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Issue 217

In the Chilling Shadows of a Biennial Yet to Be Seen

‘Made in L.A. 2020: a version’, slated to open in 2021, exposes the horrors of American life pre-pandemic

BY Jonathan Griffin in Reviews , US Reviews | 15 DEC 20

Before entering the long-delayed (and now revised) ‘Made in L.A. 2020: a version’, I pitied its poor curators, whose exhibition has been kyboshed by a succession of lockdowns. Originally scheduled to open in June, the biennial – split this year between the Hammer Museum and the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens in San Marino – has lain partly dormant, partly unfinished. With (almost) all works installed, museum leaders allowed in a few members of the press, who, they hoped, might grant ‘Made in L.A. 2020’ a little exposure to daylight. (The biennial is currently expected to open to the public next year.)

Having now seen the show, I still pity the curators, but not because I found it redundant: in fact, it’s exactly the exhibition I didn’t know I wanted to see. After weeks and months of doomscrolling and page refreshing, it’s a sweet relief to encounter material and intellectual content hailing from the time before our new normal. I pity the curators because, as of this writing, with COVID-19 cases still on the rise, there is slender hope of their biennial receiving the audience it deserves. 

Patrick Jackson, Jill Mulleady, Made in L.A.: a version
'Made in L.A. 2020: a version', 2020, exhibition view, The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, San Marino. Courtesy: The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, San Marino, Hammer Museum and François Ghebaly, Los Angeles; photograph: Joshua White / JWPictures.com

There is something sickly about the tone of much of the work in ‘Made in L.A. 2020: a version’, reminding us that many of America’s current ailments manifested before this year, before even the rotten reign of its ‘Worst Ever President’. Curators Lauren Mackler and Myriam Ben Salah, assisted by the Hammer’s Ikechúkwú Onyewuenyi, identify ‘horror and its aesthetic’ as one of their abiding themes, with reference (as revealed in the catalogue) to the output of Jordan Peele’s Monkeypaw Productions. At the Huntington, Sabrina Tarasoff collaborated with the creative content agency Twisted to construct Beyond Baroque: A Haunted House (2020). Each darkened room of this campy ghost house is devoted to one of the renegade poets and performers – Dennis Cooper, Bob Flanagan and Amy Gerstler, among others – associated with Venice’s legendary Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center during the 1970s and ’80s. (Unless you are upset by a grainy video of Flanagan’s bare bottom being spanked, nothing here is really scary.)

Aria Dean, production for a cube, 2020, Made in LA: a version
Aria Dean, production cube, 2020, installation view, 'Made in L.A.: a version', Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. Courtesy: The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, San Marino and Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; photography: Joshua White / JWPictures.com

Many of the biennial’s best moments rely on astute pairings. Brandon D. Landers’s paintings, depicting casually posed groups of Black figures with grimaces that sometimes recall Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944), are reflected in the large semi-mirrored acrylic box that is Aria Dean’s production cube (2020). Because of COVID-19, the monologic performance that was meant to happen inside the cube is now screened only on monitors attached to its exterior. Landers’s paintings, such as Wonders (2020), often include inverted text, now legible in the reflections.

Patrick Jackson and Jill Mulleady, another stand-out pairing, both raid musty corners of art history to produce work that feels absolutely contemporary without resorting to topicality. Mulleady’s Interior of a Forest (diptych) (2020) – an appropriation of Paul Cézanne’s eponymous 1885 painting, here ablaze – flanks the entrance to a gallery containing the Huntington’s marble Zenobia in Chains (1859) by Harriet Goodhue Hosmer. Beside Zenobia, two life-sized, denim-clad and hirsute men – sculptures by Jackson titled Head, Hands and Feet (2011) – lie sleeping, or dead, on the floor. Jackson’s wry inversion of monumental public statuary was conceived years before statues of slavers across the US and Europe began to be toppled, but is especially poignant now.

Fulton Leroy Washington, aka MR. WASH, Made in L.A. a version
Fulton Leroy Washington (aka MR. WASH), Mr. Rene # MAN POWER, 2011, oil on stretched canvas, 61 × 50.8 cm. Courtesy: the artist, The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, San Marino and Hammer Museum, Los Angeles

Despite its preoccupation with horror, ‘Made in LA 2020: a version’, is not particularly upsetting, just unsettling. Diane Severin Nguyen’s macro photographs of luridly colourful, artificial malignancies and Alexandra Noel’s tiny paintings offering dislocated glimpses into ominous, sci-fi narratives deliver as much pleasure as they do pain. Maybe we deserve a little more pain, given the genuine (rather than aestheticized) horrors of our time. Instead of hot tears, the response that the exhibition most often defaults to is one of detachment. This feeling might ring true but, in life, I’m over it – and unconvinced of the value of replicating it, even critically, in a gallery.

Give me, instead, the painted tears of Fulton Leroy Washington (a.k.a. MR WASH), whose portraits of crying friends and public figures – such as Mr. Rene # MAN POWER (2011) – he painted while in prison, before Barack Obama granted him clemency in 2016. Give me the late Nicola L.’s La Chambre en Fourrure (The Fur Room, 1969/2020), a purple fun-fur chamber with bodysuits sewn into its walls. (Designed to be interactive, now tragically out of bounds.) Give me touch and connection, not just shared estrangement. 

'Made in L.A.: a version' at The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, San Marino and Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, will open to the public as soon as L.A.County guidelines reopen museums. 

Main image: Sabrina Tarasoff, Beyond Baroque: A Haunted House (detail), 2020, installation view, 'Made in L.A.: a version', The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, San Marino. Courtesy: The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, San Marino and Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; photography: Joshua White / JWPictures.com

Jonathan Griffin is a writer based in Los Angeles, USA, and a contributing editor of frieze.