In “Acts of Living,” the just-opened sixth installment of “Made in L.A.,” the UCLA Hammer Museum’s always hotly anticipated biennial survey of new art in the region, there’s a woman embedded inside a gallery wall.
Not a picture of a woman or another metaphoric sign of her presence there, but an actual woman. You can see her through a window.
The wall separates two galleries. Artist Roksana Pirouzmand is tightly wedged into a narrow, roughly shoulder-width domestic space, with a window cut into each side of the wall. The interior is properly decorated — flowered curtains, gauzy sheers, a hanging crystal light fixture — while a fan on the floor disturbs the peace. The curtains, Pirouzmand’s garments and the artist’s long hair all get blown around.
She is holding small scraps of paper, crinkled photos that appear to have been torn from magazines. The strong wind blows the images of the world out of her fingers. They flutter up, circle around, drift down, get caught again in her grasp. “Between Two Windows” is sort of like one of those money booth games at a birthday party or casino where dollar bills blow about, promising rewards to the grabby and clever.
Here, however, information from photographic reproductions of the world beyond the wall is the tattered and elusive prize — ragged ephemera, but imagery commonly encountered in art museum galleries. Instead, on an irregular schedule for the show’s duration, Pirouzmand herself will be sitting inside that museum wall. The public and private collide. Artists are embedded in the institution, and “Acts of Living” asks us to look in that direction.
The show offers material, flesh-and-blood presence in place of ubiquitous camera pictures, both analog and digital, or their standard Conceptual art kin. This “Made in L.A.” emphasizes the handmade — objects that used to just be called paintings and sculptures, which partly represent the artists’ presence.
In the exhibition catalog, Diana Nawi, guest co-curator with new Hammer curator Pablo José Ramírez, whose ably handled debut this is, cites an important precedent. The museum’s 2005 show “Thing: New Sculpture From Los Angeles” was a thoroughly engaging chronicle of a return to prominence among a host of younger artists of object-sculpture, a category that had long taken a back seat to installation-oriented work, video, photography and mediated Conceptual art practices.
That show, however, was a one-shot deal charting a particular artistic strain. Now, materiality in general is the principal through-line defining hugely diverse work made by the show’s 39 artists.
Think of it as the Pandemic Zoom Biennial, a curatorial position taking the temperature of art made during — and despite — a disruptive, disorienting time of human isolation. Time warped when the coronavirus exploded, and worldly connections simultaneously expanded and drastically contracted, channeled through digital screens. Cellphones, laptops, tablets and other such screens offer vast data and unexpected capacities for association, but their images are uniformly remote and without texture. Materiality recedes.
There’s no there, there, as Gertrude Stein once wrote of Oakland. “Acts of Living,” on the other hand, is as much there as could possibly be there. Nature abhors a vacuum, and corporeality responds.
“Rose Bowl Loop,” Paige Jiyoung Moon’s gorgeously intense, tightly focused small painting, could be the show’s emblem. Slightly larger than a commercial PC screen, and evidently painted with very small brushes, it shows seven individuals, most of them masked and all of them alone, out for a walk or jog on a Pasadena hiking path with distant views of the San Gabriel Mountains.
Moon lines up the people in profile in a narrow band across the bottom of the panel, where they pass by like figures on an ancient Roman sarcophagus. An ordinary chain-link fence separates them from the worldly view — a tree-studded golf course, glimpses of far-off residential neighborhoods and deep green hills that unfurl to a cloud-dotted blue sky beyond them. The fence is at once protective and confining.
Moon takes a slightly elevated point of view, putting your eye at the implied level of the Earth’s curvature, which yields its own subtle sense of detachment from the scene. Yet the acute precision of her rendering pulls you in close to scrutinize the picture, creating contradictory intimacy. What is present is a heightened experience of an exquisitely considered painting, bursting with chromatic power.
The show supports a push-pull of human interaction in a very wide variety of ways. Victor Estrada’s loose, abstract paintings are vaguely scatological, the excretions of oil paint creating playful, self-contained landscapes of organic imagination confined within the four edges of a canvas. Dominique Moody physically moved into one of her assemblage sculptures — an inventively designed trailer, beautifully crafted. The two-room nomadic dwelling (plus a back porch) on wheels is parked on the street outside the museum. Indoors, cozy domestic interiors in a large, multipanel painting by Tidawhitney Lek jump to a scene of Cambodian war zone violence, the sharp disjunction offered as routine, seamless experience.
