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The Made in LA Biennial Is All About Diaspora

LOS ANGELES — If there is one word that best characterizes the sixth edition of the Hammer Museum’s Made in LA biennial, it would be “diaspora.” The 39 artists and collectives included in the exhibition all call greater Los Angeles home, but their work makes visible legacies of migration that have built and shaped the city. “It’s not a one-to-one reflection of LA, but there is something about the polyphonic nature of this city that is reflected in the show,” Diana Nawi, the show’s co-curator, told Hyperallergic at the press preview last Friday.

This “polyphonic nature” is reflected in the work of Guadalupe Rosales, who has fashioned a glittering Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec feathered serpent deity, out of lowrider bicycle parts and feathers. “Untitled (Quetzalcoatl)” (2023) sits in a darkened room, lit by flashes from disco ball fixtures in the shape of Mesoamerican pyramids. Similar references can be found in the work of other artists, such as the late Luis Bermudez, whose ceramics feature pre-Columbian motifs, and Ryan Preciado, whose meticulously constructed objects and furniture incorporate elements of Indigenous, industrial, and traditional American craft.

“For everyone here, the Western canon is just one arrow in their quiver amongst so many other modes of knowledge, that might be material, intellectual, biographical, or linguistic,” notes Nawi.

The Hammer Museum’s signature exhibition has been running since 2012, showcasing both emerging and unheralded mid-career and older artists from throughout greater Los Angeles. For each version, philanthropists and art collectors Jarl and Pamela Mohn have funded three awards: the $100,000 Mohn Award and $25,000 Career Achievement Award, both selected by a jury of arts professionals, and the $25,000 Public Recognition Award, which visitors to the museum vote on.    

In this year’s edition, some artists make direct references to the trauma of migration and dislocation. Tidawhitney Lek’s vibrant paintings depict common familial scenes set in Southern California, interrupted by violent flashes of the Cambodian genocide that lend the compositions a surreal air of horror. For her installation/performance “Between Two Windows” (2023), Iranian-American artist Roksana Pirouzmand literally stands between two windows embedded in a museum wall, one modeled after her house in LA and the other resembling her grandmother’s home in Iran. A fan blows family photos around the chamber as she frantically tries to recover them. AMBOS Collective, which explores issues along the United States-Mexico border, contributed “Con nuestras manos construimos deidades / With our hands we build deities” (2023), a monolith incorporating dozens of sculpted hands made by people with histories of migration. Visitors are invited to delicately touch the cast hands.

Native artists in the exhibition examine being in a state of dislocation on one’s own land, navigating between two Americas: Western and indigenous. Teresa Baker’s artificial turf wallworks suggest that the origins of abstraction long predate Western achievements, while Melissa Cody uses a jacquard loom to create textiles with traditional Navajo/Diné designs. Ishi Glinsky’s standout sculpture “Inertia—Warn the Animals” (2023) is a massive rendering of the mask that appears in the Scream films, made out of deer skin, bear grass, bells, and resin tiles that resemble turquoise stones. Smaller works by other artists in the show are incorporated into the monumental head, a sign of communal solidarity.

A rich and embodied engagement with material is another throughline of the show, tying together diasporic threads. “We realized how many artists were working with materials that are not neutral,” said exhibition co-curator Pablo José Ramírez. “Materials have a specific history that in many cases is related to those diasporic histories.”

Jackie Amézquita’s “El suelo que nos alimenta” (2023) is a grid of brown squares made from soil taken from 144 LA neighborhoods mixed with masa (corn dough) and rainwater, onto which she has etched scenes of urban life. Esteban Ramón Pérez’s wall hangings are crafted by sewing together scraps of colored leather, harkening back to his father’s job as an upholsterer. Dan Herschlein uses foam, plaster, wax, and epoxy to build up his surreal, theatrical tableaux that threaten to suck us into their darkened corners, as do Sula Bermúdez-Silverman’s otherworldly blown glass orbs perched on clawed pedestals.

The exhibition takes its title, Acts of Living, from a quotation by assemblage artist Noah Purifoy, who said in YEAR that “creativity can be an act of living.” a quote which now graces a plaque on Simon Rodia’s assemblage masterpiece Watts Towers. Several artists in the show employ assemblage to bring together found and dissimilar materials. These include Teresa Tolliver’s series of fanciful mixed-media animal constructions, each titled “Wild Thing” (2003-5); Maria Maea’s kinetic sculpture “Lē Gata Fa’avavau (Infinity Forever)” (2023), which incorporates palm fronds, feathers, bones, and car parts; and Chiffon Thomas’s untitled 2021 installation of columns scavenged from demolished mansions. Outside the museum on Lindbrook Drive sits Dominique Moody’s “N.O.M.A.D. (Narrative, Odyssey, Manifesting, Artistic, Dreams)” (2015–23), a makeshift mobile dwelling assembled from corrugated metal, repurposed washing machine doors, vintage barnwood, and other found objects.

The body itself is a site of dislocation, alienation, and reclamation for several artists including Young Joon Kwak, whose rhinestone-encrusted body casts celebrate moments of transition. Within their intimate installation, Miller Robinson (Karuk/Yurok), an indigenous artist who identifies as “two-spirit,” has created objects and clothing with the texture of salmon skin, alluding to familiar histories of fishing as well as personal transformation.

As much as Acts of Living is focused on diaspora and heterogeneity, it is also deeply connected to the people and the urban fabric of the region. This is evident in Devin Reynold’s massive street scene murals in the Hammer’s lobby, “Untitled” and “Paradise Lost” (both 2023), and in Michael Alvarez’s landscapes and portraits documenting meaningful sites and memorializing family members who have passed away. One gallery swings between macro and micro scales, featuring both Vincent Enrique Hernandez’s ongoing project exploring the San Fernando Valley, including tours of the Valley in his 1987 Volvo, and Christopher Suarez’s “PCH & Cherry at 7pm” (2023), a detailed ceramic model of a specific place and time reminiscent of Mexican miniatures. Los Angeles Contemporary Archive (LACA) has brought several boxes of documents and ephemera from its collection covering contemporary art in LA to the museum, housing it in a mock-break room, complete with coffee maker, snack machine, and harsh fluorescent lighting. Mas Exitos, a collaborative project between Gary “Ganas” Garay and the designer Stephen Serrato, is a multi-faceted celebration of migratory musical forms, from cumbia to classic soul and Latin House and beyond. Their playlist created for Made in LA features a cumbia version of  Dr. Dre’s 1992 G-Funk anthem “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang” by Quantic Y Su Conjunto Los Míticos Del Ritmo.

“We’re doing this in LA, where complex and antagonistic forces coexist from all over the world,” José Ramírez said. “What this biennial provides is the opportunity to do a deeply rooted project while also being quite transnational.”