Returning Home: On “Made in L.A. 2023”

WE DROVE THREE HOURS from Los Angeles to the remote desert at the edge of California and made our way through the maze of gates and checkpoints to our classroom in a state prison. The students were going to present their final projects for our arts facilitator training. One by one, sometimes in pairs, they came to the front of the room. The last student to present was a young African American man with a studious attitude and a shy demeanor. He stood up, took a breath, and we could practically see him push his nerves aside. He explained that he was going to talk about the Watts Towers, created by an Italian immigrant named Simon Rodia who worked as a tile setter by day and created this handmade monument in his free time over three decades, from the 1920s to the 1950s. The student shared how this iconic work consisted of multiple spiraling metal towers covered in shards of colorful pottery, beauty from the broken. His face lit up as he spoke.

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UCLA’s Hammer Museum launched Made in L.A. in 2012 at the height of the art world’s biennial mania—or fatigue, depending on your perspective. But this would be different: this was our biennial. It was always going to be exciting because it was a local triumph. Each iteration in the years since has met expectations and more, encompassing a wide range of artists, approaches, and perspectives from across the region. In a refreshing twist, curators tended to unearth and introduce many artists who had largely escaped or been passed over by the fickle and fleeting glare of the art world’s attention. This year, the sixth iteration was as exciting, surprising, and lively as its predecessors and, like each one, completely new.

Made in L.A. 2023: Acts of Living is curated by Diana Nawi and Pablo José Ramírez. Textured, disparate, incisive, warm, Made in L.A. 2023 feels more like a portrait of the city than a snapshot of its art, but maybe these were always one and the same—artists dreaming and shouting and crafting this transmuting, unfurling city into being, even as it contracts and pulses with traffic and glitter and people from across the globe.

The subtitle Acts of Living points to this mystic multidirectionality, the way artists create and mirror facets of our lives. It is a nod to a quote by the late artist Noah Purifoy inscribed on a plaque at Watts Towers: “One does not have to be a visual artist to utilize creative potential. Creativity can be an act of living, a way of life, and a formula for doing the right thing.” Both the reference to Rodia’s seminal monument to persistence, creativity, and the handmade, and Purifoy’s own life and work—a Black man born and raised in the South in the 1920s and ’30s who moved to Los Angeles in the ’50s and created assemblage sculptures, many crafted from physical and emotional wreckage in the wake of the Watts riots—speak to the the narrative and psychic undercurrents of the work on view. The connection to the L.A. monument is foundational and metaphoric: the curators drove to Watts to spend time there before embarking on their visits with artists. Ramírez begins his essay for the beautiful exhibition catalog with a rumination on the Watts Towers. “The way I think of creation in Rodia’s sense,” Ramírez writes, “is not the outcome of a semiotic cultural gestalt—an art object, a novel, a musical composition—but an ‘act of living’ that exceeds the object. It is contained by it but it is more than it. A genuine alchemical operation.”

After their initial pilgrimage, Nawi and Ramírez embarked on a whirlwind tour across the city and its vast sprawl. Like Made in L.A. curators before them, they tout their hundreds of studio visits from the beach to the Valley, from Downtown to the town’s edges, like a badge of honor. They culled their visits down to 39 artists working in painting (abstract, realistic, and everything in between), sculpture (both smooth and dribbly), installation, assemblage, performance, design, and all manner of craft, from ceramics to weaving. The only contemporary approach largely absent is the digital. In fact, this might be the most handmade Made in L.A. yet. I am not convinced this reflects artists rejecting the digital so much as turning towards hands and mess, earth and paint, in the confusing aftermath of pandemic-driven Zoom meetings and the woozy NFT frenzy. (That said, don’t miss the rich archive of documentary shorts about each artist that the Hammer has created and made available online.) As Nawi writes in her essay for the catalog,

Pablo and I put together an exhibition that—while it includes conceptual, archival, and collective practices that relay traces of community and make tangible the narratives of the city and its broader transnational influences—is closely tied to the handmade and to labor, to a kind of learning through doing, knowing through making.

An artist who poetically and literally embodies this idea is Jackie Amézquita, who sourced earth from 42 neighborhoods across the city and painstakingly created clay that she baked in slabs and etched with images of city life: kids playing in a park, a vendor selling fruit. The monumental grid, rich with earth and dust, line and story, celebrates the lives and experiences of approximately one million Angelenos who, like Amézquita, left the earth of their home countries behind to come to this metropolis in the Golden State. The work honors and enacts the coming together of distinct cultures and lives and spaces. Los Angeles is less a singular place than a set of continuous overlapping interconnections, resisting and abiding.