Not everything in the show dates from the last few years. Sleek, graphically stylized paintings of family, friends and lovers from the 1980s by Joey Terrill pointedly reflect on desire and seclusion when a prior health crisis ran wild, as AIDS began a rampage fueled by a noxious mix of indifference and hate. During the first six months of the COVID-19 pandemic, 8 million Americans slipped into poverty, with Black, Latino and Indigenous people taking the brunt of it. Those numbers contributed to driving social justice initiatives, which built on the 2017 #MeToo movement against sexual violence and exploded into public view with the brutal police murder of George Floyd. Those events exposed usually unseen institutional complicity.
Inside a former bank office at the Hammer, buried institutional processes surface in the Los Angeles Contemporary Archive, a decade-old nonprofit in Chinatown that gathers artists’ ephemera — anything from sale contracts to tax forms, music lists to classroom syllabuses, materials receipts to rental agreements, catalogs to zines. They’re installed in pristine white storage boxes lining metal shelving. The LACA collective’s installation, titled “Break Room,” is a double-entendre — a place to kick back from daily work routines, plus a disruption of normal museum practice to focus on process over product.
“Acts of Living” pays attention to diversity of race and gender, as well as to the city’s global place now that it’s an international dynamo for art. Well over half the artists hail from California (five relocated to L.A. from abroad). They range in age from 26 to 83. Sculptor Luis Bermudez died in 2021 at age 68; his Mesoamerican ceramic forms wrap pristine white offering bowls in a firm embrace, mixing traditional decorative motifs in a manner that recalls the superb precedent of Adrian Saxe.
Five artists are over age 70, unusual for typically youth-oriented biennials. The vaporous color in Nancy Evans’ luxurious paintings seems to be coalescing into fragile evocations of nature (Arthur Dove gets an oblique nod). In a video projection, Pippa Garner models T-shirts with snappy slogans, several alluding to the artist’s trans identity (a flaming pinup straddling a macho motorcycle is captioned “Infernal Combustion”).
Jessie Homer French contemplates mortality in placid cemetery landscapes that burrow into underground caskets, while ceramic reliefs and vessels by Akinsanya Kambon (Mark Teemer), a former Marine and Black Panther, reconfigure severed legacies from West African folklore in actively contemporary terms. Assemblages by Teresa Tolliver build fantastic chimeras from trophy-like lion sculptures cobbled together from scavenged elements — “Wild Things,” she calls them.
An untitled wall relief by Chiffon Thomas is a body-cast of his head and shoulders, held aloft by implied “wings” made from cast-off architectural posts. Garden gazing balls by Sula Bermúdez-Silverman are grasped by the upright claws of an imperial eagle, the spheres filled with homey substances like hair gel and studded with effete fragments of colonial treasure — bits of coral or silver sugar tongs.
A number of painters merge oils and acrylics with traditions loosely related to textiles, industrial or homespun. Teresa Baker paints coded landscapes on artificial turf; Melissa Cody fuses Diné (Navajo) weaving patterns with hard-edge geometric abstraction; silk is physically and visually unraveled and reconfigured by Erica Mahinay; animal skins are patched together in organic fields by Esteban Ramón Pérez. Such mergers have been a staple of Modern art at least since Natalia Goncharova and the Russian avant-garde more than a century ago, but here their forms assume surprising breadth.
The most eccentric painting comes from Dan Herschlein, whose 3-D relief surfaces loosely recall the work of Llyn Foulkes. At a frontally constructed window, a headless “peeping Tom” in the bushes directs your view through physical layers of space inside a house, passing through two empty interior rooms and out a rear window — or is that blurred window a painting too, mirroring at a distance the one you are looking into?
Fabricating imitation turquoise tiles, Ishi Glinsky, a member of Arizona’s Tohono O’odham Nation, goes for serious playfulness. Glinsky constructed a monumental, eyeball-grabbing sculpture of the taunting Ghostface mask from the “Scream” movie franchise, draped in a black mantle studded with ceremonial bells. His distinctive brand of “Indigenized pop culture” is endowed with a slasher vibe, heightened by an easy-to-miss text in tiny letters winding around the sculpture’s base: “Your ancestors support your outrage and revolt.”
The curators have installed the show in five loosely thematic groupings — reconfigured human bodies, for example, or landscape as psychological terrain. But the hugely diverse works hang together with surprising ease, without narration, not unlike Jibz Cameron’s congenial colored pencil drawing of a grinning feminine figure crafted from a bright pink penis. One space is given over to Mas Exitos, led by Gary “Ganas” Garay, a Latin American multimedia platform with turntables, lights and a disco ball, quietly awaiting an intercontinental dance party. “American Bandstand” never looked like this, but it’s way past time that it did.