Arts + Culture

L.A.-area artists shine in Hammer's major summer show

'Made in L.A. 2016: a, the, though, only' spotlights emerging artists

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Silke Otto-Knapp, right, and her work
Mark Hanauer/UCLA

Silke Otto-Knapp, right, shows a visitor her new work, made up of six large watercolor panels inspired by a North Atlantic landscape near Fogo Island, Canada. Otto-Knapp is on the UCLA arts faculty.

A heat map of the thriving Los Angeles art market would radiate at many points, from the Eastside to the beach, with an especially bright light beaming from the corner of Wilshire and Westwood boulevards — the site of the Hammer Museum, which has been managed by UCLA since 1994.

Hammer’s biennial, "Made in L.A. 2016: a, the, though, only," which opened recently and runs through August 28, highlights the practices of artists working across and near L.A., with an emphasis on those who are categorized as emerging and/or underrecognized.

The exhibition emphasizes Los Angeles artists’ integral role in the global network of art production and reflects the international composition of the city’s current creative scene. Works on view represent 26 participants — homegrown talents as well as artists from Europe, Australia, the Middle East and South America — all of whom live and work in Greater Los Angeles.

Just as the exhibition dispenses with provincial geographic boundaries, curators Aram Moshayedi of the Hammer and Hamza Walker of Chicago’s Renaissance Society flout traditional notions of what ought to be presented in an art museum, and how. “Made in L.A. 2016” ventures well past fine art into dance, fashion, literature, music, film and performance.

“Hamza and I are both quite interested in things beyond visual art,” says Moshayedi, “and in some ways we try to think about our work as curators in relationship to these many different practices and fields.” With diverse genres in the exhibition, the curators felt it was important to offer the works in their native [or original] mode of presentation.

For example, the poem “a, the, though, only,” by minimalist poet and writer Aram Saroyan, occupies no physical space in the galleries, but is the show’s subtitle — a place typically allotted to words that communicate something about the exhibition. The four-word poem, commissioned specifically for “Made in L.A. 2016,” is just one example of how this exhibition asserts that artists and their work resist and defy categorization.

Gala Porras-Kim

Mark Hanauer/UCLA
Gala Porras-Kim at work

Another case in point is Gala Porras-Kim, who received two degrees from UCLA. Her work invokes conservation, archaeology, linguistics and anthropology in order to examine how history is constructed through objects. For the exhibition, Porras-Kim explores the vast global art collection of another UCLA treasure, the Fowler Museum.

“I always wanted to work with the Fowler,” says Porras-Kim, who first visited the museum in high school. For her Hammer installation, she is borrowing museum pieces whose provenance is unknown, in some cases, because they are fragmentary. These objects, she says, are in “historical limbo,” and she is filling in one of an “infinite” number of possible backstories by creating missing parts.

For example, Porras-Kim weaves a macramé piece that she imagines relates to a raffia object from the Fowler. For some possible Peruvian textile fragments, she draws the missing parts of the pattern based on how they may have looked. Her installation includes about 30 objects from the Fowler that will allow visitors to fill in their own answers about what the pieces are and where they came from.

Silke Otto-Knapp

Mark Hanauer/UCLA
Silke Otto-Knapp

The first work visitors will see when they arrive is a piece by UCLA associate professor of painting and drawing Silke Otto-Knapp. Made up of six large watercolor panels, the piece — her largest to date — refers to a North Atlantic landscape near Fogo Island, located off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada, a place where Otto-Knapp spends a lot of time.

The painting is one of her signature watercolors in a muted palette of blacks. Her technique is unusual: She applies the paint and then washes it away, rotating the canvas over and over to move the paint and, as she puts it, “negotiate chance.” At this new scale, the canvases are about as large as she can physically manipulate. Sometimes the edges even scrape the ceiling.

Although Otto-Knapp makes alluring pictorial paintings, she wants viewers to see beyond the motifs and notice her process as well. “You are never really completely immersed, because you are looking at the weird scratches on the surface,” she says. She wants visitors to ponder, “How was this made, and why was it made like this and not in an accumulative way, like paintings are usually made?”

Rafa Esparza

Mark Hanauer/UCLA
Rafa Esparza

Weeks before the opening of the exhibition, Rafa Esparza is at the 18-acre Bowtie Project, the former site of a Southern Pacific Railroad train yard and maintenance facility that’s now being used to host artist projects, performances and events alongside the L.A. River.

A 2011 UCLA graduate, Esparza pulls back a tarp to reveal thousands of adobe bricks that he made with friends, his cousin and his immigrant father. They are the building blocks of “TIERRA,” a platform he created for “Made in L.A. 2016” on the Hammer’s Lindbrook Terrace.

Esparza’s work investigates identity, colonization and lost cultures — both personal stories and larger social histories. The bricks are packed with history and emotion, along with hay, free dirt procured from Craigslist, horse dung from a stable in Altadena and water from the L.A. River. For this project, Esparza has also buried 13 objects at a secret locale and invited a few confidants to excavate them. Those who find the objects may exhibit them on the adobe platform.

At a July 9 performance, Esparza will underscore his exploration of identity, using plaster bandages to create a series of masks of his own face. The bandages are key to the healing of broken bones and, more importantly, and symbolic of his confrontation as a person of color with “fractured histories.”

“I like that relationship between the material and questions I have about recuperating a sense of identity or history,” he explains.

The making of “Made in L.A.”

The exhibition’s spotlight on local artists reflects what has been Hammer director Ann Philbin’s modus operandi since her appointment in 1999. She was drawn to the position by the city’s diverse community of artists, which had developed from a convergence of several factors: a bevy of top-notch art schools; relatively affordable, spacious places in which to live and work; and many immigrant communities, which added an appealing international flair. But although the city’s population of emerging artists was growing, Philbin says, “None of the museums at the time were paying attention to them, so it seemed like a great opportunity.”

The director quickly put artists at the center of the Hammer’s mission, and she continues to schedule exhibitions and public programs that cater to them. Philbin also solicits input from artists who teach at UCLA, such as Lari Pittman, Catherine Opie, Andrea Fraser and Mary Kelly, and from the Hammer’s Artist Council, whose members include opera innovator Yuval Sharon and artist and activist Edgar Arceneaux. Indeed, the “If you build it, they will come” model has paid off: The Hammer attracts many of the city’s working creators, who in turn draw other players to the cultural scene.

“This is one of my first times working with a museum,” says Esparza, “and the Hammer has been very supportive in allowing my practice to continue to evolve in this project.”

“’Made in L.A.’ is the only exhibition of its kind that focuses exclusively on artists living in Los Angeles,” concludes Moshayedi. “To be an institution that is supporting practices at a very early stage, at the same time that the city is receiving widespread international attention, is important.”

This story is based on one running in the July 2016 issue of UCLA Magazine. Learn more about the exhibition and related events here.

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