Frank Lloyd Wright once remarked, ‘Tip the world over on its side and everything loose will land in Los Angeles.’ That type of impermanence could easily sum up the provisional quality of most thematic museum surveys, which is why curators Hamza Walker and Aram Moshayedi immediately decided to eschew any notion of theme for a series of ‘monographic surveys’ when they were tasked with organising the Hammer Museum’s 2016 'Made in LA' biennial.
‘From day one, we decided to focus more on [the] structure of the exhibition and... the portion size,’ says Walker, who is director of education and associate curator at the Renaissance Society. ‘Instead of a buffet where it’s a little bit of this, a little bit of that to fill up the plate, we’re constricting the amount of stuff we’re putting out there.’
Where the inaugural 2012 biennial featured 60 artists, with 35 in the 2014 edition, this year’s offering, titled 'a, the, though, only', explores the work of just 26 artists, and only 15 in the main gallery spaces. To wit: Kelly Akashi’s onion like sculptures Eat Me hang from ropes, suspended by bronze casts of her hands over the courtyard; Rafa Esparza’s mud brick installation, tierra, offers an interactive experience on the mezzanine with the products of his labour and the oddities unearthed in the making of them. Minimalist poet Aram Saroyan contributed the show’s title; while Todd Gray wanders the building in the clothes of his late friend, Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek. ‘There are definitely chapters – and we were able to sample from all of those chapters.’
Upstairs, those chapters unfold in bold fashion, with the biggest gallery space devoted to Lebanese-born artist Huguette Caland, who gets a mini retrospective that explores everything from her paintings of her own curves to a yellow portrait of Ed Moses (years before the two met) and a collection of caftans that caught the eye of Pierre Cardin, with whom she collaborated in the 1960s. That neighbours a selection of Arthur Jafa’s narrative psycho-sexual-political photo collages, a room full of outfits from the politically-tinged fashion label Eckhaus Latta and Mark Verabioff’s intoxicating photo, painting and wallpaper installation, Marxism and Art Beware of Fascist Broism, skewering everyone from Nick Jonas to George Plimpton.
‘We wanted everything to be taken on its own terms,’ says Walker. ‘But there are these refrains.’
Elsewhere, a graveyard of work tables from Sterling Ruby’s Vernon studio complex calls out to a museological survey of San Diego’s Labor Link TV; Kenzi Shiokava’s forest of totems anchor the Kandinsky-esque musical notes of Wadada Leo Smith; and Rebecca Morris’ room of epic oil and spray paint abstractions seem to provide a foil for Daniel R Small’s Excavation II. The work is sourced from the ruins of the original film set for Cecil B DeMille’s The Ten Commandments in Guadalupe, California – which the director ordered destroyed after filming – and a set of murals created for the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas, which mix western, alien, prehistoric and Egyptian history (these were removed from the casino after the Egyptian government sued, upon learning that the the Luxor was attracting more visitors than the Pyramids).
‘Just the layering of the fake and the real, history and myth plays a very clear role in this idea of "Made in LA",’ says Walker. ‘We like to think that room, if Los Angeles were submitted to a kind of archaeology, that this is what you would find.’