Meet four local female artists from the Hammer Museum’s “Made in L.A. 2014” exhibition—fast becoming the Left Coast’s answer to the Whitney Biennial—who engender all the reasons why now more than ever, if you’re serious about making art, the Golden State is the place to be.
“Feminism has morphed into a human rights issue, it’s not binary,” says artist Sarah Rara, neatly getting the “woman thing” out of the way right out of the gate. “Here in L.A., the conversation among artists about gender is really positive and diverse,” she says, which mirrors the culture—as these four women see it—at large.
“Are more male artists in big international collections? Sure,” says self-described “queer filmmaker” Mariah Garnett, also on the Hammer short list, “but that’s a moment passing in time.”
The Hammer’s biennial exhibition “Made in L.A. 2014” features works by 35 Los Angeles artists—roughly half of them women—with an emphasis on the emerging and under-recognized. It debuts recent work and new photography, painting, installation, video, sculpture and performance created specifically to overtake every space of the museum in one big, mind-boggling torrent of L.A. talent.
Organized by Hammer Chief Curator Connie Butler and Independent Curator Michael Ned Holte, three prizes will be offered in conjunction with the show: the Mohn Award ($100,000) and the Career Achievement Award ($25,000), both of which will be jury-selected, and the Public Recognition Award ($25,000), which will be determined by an audience vote—not unlike “American Idol.” All three awards are funded through the generosity of the Los Angeles philanthropists and art collectors Jarl and Pamela Mohn and the Mohn Family Foundation. None of the artists profiled here had paused for a second from the rigors of their work—which ranges from setting a Hollywood stuntman on fire to filming the ultraviolet spectrum of buzzing colors only bees can see—to even think about a prize.
“But funnily enough, friends keep asking me about it constantly. I’m just aiming for the Audience Appreciation Award,” says Garnett, with a dismissive laugh. We’ll see as the time approaches how that carefree attitude holds up among all 35 of these fierce freethinkers. There’s no escaping the fact that this is an awards town after all.
But back to The High Road: Why are so many new and nascent artists emerging here, and how is it that Los Angeles has stepped up so significantly in the eyes of the international art world? Simply put: The laid-back nature of the place itself has made it a safe destination for upstarts and innovators to experiment and find community. They don’t have to scale the walls of the pantheon (as one does in the other big, metropolitan art capitals) before anyone will deign to notice them. Space is available—and it’s relatively cheap. None of the artists surveyed here find the glare of Tinseltown a detractor—in fact, it’s a technical enabler. It provides a talent pool for complex performance pieces. (Need six children skilled enough to restage a rendition of the very “adult” 1966 Peter Handke play “Offending The Audience”? “No problem,” says Emily Mast.) Editors, cinematographers, composers may have big studio day jobs, but they’re all yours between gigs if you have a good idea. Says Rara, “There’s a lot of creative cross talk between artists and film people.” For all its lowbrow undertones (“Devious Maids” and “Real Housewives” writ large on buildings and billboards all over town), “The Biz” is actually seen as a big plus for this new crowd of creatives.
Collectors abound here, always have. But now the superstars of the Los Angeles milieu—Ed Ruscha, David Hockney, John Baldessari and so on—have company. Or at least, company is coming, as the Hammer’s second “Made in L.A.” biennial aims to show.
We visited the artists in their homes/studios in the frantic days before the show, to get a glimpse of place, purpose and process. “Made In L.A. 2014” at the Hammer Museum, June 15-Sept. 7; hammer.ucla.edu.
