In March 2020, as the country shut down to brace for the pandemic, the plans for the fifth iteration of the Made in LA biennial began to transform—but the unifying aim remained the same: to highlight the work of 30 artists. Curators Myriam Ben Salah, Lauren Mackler and Ikechukwu Onyewuenyi started to reimagine the show, and usher artists though the process at the same time. In addition to the original site at the Hammer Museum in Westwood, Made in LA 2020 was also scheduled be exhibited at The Huntington Library, Museum and Gardens in Pasadena. Now, the show can be viewed on each museum’s website and in site-specific activations throughout LA.
While The Huntington and Hammer await the chance to invite the public inside to see the show, COOL HUNTING was given a masked, distanced tour of what is now called, Made in LA 2020: a version. We also spoke with Mackler and Onyewuenyi to learn about the mission, the transformation and the results.
Through the two sites, Made in LA 2020 was designed to bracket the city with west and east locations, and activations between. “The Huntington has a very different sensibility. When the artists visited, they wanted to ensure what they placed there would resonate with the place in some way, be it the architecture, the works in the collection, or the space itself,” Onyewuenyi tells us.
Adaptability became a requirement. “There is a real joy as a curator when you work with an artist that, in challenging themselves, comes to appreciate a new medium,” Onyewuenyi continues, voicing genuine admiration. One such example is the art of Ligia Lewis. “My heart was stolen by her performance work transforming into a film,” Mackler says. “She ended up making a work for the proscenium on a screen. It was her first time doing that. She pushed herself and her collaborators to produce something that really embodies the moment.”
Onyewuenyi also points to Diane Severin Nguyen‘s contribution as particularly inspiring. Nguyen’s photographs reveal her mysterious, experimental sculptural works capturing ephemeral moments with transient light sources. In both exhibition locations, Nguyen has used large architectural elements with color to transform the space. “She initially proposed to us water falling on the window of The Huntington,” explains Onyewuenyi. “Now the red vinyl across all of the windows is made to look like water coming down. She made something different that is just as amazing.”
Several of the artists collaborated with scholars that work at The Huntington. Kandis Williams and Jeffrey Stuker looked to the institution’s collection of research and ephemera focused on animals—from invasive species to butterflies. While Monica Majoli, Patrick Jackson, Jill Mulleady, Buck Ellison and Christina Forrer made pieces that center on The Huntington’s permanent collection.
Mulleady’s lush paintings flank the entrance to a gallery where Jackson’s “Head, Hands and Feet” works lie on the floor next to the massive 1859 marble sculpture “Zenobia in Chains” by Harriet Goodhue Hosmer. The experience of seeing light stream across this imposing, historic sculpture only to discover Jackson’s unsettling corpse-like sculptures nearby reveals one of the many visceral images of horror, anxiety and tension present throughout the exhibition.
In a nearby gallery, Sabrina Tarasoff displays her exhaustive research of the Venice cultural institution Beyond Baroque in the form of a haunted house. The experimental installation tells the story of this literary arts center, known for being home to decades of poetry readings and events. Each section guides the viewer through ephemera and archival materials, placing guests within a fictionalized tableau based on the works of poets Dennis Cooper, Bob Flanagan, Amy Gerstler, Sheree Rose, Jack Skelley, Ed Smith and David Trinidad. “We knew there would be an element of challenging the way institutions usually display archives,” says Mackler. Tarasoff “talks about the space of fantasy as an analogy to a process of writing and a way of embodying and creating an immersive experience.”
At the Hammer, Ser Serpas initially wanted to make a sculptural work to take up a full side of the entry stairwell to limit the flow of foot traffic into the museum. Because her work is made up of discarded items she takes from the street, the museum offered the entry gallery in place of the stairwell. Working with fellow artist Quinn Harrelson, Serpas remotely selected items and guided how they would be displayed to comment on the feeling of being cast aside. Meanwhile, at The Huntington, her items are placed in the dirt and leaves in front of the museum. This piece would have been formed by Serpas if the pandemic had not kept her from being in LA.
Aria Dean’s massive “Les Simulachres” lines the stairwell entrance into the Hammer. Inside a large gallery, her mirrored box “King of the Loop” sits in the middle of a gallery reflecting the art and visitors from every angle. The screens hung on each side feature a single actor wearing a body-cam being filmed by a network of cameras inside. Originally conceived as a four-person live performance, it has been transformed into a video presentation about a man on an abandoned plantation.
At both locations Monica Majoli shows archival materials and works that are part of her series “Blueboy,” named for the national gay-centric magazine that began publication in 1974. She watercolors her large-scale interpretations of the publication’s images with a white line printmaking technique that was influenced by Japanese woodcuts and developed in the early part of the 20th century. Meanwhile, at the Hammer, some of Majoli’s work is displayed on the open construction walls that can be seen throughout the exhibition.
Set it its own room at the Hammer, the exhibition design for Reynaldo Rivera’s photography captures deep emotional resonance. Rivera’s stunning imagery jumps off the wall and invites the viewer back in time to experience the intimacy and beauty of queer clubs, house parties and performances in ’80s and 90s East LA.
Kahlil Joseph’s ambitious video works—part of his ongoing artistic endeavor and business project BLKNWS—are prominently displayed in both the Hammer and The Huntington, as well as 10 locations throughout the city, from Historic Filipinotown to Compton. For Mackler, Salah and Onyewuenyi, having BLKNWS throughout the city was an important way to engage the public. “He was working on an idea for a fugitive new broadcast platform,” says Onyewuenyi. “Now it exists in the world in cafes and community hubs and you have these moments of shared watching. It harkens back to William Greaves who also had a Black TV show, Black Journal. He talks about accidental encounters that happen through television-watching. BLKNWS makes that happen.”
If one artist’s work truly embodies 2020, it’s that of Mr Wash (aka Fulton Leroy Washington), whose Political Tears series is on display. Washington (who focused on painting while he was incarcerated for a non-violent offense) creates hyper-realistic, tremendously striking work. Mackler says, “We were really struck by his spirit, approach, skill, sense of composition and soul that is in all of the work and everything he does.”
The Hammer and The Huntington have ongoing virtual events associated with Made in LA 2020: a version and extensive information on their websites. The site-specific billboard installations by Larry Johnson in MacArthur Park and Kahlil Joseph are currently on view throughout the city.
Images by Joshua White; courtesy of The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens © The Huntington, and Hammer Museum