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Amy's Column 06 - MADE in LA review

Cody Trepte - Made in L.A. 2012 (installation view)

Image: Made in L.A. 2012. Works by Cody Trepte. Installation view at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. June 2-September 2, 2012. Photography by Brian Forrest.

Made in LA 2012, the inaugural Los Angeles Biennial which features work by sixty artists is currently on show in three institutions across the city. In describing an exhibition of such breadth my inclination is to focus on the apparent trends (rainbows everywhere) and celebrate the works that still successfully hold their own even when displayed in a sea of other work and at times in jarring juxtaposition. 

I’m declaring rainbow hunting a personal mechanism for moving through the vastness of the show, though rainbows were already floating front of mind due to the omnipresence of the exhibition’s branding. After driving by miles and miles of Los Angeles lampposts decorated with banners showing sunset-to-sea graduated rainbows, it seems only natural to shout out about the rainbow fluttering across Kathryn Andrews’ caged clown suit. Or remark on the rainbow of Pearl C. Hsiung’s epic, icky mural – sweeps of stuck-on colour covering the curved window of the Hammer Museum’s arched lobby window. Not to mention Sarah Cain’s inclusion through collage of the portion of the recent New Yorker cover depicting the White House columns in rainbow colours. Referencing Obama’s ‘personal’ support of gay marriage, this small reproduction was perhaps the most topical and exciting rainbow of them all.

LA art rainbows of 2012, though pervasive, sadly come only second in the trend rankings. The current leading zeitgeist pattern seems to be the many, many, multi-media installations. Artists such as Erika Vogt, whose practice considerers the worth of everyday objects, exhibited an installation featuring drawings, two video projections and an array of cast objects. If viewed in a museum all on its own the work may have gained a greater coherence but with objects on the floor, drawings on the wall, and a disjointed audio narration, it felt like the work was spluttering towards some focus it never found. This feeling was enhanced by its proximity to the collection of Joel Otterson’s furniture, quilts, and floor tiles on display just outside Vogt’s installations. The two sets of works together, clunky craft and haphazard material combinations, reinforced a mood of amateurism. Purposeful amateurism? It’s impossible to tell.

Thomas Lawson - The Hanged Man
Image: Thomas Lawson. The Hanged Man, 2011. Oil on canvas. 72 x 60 in. (182.9 x 152.4cm). Courtesy the artist and David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles.

Even artists with a longstanding dedication to the single medium, such as painter Tom Lawson, got caught up in the multiple media flurry. In each of Lawson’s large paintings, figures are central: they lean, look away, stroll away, they are at once regal and reticent. These groups contemplate the density of the paintings’ backgrounds, with coolness, brightness, or jungle texture. The poised figures are resolute in their ignorance of the tangle of black cat silhouettes rotated and stretched across each of the paintings’ foregrounds. This may be the hexing force that has infected Lawson’s work with colour and diseased it with pattern. 

Sharing the room, Ruby Neri’s painted ceramics figures morph and march towards Lawson’s triptych. Neri’s works are neither paintings nor sculptures but painted sculpture. Similarly, Ryan Sluggett’s Object Viewer & Their Respective Holes, is not just a video or a painted installation, but a painted video installation. Constructed using coloured fabric, various types of paint, and wood, the colours of the embedded digital animation seem jarring and fluorescent when up against the pigment of the painted structure in which the screens are mounted. Ultimately, Sluggett’s collapse of painted space into virtual space distracts from Lawson’s careful staging of such effects.

Such placement is a curatorial decision rather than any fault of the artists but the margin for a mashed effect seems much greater when many of the works in proximity to one another range across so many mediums. All the mash left me with a sudden affection for the clean-cut work that stayed in the frame or on the screen. A conservative reaction, perhaps, but bodies of work such as Cody Trepte’s gained a clarity and resolve from burrowing deep into a single mode of materiality. Trepte’s series, Its Remaining Presence, consists of works on paper which have been marbled and then silk-screened with text. Ink drawings punctuate the marble series, the meticulous reproductions depicting the marbled pattern but rendered in the negative. The careful stain played off against scribble nicely illustrates a mode of production fluctuating between control and chance.

Many of the moving image works on display also had a frankness found from exploring the depths of a single format, even the wondering works such as Zackary Drucker & Rhys Ernst’s film She Gone Rogue, in which Drucker’s fluttering eyes propel the melodrama in a world of sequins and telephones, a world where small sculptures –think false teeth meets play-doh meets vagina dentata – are passed from one chapter to another. Drucker twists scenarios of age and gender, and then is eventually dumped/ teleported into the desert looking cute in a sky coloured empire cut dress. A mysterious tale of searching and not quite finding but looking good in a variety of outfits while trying.

Zackary Drucker & Rhys Ernst - She's Gone Rogue
Image: Zackary Drucker & Rhys Ernst, She's Gone Rogue, 2012. Made in L.A. Installation view at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. June 2-September 2, 2012. Photography by Brian Forrest.

The Propeller Group’s Television Commercial for Communism is the Biennial’s most biting and alluring work. On display at both the Hammer and the Barnsdall Art Park sites, the work is sleek and convincing, using the language of advertising and technology, cornerstones of current capitalism, to genuinely try to promote an alternative ideological and social system. The narration of phrases such as “Make the same living, share all the world” somehow avoids irony by balancing humour and hope. Implicit in the work is the question of how we got to a point where there is no viable alternative to capitalism, a point where imagining a fair world has become an exercise in the absurd.

The short television advertisement is contextualised by a five monitor video piece showing a discussion between the The Propeller Group’s members and the creatives at the advertising agency where the commercials were produced. This offers a transparency around both the artistic process and the all-too-often indistisinguishable culture industry. Through a combination of narrative, music and graphic logos, the advertisement seems almost but not quite the pinnacle of creative advertising. It retains an element of the uncanny, as a mechanism to incite a questioning of the whole system. Would a bank advertisement ever use an actress with tattooed arms?

We hear “Live as one and speak the language of smiles,” as we see a smiling face on a dollar bill. The absurdity of this image brings to mind both advertising’s relentless attempts to connect consumption to happiness, and also the knowledge that capitalism does a profoundly inadequate job of measuring happiness by relying heavily on economic indicators.

This incapacity of capitalism to truly reflect personal, social or environmental needs or experiences was obviously not a lesson heeded by whoever masterminded The Mohn Award, the recipient of which will receive $100,000. The winner, one of the Biennial’s 60 artists, short listed by a jury but ultimately decided by a public vote, promotes an attitude of competition and judgment over the whole exhibition. Despite the award’s much advertised tag line ‘Vote for Art,’ the temptation is to vote for artistic communism, where I hear all artists will “make the same living, share all the world,” I’m sure that’s where the rest of the rainbows are waiting.

Most likely some of Made in L.A.’s strongest impressions will prove to be those that are contained not in material trying to outperform other material, but in more fleeting moments. These will be found in the many performance works planned to run throughout the show and in durational works such as D’Ette Nogle’s sound intervention in which the sound of a bell chiming at twenty-minute intervals throughout the Hammer’s courtyard aids visitors in remembering the possibility of meditation and reflection. Fiona Conner’s production of an alternative exhibition catalogue, onsite in the Hammer’s lobby, as an element of her work ‘Lobbies on Wilshire,’ will also, it is hoped, become a record of the show’s duration, of careful thoughts, and unfolding observations, rather than just winners and losers.

Amy Howden-Chapman is an artist and writer born in Wellington, New Zealand. She currently lives and works in Los Angeles, California.


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