Long Read: Growing Pains: A new biennial brings the L.A. art world frighteningly close to being “established”
by Catherine Wagley
The first Los Angeles biennial opened on June 2. It includes 60 artists exhibited at three sites across the city, and has its own $100,000 prize, funded by media mogul Jarl Mohn. This means the Whitney Biennial’s $100,000 Bucksbaum Award is no longer the largest financial award made to an individual artist, and, as culture crusaders in this city love to say, we are giving New York “a run for its money.”
The L.A. biennial began, because, as the inaugural show’s five curators say in their co-written catalog essay, “this city is home to some of the most original and innovative artists working today.” I don’t doubt this claim at all. The first year I lived here, I saw artist Evan Holloway turn a room full of polka dots into something trippy and transcendent, read Bruce Hainley and Dave Hickey’s writing about the un-hinged, un-established West Coast, fell for the always-in-flux vibe of Chinatown’s gallery row and decided to never leave. But L.A. just spent six months celebrating and promoting its own post-WWII art history in a region-wide, multi-million dollar, Getty-funded initiative called Pacific Standard Time (PST), which included over 60 exhibitions and lasted through March. This biennial—officially called Made in L.A. and held at the Hammer Museum in Westwood, L.A. Municipal Gallery in Hollywood and LAXArt in Culver City—comes right on the tails of PST, and it feels like the L.A. art scene is going to ambitious lengths to prove itself to itself. This makes me nervous.
One of my favorite L.A. artists, Anne Bray, often doubles as an unofficial sociologist. A few years ago, she described L.A. as “becoming a teenager.” She said, “It’s not really responsible yet but it’s thinking about issues of responsibility.” The city had remained more or less a kid through the ‘60s ‘70s and ‘80s, figuring out its identity politics—there was the Chicano movement, race riots, immigrant communities delineating themselves, creative communities migrating from West L.A. to East and back again. When defining their personhood, people tend to hole up with likeminded people. But growing up means figuring out how your community relates to other communities and what you can offer other people, which is where “thinking about issues of responsibility” comes in. It seems like the L.A. art world has reached its teens, too. With PST, it asserted its identity by proving it had a history. With this biennial, the L.A. art world is figuring out how its various parts relate to one another. That’s good for a growing-up community, but I wonder how much this figuring-out process really effects the art getting made here.
Two weeks before Made in L.A. opened, I spent a Sunday afternoon at Monte Vista Projects in Highland Park, a small artist-run space based out of a windowless storefront. The Sunday Scag, made up of artists Michael Decker, Gustavo Herrera and Christine Wang, was working there. Visitors could help them build sets or just hang out and watch them film a spin-off of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. When I was there, they were chanting, “The Scag should get the 100 Grand.” Apparently, earlier in the day, someone had read aloud a news clip from Artforum about Made in L.A. and the $100,000 Mohn Prize. This had been caught on camera, and the edited Waiting for L.Dot (“L” is the Scag’s mysterious alter ego and sometimes muse) begins with a voice-over lifted from the Made in L.A. promo video. Artist Vishal Judgeo, a participant in the biennial, says, “L.A.’s a really great place to work. What I like is that you can actually . . . hide away in your studio and sort of figure out what you’re doing on your own and be really left alone.” Then a faint male voice fades in, announcing, “. . . the newly established Mohn Prize of 100,000 dollars.” Decker, Herrera and Wang, dressed in bonnets and skirts and other hodge-podge clothing, march in circles and “ooh” and “ah.” They begin to say, “The Scag should get the 100 Grand.” The three of them are “the Scag,” but it doesn’t sound like they are talking about themselves at all. It sounds like they are talking about some renegade, elusive, eccentric idea of an “artist,” one who works doggedly with or without recognition. That kind of artist deserves the money.
Money is strange. If I knew how many times I wrote or said “$10 million initiative” during PST, I would probably cringe, because money wasn’t supposed to be the point. Value, attention and legitimacy were, it’s just that sometimes it’s so hard to separate those things from funds. When the L.A. Times published its Made in L.A. preview on May 25, it focused on how much financial support this biennial gave its artists—the Whitney Museum may offer a big prize, but its artists have to pay their own way when it comes to making their work for the show. Each Made in L.A. artist received a $1,000 honorarium, and some received a few more thousand to help them realize their project. Judgeo’s mechanized video installation may be one of the more expensive undertakings at upwards of $7,500. The Times preview also noted non-monetary support, like how curators helped artist Koki Tanaka post an ad for the two volunteer musicians he needed. But something tells me Tanaka would have figured out how to do this on his own if he had to. The same goes for most of the best work in Made in L.A. Artists would have figured out how to make it anyway, in some way or another.
Zach Harris’ exquisite wood relief paintings would have existed, and some already did, like Midnight at Malibu (2009-10), in which white, teal and purple triangles come up off the surface and squeeze in toward a dark pattern that looks like a flower garden that’s been mysteriously flattened. Miljohn Ruperto’s installation, in which five copies of Kaspar David Friedrich’s melancholic painting Monk by the Sea Shore hang above seven different remakes of a 1960s episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, likely would have existed at some point. But I’m glad I didn’t have to wait to see that stunning moment where, in the Hitchcock Presents remake, the tide comes up in Malibu, smoothing over the spot where a frat boy has just been mistakenly buried alive. Ruperto’s shores repeated indefinitely, on all the screens and in all the paintings, in a way that collapses history and media into each other. Cayetano Ferrer, whose installation includes a pastiche of carpeting from real Vegas casinos and a light show inside a cave-like room, would have continued to explore the bright, indulgent impermanence of Vegas and the harsh histories hidden beneath flashy facades with or without Made in L.A. But I’m not sure I would have known that I respected what he did so much if I hadn’t come across his name in the initial Made in L.A. press kit. There’s plenty of art in Made in L.A. that I don’t like, that I find tritely cynical or sloppy—some paintings at the Municipal gallery seem only frivolously political; some installations at the Hammer feel more ambitious than thought-through. But when a community grows up, not only the best graduate to adulthood; systems develop that allow as many community members as possible to keep on functioning and contributing for as long as they can.
The biennial includes a summer-long series of performances in addition to the exhibitions and artist Math Bass performed Brutal Set for the first time on Friday, June 22. She had nine collaborators (one of whom was Christine Wang from The Sunday Scag). They dressed casually, in jeans or leggings and t-shirts, and navigated a set of ladders and cement pant-legs, set upside down so the legs protruded as if out of the ground. The performers began by wandering while singing the words “who say you have to be a dead dog” in untrained but beautiful harmony. The refrain from “One”, the song made famous by Three Dog Night, marked the end of each of the performance’s chapters: “One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do.” Usually, one lone performer would sing the first part of this line, then the whole group would join in on that last word, “do.” That theme of aloneness and togetherness carried through to the performance’s end, when Math climbed to the top of a ladder alone. Her performers surrounded her below and she dropped a potted plant that fell, crashed and broke under the glow of a single spotlight. Then Three Dog Night came on—“One is the loneliest number”—over the speakers as the performers made their exit together.
Just before Math’s performance, I had walked the show one more time and felt a little worried about the whole thing. Was the whole idea of the show too packaged and too “established”? Even its title, Made in L.A., makes it sound like a consumable, definable product. I want L.A. to be in-flux forever. But Math’s performance, all about the conflict and confluence of aloneness and togetherness, assured me good art will never feel packaged and established. You can be individually driven, risky and successful and still supported as part of a group.