On a plaque at the Watts Towers Art Center, adjacent to the iconic spires built by Simon Rodia, is a quote by the institution’s late co-founder, the renowned artist Noah Purifoy: “Creativity can be an act of living, a way of life, and a formula for doing the right thing.” The phrase, as well as Purifoy himself, has inspired Acts of Living, the sixth iteration of the Hammer Museum’s contemporary art biennial, Made in L.A. — and the first since the UCLA building was expanded this year thanks to a capital campaign that counted Marcy Carsey and Darren Star among its top contributors.
Since its inaugural edition in 2012, the show has become a more and more prestigious launching pad for L.A.–based talent. This year’s exhibition comprises 39 artists, selected by curators Diana Nawi and Pablo José Ramírez after a whirlwind, 18-month spree of studio visits. Though they didn’t set out to highlight any particular themes, a few emerged organically. One is the prevalence of assemblage, which combines disparate objects — say, wood, seeds, bones and car parts in a piece by artist Maria Maea — into a coherent work.
Unusual materials, including a living plant in one case, called for unusual measures to keep the space pest-free, such as fumigation. But the curators were keen to meet the requirements. “The Hammer is an artist’s museum, with the resources to do things by the book,” says Nawi, “which allows it to be responsive to contemporary practices that … challenge traditional materials.”
Assemblage, Nawi notes, has “roots in the Black diaspora, in West Africa, the Caribbean, the [American] South,” as well as in L.A., where 20th century Black artists like Purifoy and John Outterbridge, who died in 2021, were among its most admired practitioners. The biennial, opening Oct. 1, spotlights the oeuvre of some of their spiritual heirs, such as Tessa Tolliver and Dominique Moody, whose tiny mobile home, a live-in work of art titled The Nomad, is included in the exhibition.
Another of the emergent themes — mirroring a larger trend in the art world — is an emphasis on the handmade, including textiles, pottery and other crafts, as ways of channeling artists’ cultures and experience. “People want tactility,” Nawi says. “People want shared experience,” especially after the digital sequestering of the pandemic.
The predominance of Black and brown — and particularly Chicano and Latino — artists in the show reflects not just the city’s demographics but the art market at large: “There’s just more critical and commercial reception for the practices that are coming out of that space,” says Nawi. Ramírez notes that the biennial’s mission is “about expansion of the canon, because [some of these artists] have been working for many, many years. So it’s almost like catching up.”
This story first appeared in the Sept. 27 issue of The Music news magazine. Click here to subscribe.