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Palm Fronds and Car Parts: Assemblage Art in Los Angeles

A decade ago, priced out of renting an apartment and studio in Los Angeles, the artist Dominique Moody built a steel-clad, wood structure on a 20-foot flatbed trailer. It was an experiment in making a small, mobile abode before the tiny home trend took off. It offered a place to sleep, and dream. It was also in many ways an artwork.

Steeped in assemblage, the process of making art from found or scavenged objects, Moody, 66, fashioned her home out of reclaimed materials where others would have gone straight to Home Depot. She made her porch of leftover floorboards from a barn and took an old bicycle apart, hanging her shower curtain from its tire rim. And she turned the doors of industrial washing machines into the windows or “portals” of her itinerant house, dubbed the Nomad, where she lived from 2015 to 2020.

Starting Oct. 1, the Nomad will be parked outside the Hammer Museum as part of the sixth edition of “Made in L.A.,” a biennial spotlighting emerging and underrecognized artists living in Los Angeles. And it serves as a teaser for what’s inside, as this year’s exhibition is not just made in Los Angeles, but to an extraordinary degree made of it, with objects scavenged from the city streets — ranging from palm fronds to broken car parts — showing up in many of the works. The biggest found object will be Moody’s rusty — she prefers to say “beautifully patinated” — 1950 Ford tow truck, which will be parked alongside the Nomad.

The biennial’s curators, Diana Nawi and Pablo José Ramírez, did not set out to showcase any one medium or theme when they took on 200 studio visits last year. But of 39 artists they selected for the show, nearly a dozen are working with found or scavenged objects to create their mixed-media, culturally rooted sculpture and installations. These artists are expanding the rich history of assemblage in L.A., which dates back at least to the 1920s, when the Italian-born artist Simon Rodia began building, by hand, the Watts Towers out of scrap rebar, broken glass, shards of pottery and other detritus from Watts.

“Our show is very object-oriented,” said Nawi, who suggested assemblage became more resonant or urgent during the pandemic, when artists’ orbits shrunk. “You could see a lot of artists drawing from their immediate surroundings. Curiosity allows for everyday objects and materials to take on profound meaning if you attune yourself to them.”

Ramírez talked about assemblage as part of a larger embrace of vernacular materials by artists and curators. “We are seeing more shows of craft-related work, more ceramics, more Indigenous work.”

Moody shifted from detailed drawing to object-making in her 20s as she was losing her eyesight; she is now “partially sighted” or legally blind. “To me what’s so wonderful about assemblage is that when you find pieces, they come with a story,” she said. “Assemblage is often commentary on social things that happen around us, but also intimate and specific to our own personal narratives and memories.”

Moody walked this reporter through her August exhibition at Arts at Blue Roof, designed to showcase her prized collections, from old railroad spikes found near Watts Towers to magnifying glasses she’s received as gifts. Pointing to the colorful glass bottles on an altar-like platform she built for the show, she shared a story about her father, a U.S. Army officer who never thought of himself as an artist but lined the windowsills of her childhood home in Philadelphia with bottles to achieve startling stained-glass-like effects.

Chiffon Thomas, 32, takes as his found objects the ornate wood columns retrieved from demolished Colonial and Victorian-style mansions on the East Coast — “the emblems of something oppressive, something that held my family back,” he said, describing the legacy of racial discrimination. “The architecture was a symbol of all this history, a ghost of the history still very present operating in this insidious way.”

Thomas’s largest work at the Hammer will feature a Black figurative bust made mainly from concrete, with split wood columns and stair spindles extending like wings. These wings pin the figure in place.

Thomas mentioned Nari Ward, Lee Bontecou and Noah Purifoy as inspiration, and, like other biennial artists, he has made a pilgrimage to Purifoy’s art park in Joshua Tree, Calif., — an outdoor museum that delivered the unlikely discovery thrills of a junkyard. With that visit in 2021, Thomas realized the importance of using the actual wood pieces instead of casting, even at the risk of using them up.

Purifoy famously made sculptures in the 1960s out of the charred debris from the Watts riots. He was also the founding director of Watts Towers Art Center, a cultural hub at the foot of the Watts Towers that has exhibited important artists like John Outterbridge, Senga Nengudi and Kenzi Shiokava. The subtitle of this year’s biennial, “Acts of Living,” comes from a quote by Purifoy about creativity as a way of life.