Like an intricately woven tapestry, Made in L.A. 2018 stitches together a diverse sampling of some of the most dynamic and noteworthy artists working in Los Angeles today. Presently on display at the UCLA Hammer Museum, this sweeping biennial exhibition boasts 32 textile, performance, painting, video, sculpture, assemblage, photography, and installation artists hailing from a total of 13 states and seven countries. Together they weave a grand and gripping narrative highlighting critical socio-political issues, including representation and marginalization.
At its very core, this fourth incarnation of Made in L.A. is a celebration of multiculturalism and inclusiveness. It counters the hostility, ignorance, and fear of this current political climate with unyielding compassion, optimism, and community spirit. Visitors will immediately recognize these motifs in Lauren Halsey’s ancient Egyptian-inspired installation on display here, The Crenshaw District Hieroglyph Project (Prototype Architecture). Much like her concurrent Museum of Contemporary Art exhibition, we still here, there, this immersive conceptual sculpture also features ancient aesthetics infused with contemporary references to African-American life and culture.
While her MoCA showing boasts allusions to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave through rugged stalactite and stalagmite forms, this gleaming minimalistic sanctuary bears a striking resemblance to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s iconic Temple of Dendur (10 B.C.). Composed of plywood and gypsum (a sturdy and durable mineral used in ancient pyramid construction), this sacred shrine features several nods to Halsey’s native South Los Angeles, including portraits of friends and family, as well as inscribed depictions of advertisements and landmarks. Fascinated by architecture’s ability to shape a community, Halsey’s monument here offers just a small sampling of her grand vision for this project, including a majestic yet welcoming public space near Crenshaw Boulevard. While the Western world has long made a habit of removing historically significant artifacts from their native lands and culturally whitewashing them, Halsey’s Crenshaw District Hieroglyph Project puts the African element back in ancient Egyptian art as the artist does her part to help reclaim this aesthetic.
While Halsey is renowned for experimenting with ancient imagery, fellow presenter Diedrick Brackens uses the loom to delve into time-honored textile techniques. The Texas native’s tapestries feature vibrant hues and eye-catching geometric designs, yet they also speak to the fabric of our society and the effects of long-standing social injustice. As a queer African-American man living and working in Leimert Park, this Cal State Long Beach art professor imbues all of these elements of his background into the fibers. Brackens works mainly in cotton due to its historical ties to American slavery. Additionally, his textiles tend to symbolize, if not actually represent the human body, while his threads virtually bleed in a kind of connotative blood. With several wound-like tears in fabric stitched together like scars, others left ragged like opened lacerations, these tapestries speak volumes about prejudice and its eviscerating emotional impact. Brackens with his tapestries also suggests irremediable traumas caused by cultural discrimination that, like techniques in weaving, are passed down through the generations.
The striking contrasts of mustard yellows and checkered patchings throughout his indigo-colored chenille blanket, sleep don’t come easy (2016), resembles a battle-worn military banner with its tattered zig-zag cut-outs at bottom. This scrap of fabric, symbolically heated, could in no way keep its keeper warm throughout the long dark of night.
The trompe l’oeil works of emerging acrylic painter Christina Quarles also take on the politics of the human body and sexuality through her erotic depictions of intertwined nude women bathed in pastel hues. This is particularly true in her two new works, Forced Perspective (And I Kno It’s Rigged, But It’s tha Only Game in Town), 2018 and Forced Perspective (Look on tha Bright Side), 2018. As a queer African-American woman, Quarles arranges this sensual imagery against backgrounds of floral wallpaper to express her dismay at the current lack of diversity in media representation. Here, the Chicago native depicts her signature sinuous forms, with the clear message that such forms are antithetical to the current norms of a sharp-edged Americana presently at the cultural fore.
From Patrick Staff’s Weed Killer
In a radically different approach to issues of sexuality, and the body, transgender film and performance artist Patrick Staff tackles notions of gender and illness in the critically-lauded 2017 film, Weed Killer. Based on Catherine Lord’s 2004 memoir about her experience with breast cancer and radiation, The Summer of Her Baldness, Staff’s film is suffused in thermal imaging which reveals the treatment’s war-like devastation to the body. Staff here compares radiotherapy to “mainlining weed killer” and builds upon these themes in another film performance, the brand-new Bathing (Drunkenness) (2018). In this poetic study of movement, intoxication, and washing, we see a single dancer getting in and out of a shallow pool. Bathing effortlessly blends rigid postmodern dance with a looser, more inebriated flow. Greatly inspired by YouTube videos of drunken dancing, the artist here presents a haunting performance which compels the viewer to confront the toxicity of this bacchanal-esque landscape as well as the wild beast within.
Similar to Halsey in his interest in history and social architecture, conceptual artist, sculptor, and photographer Daniel Joseph Martinez is often celebrated for his provocative use of text and image. The LAXART co-founder first made waves in the art world with his 1993 Whitney Biennial contribution, a series of controversial admission badges which read, “I Can’t Ever Imagine Wanting to Be White.” For Made in L.A., Martinez presents another provocative piece, a glossy black and white photograph dubbed, The Soviet memorial park in the district of Schönholz. The Soviet War Memorial in Schönholzer Heide (German: Sowjetisches Ehrenmal in der Schönholzer Heide) in Pankow, Berlin was erected in the period between May 1947 and November 1949 and covers an area of 30,000 m?. The memorial contains the biggest Soviet cemetery in Berlin, which is also the biggest Russian cemetery in Europe outside of Russia.
Martinez first conceived this 2017 work and its long-winded title prior to a trip along the now-demolished Berlin Wall. He photographed himself amid this divisive monument over 80 times over the course of the journey. In this photo, the artist is seen holding up a sign emblazoned with the face of Red Army Faction militant Ulrike Meinhof. As a prominent German communist in the 1960s, she organized many public protests and terror plots against the American and West German governments. Viewing them as imperialists and fascists, Meinhof soon became one of the most famous female terrorists in history.
In The Soviet memorial park, Martinez’s photo of Meinhof echoes Catholic saint depictions with the subject looking entirely innocent and pious. Here he makes the case that these literal and political divisions serve no beneficial purpose in a civilized society and can make martyrs out of malevolent figures. With the Trump administration’s constant calls for a border wall between the United States and the artist’s native Mexico, Martinez considers the long-term humanitarian damage of such a barrier.
Calling for unity and compassion over prejudice and antipathy, Made in L.A. 2018 underscores the importance of visual art in its ability to honor the diversity of humankind.
Emily Nimptsch is Los Angeles Art Critic for Riot Material magazine. Ms. Nimptsch is also a freelance arts and culture writer who has written for Flaunt, ArtSlant, Artillery, ArteFuse, and Time Out Los Angeles.