous oxide. It’s based on Edwin S. Porter’s 1907 short film Laughing Gas, which stars the African-American actress Bertha Regustus and has essentially the same plot; using humor, Syms explores and reinterprets the historical representation of black women on-screen and their current place in shaping Hollywood’s diversifying output.
Allusions to the film industry abounded, in fact, as perhaps they would in any honest exhibition called “Made in L.A.” Along with Jafa’s notebooks and Syms’s video, one of the most engrossing installations in the exhibition was Daniel R. Small’s collection of objects excavated from the buried set of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 film The Ten Commandments. The movie takes place in a replica of an ancient Egyptian city that was built on the Guadalupe-Nipomo sand dunes outside Santa Barbara. DeMille destroyed the elaborate set so that it could never be used again.
Small artifacts from the site—like fragments of a sphinx—are paired with paintings taken from the Luxor Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, which was Egyptian-themed until 2007. The installation of Small’s work at the Hammer, with its elaborate narrative tapestries set against royal blue walls, folded the viewer into its world in the same way that a good movie does.
It was hard to find a real unifying theme in this group show, which often felt more like a set of concurrent solo shows. But many of its best works—Esparza’s, Jafa’s, Syms’s, and Small’s among them—somehow involved an exhumation of what underpins L.A.’s public image and what has been lost to its short history.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of ARTnews on page 128 under the title “ ‘Made in L.A. 2016.’ ”