Tossin makes a gestural journey from Brasília, modernist architect Oscar Niemeyer’s futuristic utopian city (and where the artist grew up), to the Strick House in Santa Monica—the only Oscar Niemeyer structure in North America, built simultaneously with the so-called “Capital of Hope”—in a beat-up ’70s Volkswagen “Brasília” car, ostensibly to clean the pool. The project takes form as an installation, including the car, a jittery video through the epic orbs, oblongs and undulations of the architecture, photographs, ephemera about the recently renovated house, and a letter to Niemeyer (purposefully written after his passing in 2012). The Strick House was built entirely via posted instruction since the Socialist architect was denied entry to the United States. Staged on the grand staircase as you enter the Hammer, a shimmering blue, floor-to-ceiling wall covering gives the effect of being immersed in a swimming pool, “this work draws parallels between the cities of Los Angeles and Brasília. Whereas Los Angeles is the apex of American car culture, Brasília’s urban plan was meant to motivate the then nascent car industry in Brazil…the used Volkswagen became a local anti-hero in contrast to the modern skyline,” she says. “My work is very influenced by parallels in location, urban space, class structure, and how we define our geographic, cultural and political borders.” ON MAKING ART IN L.A.: “There are many [sides to] Los Angeles. But there’s always tranquility here. I need to see architecture, I need to see the horizon line…”
Mast works almost exclusively in performance art, using poetry as the basis for movement. She’s made a video based on a series of short texts drawn from her own life “flashing before her eyes,” which she then “explodes” beyond personal meaning by staging witty, impromptu “happenings” scattered throughout the galleries using elements from the video. “For example, something I call ‘10-second sculptures’ randomly occur when the performers, three at a time, take lemons and baguettes and come up with a sculpture in—1-2-3-boom!” she explains. “Another is ‘Feathering’—five performers pop up and work together to form a tableaux, with several other performers inserting feathers at each point they physically connect. So these are very simple, poetic, ‘surprise’ gestures, a lot of geometric shapes, and a palette of yellows and ochres—I get obsessed with color. It’s meant to evoke a faded ’70s photograph, which is where I kind of started.” The visitor will experience a live version of what they saw on screen earlier in the exhibition, creating a sense of déjà vu, “but the performed version will vary from the filmed version, just as our memories vary from the real thing, ever evolving as we proceed through life.” ON MAKING ART IN L.A.: “You can easily hibernate here, stay in and get your work done. The pressure to be at every opening (as in New York) doesn’t exist here.”
Rara works in many mediums, including the music she makes in rotating collaboration with Lucky Dragons, who together design instruments which can’t be played alone. (For example, a touch-synthesizer which, in theory, the entire planet could play at once, or at least all of L.A. County.) For the Hammer, “The Pollinators” installation grew out of her fascination with the plight of hundreds of species of bees native to California. Rara’s challenge: to make a video installation on the subject, knowing video sensors, monitors and projectors are modeled on the limited color space of the human eye. “I found only a few native bees in my garden in Los Angeles, so I traveled to Northern California to observe more,” she says. “I wanted to make sure these bees survive—that people make a space for them within urban landscapes. If everyone plants a few native species in their garden, they will. Following the bees led me to observe the limits of my own color perception that extends from red to just slightly into the UV color range. This video is an attempt to enter that color space and to read the pollinator’s road map of ultraviolet rich patterns that are beyond human visual range.” ON MAKING ART IN L.A.: “There is less hierarchy here so you can be friends with your heroes…”
When she’s not shooting music videos for Sleater Kinney, Mark Ronson and other East-L.A.-centrics, Garnett is perpetually examining the subject of gender from social, political and personal angles in her work. Full Burn is the end result of having met a Special Forces Marine on the set of a “day job” who now makes his living as a Hollywood stuntman—an examination of “the hypermasculine figure” ensued. “The film will document in detail the stuntman’s process as he prepares to light himself on fire,” she says. “He puts on a wetsuit, stuffs ice packs into his armpits and groin, and covers himself in gel. In the voice-over, he talks about fear, adrenaline and risk. It culminates in a glorious, three-minute-long, slow-mo shot of him on fire, before he drops to the ground and is extinguished. I was drawn to this in part because my life experience is radically different from that of these men. I find we, as a culture, are increasingly limited in our ability to talk to or about veterans. Through talking to ex-military stuntmen, I have a much keener understanding of what it means to be a soldier, one I never would have gotten if I had asked directly, ‘What is war like?’ I hope, through this film, to raise questions about re-integration into society after an experience like war without over glorifying or victimizing my subjects.” ON MAKING ART IN L.A.: “David Lynch was a big-time influence on me. Then I moved here 10 years ago and realized he’s basically making documentaries of L.A.! These people are my neighbors.”
By Brian D. Leitch.
Photographed by Coral von Zumwalt.