City Among Nations: Los Angeles at the Venice Biennale
What’s notable about “We Must Risk Delight” is precisely that none of the artists included are international luminaries, of which Los Angeles undoubtedly has its share. Rather, the exhibition presents the city’s immeasurably talented working-artists, ranging in age from 30-70 and representing a broad range of ethnicities, as well as a slight majority of female artists. “Our participation in art conversations on an international level can not be reserved only for superstar names: not if our interests as a community are to keep growing and keep relevant,” curator Elizabeta Betinski explains. “Too few of us get the kind of opportunity we just experienced at the Venice Biennale and I truly hope to see that change for Los Angeles artists within my lifetime. ‘We Must Risk Delight’ was created in an effort to affect that change.” The exhibition has been a labor of love for the curator and the artists, who continue to seek financial support for their endeavor. “Democratization is, to me, an issue that needs to be addressed,” says Betinski. “We can either complain about — and thus contend with — the ‘art market’ and its inherent elitism, or we can give effort to expanding the playing field and creating opportunities for more than just a select few.” She continues, “L.A. has one of the most vibrant and exciting contemporary art scenes in the world — yet, our perspective on being a part of a larger world is still very myopic and out-of-sync with the amount of creative talent and diversity L.A. has to offer.” Such diversity, while not the cause of the show’s success, is important because it reflects the progressive values of a city that is increasingly hailed as a crucible for working artists, as well as being notable for its multicultural and gender-balanced community and presence of multiple generations of artists all supporting one another.
Thematically, the exhibition’s focus is transcendence of real-world limitations, and the art on view speaks to the possibilities of fantasy and imagination to lift us above our daily challenges. That utopian spirit is also typical of Los Angeles, a city that is in many ways an impossibility, wrested from the desert that perpetually threatens to reclaim it. The artworks on view take a variety of forms, from Tanya Batura’s surreal ceramics suggesting organic growths made of eyes, to Robbie Conal‘s nostalgic portraits of 1960s pop icons Bob Marley, John Lennon, and Jimi Hendrix. Kenturah Davis’ contribution, four large-scale drawings depicting African-American subjects whose images are comprised of written text describing their aspirations, speaks to both the challenges and the ambitions of L.A.’s creative class.
Painting is everywhere, most of it boldly colorful. Amir H. Fallah exhibits two paintings from a recent series in which he reconstructed the lives of a married couple based on diaries and objects procured from an estate sale in East Los Angeles. Alexandra Grant and Sherin Gurguis, two artists currently featured in the COLA award exhibition at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, are represented with exuberant works on paper that dazzle against the brick walls of the magazzini space. Grant shows two works from her “Century of the Self”series, proclaiming “I was born to love not to hate,” and Gurguis contributes intricately patterned cut-paper works that riff on traditional Islamic screen work. Gurguis also contributes a large, ornamental cut-out sculpture alongside sculptural works by Ben Jackel, Margaret Griffith, Rebecca Niederlander, and Jamison Carter. Carole Silverstein, Mark Licari, and Shizu Saldamando also dazzle with color, though on a smaller scale. These three artists each embody a distinct Los Angeles vernacular in their very different bodies of work: Silverstein working with pattern and landscape, Saldamando in figuration to describe local archetypes, and Licari bringing the psychedelic perspective.
Despite L.A.’s international stature as a film capital, the moving image is less prominent in the show, although animations by Stas Orlovski and Carolyn Castaño, and Natasha Prosenc Stearns’ sculpture and video installation, ensure it is not left out of the discussion. Photography is also less visible, though well-represented by Brandy Eve Allen’s intimate portraits. Alexis Zoto is the only artist to respond directly to Venice as a site, creating an installation in dazzling gold around a large chandelier that evokes the ersatz Baroque aesthetic of Venice’s many palazzos, while incorporating pre-Columbian geometries that speak to the contemporary hybridization of culture across place.
