This past spring I worked on a long article (much longer than what I'd normally post here) about the last Hammer Invitational. In the end, X-TRA magazine chose not to publish the piece. I thought the article brought up some issues that weren't covered in other reviews of the show, and in light of this, I thought it would be beneficial for historical record to post it on line, in multiple parts. The first segment below reviews some of the historical context; subsequent posts will cover some of the artists in the exhibition, with a final post to tie together some of my threads. I felt the editorial process pulled the writing in different directions, so I'm posting an earlier version that is a little less polished, but closer to my original intent. Still, I would like to thank the editors at X-TRA for their suggestions, questions, and comments, which helped me to better articulate my thoughts. I'd also like to thank the staff at the Hammer and the artists in the show for their contributions to the process.
Cumbersome comets of the art world, biennials swoop in every few years to dazzle us with their show. More recent iterations of the biennial have become the antithesis of civic pride, the most acute representation of this being perhaps Peter Friedl’s “readymade” for Documenta 12, The Zoo Story (2007). His piece was a taxidermied giraffe from the zoo in Palestine's West Bank, killed by an Israeli bombing raid. Crudely sutured and forlorn, Friedl transforms what is normally a sign of civic pride—the city zoo's contents—into a representation of pathos.Installation Shot of Lisa Anne Auerbach's Sweaters
In Los Angeles, the pride/pathos dichotomy becomes sunshine and noir, and exhibitions that showcase the city’s artistic production are often viewed through the lens of filmic re-presentation. Nine Lives: Visionary Artists from L.A. is the first of five Hammer exhibitions to acknowledge its biennial heritage, retroactively calling its predecessors “Hammer Invitationals.” This recognition of history can be both a source of nostalgia and a burden to the curatorial enterprise. The first invitational, Snapshot: New Art from Los Angeles (2001), showcased 25 mostly underrepresented and early career artists and also functioned as a survey of the four curators’ individual enthusiasms. International Paper (2003) shifted the focus from region to medium, inserting a handful of Los Angeles-based artists into a global dialogue with other artists working on or with paper. Thing (2005) exemplified the art-market gravy days, with artists plucked directly from grad studios, artworks that could be crated and shipped to art fairs, and nary a whiff of installation art. Eden’s Edge: Fifteen L.A. Artists (2007) was the most structured and thematically cohesive, with artists arranged in a roughly chronological order, from the suggestively erotic sculptures of Ken Price, to the queer sensibilities of Lari Pittman, to the polymorphous perversity of Monica Majoli, to the prurient sensibilities of Jason Rhoades.
For curator Ali Subotnick’s turn at the helm, her selections for Nine Lives propose not a cross-sectional survey of a particular medium or sensibility, but a cluster of “idiosyncratic” artists who make work in Los Angeles*. By labeling the artists as individuated and unique—like snowflakes—Subotnick absolves herself from having to stake out a curatorial premise. One of the few commonalities shared by the artists (besides their white race) is something that resembles nostalgia for another time or place, either real or imagined. In past surveys of Los Angeles art, from MOCA’s Helter Skelter (1992) to the Hammer’s own Eden’s Edge, the view of the City is tinged with noir. For Nine Lives, the presentation is more a realization of sunshine lost.
*Ali Subotnick, Nine Lives: Visionary Artists from L.A. (Los Angeles: The Hammer Museum, 2009), p. 10. The modifier “idiosyncratic” was also used in the press release and by Ann Philbin in the catalog’s foreword.
Tomorrow: Llyn Foulkes
Part Three: Kaari Upson
Part Four: Jeffrey Vallance
Part Five: Charlie White
Part Six: Conclusion