By Carribean Fragoza, Los Angeles, California, USA
June 3, 2018 – September 2, 2018
Imaginemos Cosas Chingonas: Astonishment and vision in Made in L.A. 2018
Think back to the last time you were astonished by something. I mean genuinely, viscerally astonished so that you felt gripped or overwhelmed in spite of yourself. Astonishment at an art show for the regular art-goer, like blushing for a correteadx, is hard to come by and nearly impossible to fake. But these are strange days. The last two years, in fact, have been laden with moments I believed myself too jaded to re-experience: the gut fight-or-flight fear of police, ICE (formerly known as La Migra or INS), Homeland Security (a post-9-11 invention), even more abstract historical nightmares like fascism and straight-up apartheid—which had not consciously figured into my personal lifetime’s panorama of horrors. At least not in that vocabulary.
And yet, within minutes of arriving to the Hammer Museum for the Made in L.A. biennial, I was reacquainted with astonishment and one of its dystopic sisters, sudden dread. The sound of heavy breathing froze me in my stroll through the museum’s eastern wing as I approached a small darkened gallery room. The sounds coiled out like smoke, or a beckoning finger. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked into a gallery (or any regular room) where the sounds of heavy breathing have inevitably turned out to be some kind of sex thing. Or at least sexual enough to have to hastily redirect young children elsewhere. I actually paused before entering the room because I knew there was no way I was not going to enter—a line of thinking that has worked itself into all kinds of scenarios in my lifetime. Inside I found the video and sound choreographies of dance artist taisha paggett entitled counts orchestrate, a meadow (or weekly practice with breath).
The sounds of breath by multiple performers had been recorded, coordinated and coupled with monitors that played video performances of tactile motions of bodies scraping or rolling over a hard rocky earth. paggett, originally from Fresno, CA, in the Central Valley, avoids subjecting audiences to expected sexual tropes of the body (yes, even shocking sex imagery can become nothing but a boring trope even when its intended to challenge other boring sex tropes. In Hollywood and its surrounding L.A. suburbs, the birthplace of the porn video as we know it, sex can bore as it excites.). Instead, paggett presents a different set of juxtapositions. The artist presents perfectly healthy bodies of men and women of color performing a series of seemingly illegible actions on an unidentified landscape. The multi-sensory experience is simultaneously bold, tender, appealingly disconcerting. Certainly more astonishing, even fascinating, than a pair of overblown tetas.
Ladies and gentlemen, L.A. today is not what it used to be. It never was. This year’s Made in L.A. biennial thankfully reflects a complicated, conflictive and poly-faceted city comprised of deeply rooted communities that run generations-deep, as well as transplants from all over the country and the world. It was refreshingly absent of the long eastward lean toward NYC or European art worlds that have so often plagued art biennials elsewhere. Instead, Made in L.A. bows irreverently to itself as its own artistic gravitational center. In past years, most notably in 2014, Made in L.A. received public criticism—mainly from people of color in Los Angeles—that decried the biennial’s glaring lack of representation. 2016 marked a notable shift, for once including people of color, namely L.A.’s thriving Chicanx/Latinx artists at its core rather than as a half-assed afterthought. Senior curator Anne Ellegood, assistant curator Erin Christovale and curatorial associate MacKenzie Stevens were the curators for this Made in L.A. edition.
At the center of this sprawling exhibition is the recurring emergence of the body, particularly of women of color and queer folx. Bodies long considered “other” or alternate—colored and migrant bodies—have and continue to shape the body of a city that is also othered as far as cities go. In Los Angeles, identities through bodies remain in constant transition across space. These are transitions of bodies engaged in their own internal journeys. And no body remains untaxed by its many navigations.
Astonishment echoed as I met intimately with the body that has borne heavy burdens. The sight of artist EJ Hill standing frozen at the center of the room is a gripping experience to many of its viewers as they shifted uncomfortably, often unwilling to explore the room before awkwardly leaving. I was captivated by the unexpected contact with the body of the artist, as well as the full transformation of the gallery from a white cube into an athletic field, including vibrant green astro-turf and a running track. At the far end of the field, artist EJ Hill stands atop his sculpture entitled Altar (for victors past, present, and future), a podium where athletes receive their medals. Meditatively, for full-work day periods, the artist stands with eyes closed and perfectly still with apparently no bathroom, meal or water breaks. It’s a test of endurance that borders on abuse. And that precisely is part of Hill’s point. It highlights the feats of physical and psychological endurance that are demanded of black men whether in sports or hard manual labor, as well as the daily array of violences they experience, particularly under the lethal force of police. A walk around the track will lead you to a series of photographs entitled Excellentia, Mollitia, Victoria, for which the artist ran a series of laps around various Los Angeles schools, in an act of “unlearning” behaviors that people of color often are taught in learning institutions from a young age.