Reflecting that hybrid reality and the broadest possible scope of geographies, the 2015 Biennale encompasses pavilions from 87 countries as well as 42 collateral exhibitions. Still, no other city occupies a footprint comparable to L.A.’s this time around. In addition to “We Must Risk Delight,” L.A. artists figure prominently in Okwui Enwezor’s main exhibition. The Giardini’s Central Pavilion features legendary Angeleno artist and CalArts faculty mainstay, Charles Gaines, with an installation of his recent “Notes on Social Justice” and plexiglas ‘Librettos’ works (the latter also on view at Leimert Park’s Art + Practice until May 30). The Biennale’s live program – one of three key thematic areas or “filters” – also features monthly live performances of Gaines’ master composition based on five “Notes on Social Justice” texts. The first of these featured a male and female vocalist in duet, accompanied by a string quartet. Future performances over the course of the exhibition will layer and multiply texts and compositions from the five source texts. Both the installation and the live performance use canonical documents from the history of social justice movements as their basis, building on a body of work that has incorporated the words of Susan B. Anthony, Stokely Carmichael, and Malcolm X. By appropriating these texts whole and treating them with visual and auditory lyricism, Gaines defuses the oft-leveled criticism of political art as aggressive or alienating, instead drawing viewers in with beauty and warmth while allowing the eloquence and commitment of the original speakers to come through with clarity.
Adjacent to the Gaines installation is a gallery of recent works by L.A.-based Walead Beshty, whose works include a number of “Aggregate” sculptures (2013) constructed from production discards from Guadalajara’s Cerámica Suro, a long-established industrial ceramics producer and exporter. The sculptures, covered in thick, drippy paint, are as vulgar and chaotic as Cerámica Suro’s wares are precise. These works, accompanied by collaged sculptures made from cut-up Guadalajara tabloid newspapers draped over metal poles, respond to the official and unofficial economies of globalization by foregrounding the commoditization of human bodies and folk cultural traditions for casual consumption by Mexico’s elites and their wealthier neighbors to the north.
Additionally, CalArts graduates Matt Lucero and Tuan Andrew Nguyen are included at the Arsenale with their collective, The Propeller Group, whom Angelenos may remember from their humorous video installation commenting on global corporate culture at 2012’s Made in L.A. Biennial at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery. In Venice, they are represented by a block of ballistic gel containing an AK-47 bullet and an M-16 bullet shot at one another, which upon fusing come to represent a merger of American and Soviet military histories in the aftermath of the Cold War — think Afghanistan or Syria for some real-world examples of how this plays out. The AK-47 vs M16 (2015) also includes a slow-motion animation of the bullets passing through the gel, which creates an abstracted forensic map of contemporary global conflict.
Another notable Angeleno at the Biennale is Vanessa Beecroft, an Italian-born artist whose installation “phantom limb stone garden” at the Italian Pavilion made up of figurative sculptures in bronze and shades of stone reminiscent of the range of human skin tones. One of her most ambitious and successful sculptural installations, the work cannot be viewed in its entirety as it is intentionally blockaded by large, rough-sided marble slabs. The fragmented viewpoint of the observer and the truncated female bodies within make reference to Marcel Duchamp’s final work, Étant Donnés (1946-66), a Surrealist-inspired tableau referencing both theater and early cinema, which prefigures Beecroft’s more than twenty years of work responding to the tropes of contemporary high fashion.
Los Angeles’ emergence within the international contemporary art landscape speaks to the city’s position at the forefront of worldwide trends. While the Biennale’s pavilions appear to celebrate nationalism, increasingly one finds within them artists from many countries (Spain and Belgium being notable examples this time). Los Angeles exemplifies a future in which metropolitan areas are in direct dialogue with one another, around the globe, through cultural as well as commercial exchange. Comprised of residents from all parts of the planet, Los Angeles boasts a majority-minority demographic that other European and American cities are destined to share. The city is shaped by its national context, but also shapes it, and acts as a hub for international cultural exchange. L.A. is uniquely positioned to serve as a model for the world’s cities going forward, being already invested in seeking ways to develop more equitable, sustainable, and liveable conditions for its citizens. Given how the city’s contemporary artists reflect and promote those concerns, it’s no surprise that they are so prominently represented at a global exhibition focused on the future.
Top Image: Walead Beshty, 56th International Art Exhibition – la Biennale di Venezia, All the World’s Futures. | Photo: Alessandra Chemollo.