By the time I got to Carmen Argote’s drawings on paper, I was fully primed for a surprise. I gasped to see for the first time Documentation of Platform with Mobile Unit, a title that reveals little about itself. In my mind, this encounter with the streaks and pauses of brown stains immediately meant one thing: period blood. Finally, menstruation! Let’s get all up in the uterus, I cheered. Alas, the dark brown stains were coffee stains printed using coffee grounds, filters and a set of impressively coordinated coffee makers. But I liked the prints nonetheless because they reminded me of the early feminist works of the 1970s that used menstrual blood and other vaginal secretions, such as Carolee Schneeman’s 1972 Blood Work Diary. In some ways, Carmen’s coffee prints and dyed fabrics can speak as intimately to the experience of gendered domesticity as menstruation, while also addressing Los Angeles’s industrialized landscape that inevitably shapes and moves bodies. Life in L.A. is an intimate two-way dance between the people that live and work there, and the labor demands of its grinding economies.
The work of Beatriz Cortez also speaks to this. Very loudly, in fact. Her piece Tzolk’in, installed on the second-floor mezzanine directly in front of the museum shop, imagines and/or acknowledges how life thrives amidst the various machineries that have churned L.A. into one of the world’s largest economies. Even as many of its industrial manufacturers have long abandoned the city, we can find use in its rotting detritus. Certainly, investors and gentrifiers have had the capitalist drive and lack of imagination or compassion to take advantage of the city’s “good bones.” But Cortez’s kinetic garden perhaps pays tribute to the folks that have built hard-earned lives from those bones, as well as their own. A set of tiny tender shoots of various native plants tenuously grow, quivering atop the sculptural machine that she has designed to periodically rattle its very loud metallic song. Its grating shriek fills the halls and echoes deliciously. It will startle the foam out of anyone’s crafted latte or shake you out of your deep reveries on art and the city.
In some ways the star of the show is Luchita Hurtado, in part because of her striking yet meditative paintings of the female body, but also because at 97 years old, she is finally getting widespread attention for her work. Her lifespan is immersed in the inner circles of lucrative artists such as Wolfgang Paalen and Lee Mullican, yet her paintings rarely received attention, until now. La artista Venezolana, raised in New York City, paints images of nude female bodies and natural landscapes, often against richly designed textiles, evoking her Latin American background, that continuously reverberated, bubbled up despite the Eurocentric upper echelons of the art world she roamed in.
In thinking about astonishment, particularly in how it can be experienced viscerally in the body, I would also include the sense of wonder. Lauren Halsey’s outdoor installation, Crenshaw District Hieroglyphic invites audiences to enter a prototype for a public monument (that is also perhaps a mausoleum) that pays tribute to a vision of the historically Black community of Crenshaw District in South L.A. On the towering walls of the monument, Halsey has carved an ordered mélange of iconographies that draw from ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, as well as hip-hop brands like FUBU or street graffiti. My experience of awe in contemplating Halsey’s visions (or propositions) of what could be, was only eclipsed by the greater awe of realizing who we as people of color are and what we have been. The future is here, we can live it should we choose to step into our potential fully, (despite the costs of course). I was reminded of the vigorous imaginations of Black and Chicano activists during the civil rights movement that labored grandly to envision and enact a future that was not only dignified but glorious. And why not? Trace back the history of any community of color and you will always find greatness. Trace it forward to where all its diasporas have landed today and you will find greatness still, even in the most quotidian forms. This, of course, is not to say it was ever near perfect. But the future was brilliant, possible, and attainable in ways that sometimes feel so regretfully distant today.
Astonishment is rare, so are wonder and awe. Dread, which operates on a lower wavelength, is more pervasive perhaps, though it can be easily overlooked. For better or worse, we are taught to move past our instincts that warn us in the language of dread. Or sometimes our desires are so misunderstood by others so as to be mis-shapened, even feared by our own selves. This year’s Made in L.A. felt necessary in ways I didn’t know I personally needed and in ways that I think perhaps could be useful to many of us in times dominated by uncertainty and horrors. Astonishment and all of its spectral variations seem like necessary experiences to move us past the paralysis of jadedness and cynicism toward a more radically humane future for all bodies.
Carribean Fragoza is a writer and artist from South El Monte, California. She is founder and co-director of the South El Monte Art Posse (SEMAP), a multi-disciplinary arts collective.