A large painting by Tidawhitney Lek embraces these multitudes—time zones, languages, the entire rainbow—in beautiful, translucent hues. Two women stand as if in dialogue, or perhaps in shifting scenes or alternate spaces. One, beneath shaggy deep-green palm fronds, lifts her eyes toward a delicate monarch butterfly flitting through a pink and tangerine sky that only Los Angeles’s sun and smog could yield. Another woman, head thrown forward at a stark angle, holds her face, long fingers covering her eyes, mouth in a toothy grimace, suggesting a fresh wound or a recent tragedy. Around her, red roses bloom behind a white iron gate, and large water bottles wait to be filled or recycled. The feet of others peek under a purple flowered garment above, and to the side, bare feet tuck beneath a kneeling figure.

The perpetual intertwining in Lek’s work—of lives and narratives, nature and built spaces, morning and mourning and night—coalesce in a deeply familiar sense of awe, while the closeness and specificity of singular lives are the focus of the world conjured in the paintings of Joey Terrill. I smile as I am returned to my first encounter with his work, several years back, in his basement loft next-door to mine. I was pleased to be invited for tea and to have the chance to see Terrill’s work in situ, stacked and leaning and layered over and among colorful couches and a tidy kitchen in the glow of scattered lamps. Each image was like a fragment of memory rendered whole. I had imagined that his generous and humble storytelling imbued the work with story, but no, that sense remains here, in bright light on white walls. His subjects are mostly men he met in his daily life as an Angeleno, a gay man, a Chicano, and his style of portraiture renders them ever-present: cruising, eating, lounging, dreaming, crying, seeking, remembering, being. Memory stands still, a picture held close in our hearts. In a mesmerizing performance-meets-installation by Roksana Pirouzmand, it is in constant motion. Hovering between two windows, with views on either side, the artist stands between gauzy white curtains, letting fly a stack of photographs and letters or notes, holding and releasing them to flutter in the breeze of a hidden fan like dizzy moths on the wind—memory as a filmstrip, loss and love and reunion and demise trapped and dissipating in the objective ribbon of time.

In their clean lines and intricate detail, Paige Jiyoung Moon’s exquisite jewel-like paintings trace the predominantly domestic spaces where we live out our most intimate moments in time, resting, cooking, dreaming, crying. Three tiny stuffed toys in a crib, a rolled-up yoga mat, the puzzle-piece floor, and baskets neatly stacked on shelves seem to glow around a swaddled baby in the arms of a figure reclining on a bed loosely strewn with toys and pillows. The warmth and intimacy suggest both individuality and connection, finding ourselves in the moments of another’s life. With cool-eyed clarity, Jessie Homer French depicts the everyday surreal so specific to life in Los Angeles. Coyotes wander in the foreground while Downtown hovers in the not-too-far distance. I had a beloved uncle who carefully selected what to photograph, snapping just 10 or 12 pictures on a multiday visit. Never mind the digital capability to capture everything; he was selective. Likewise, French’s paintings endearingly seem to contain just what is needed and not an ounce more, an economy of imagination and care indicating the dreamscape hovering just at the edge of the everyday.

Do not leave without stopping by the home on wheels parked on the street outside the museum, where you will be fortunate if you come upon the artist Dominique Moody in her singular domicile-vehicle-installation-performance, N.O.M.A.D. Moody lives and works in this space built, together with craftspeople, from both found and ethically sourced materials. Traveling, convening, teaching, learning, gathering: Moody creates and shares art wherever she goes, often making pieces in community with artists in each place she lands. Her work, Lucia Olubunmi R. Momoh writes in the catalog, “challenge[s] the commodification of art, reflecting Moody’s belief that ‘out of necessity comes art, and out of art becomes all possibilities.’”

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“When I saw this image in the textbook,” the student in prison blues exclaimed, eyes full of wonder, “I was like, Wow! I know those towers! I passed them every day on my way to and from school. But I didn’t know they were famous.” He paused, gazing at us, his enthusiasm infectious. “Whenever I see those towers,” he said wistfully, “I know I’m home.”

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Annie Buckley is an artist, writer, and educator, with an emphasis on art and social justice. She is a contributing editor to the Los Angeles Review of Books.

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Featured Image: Tidawhitney Lek. Refuge, 2023. Made in L.A. 2023: Acts of Living. Courtesy of the artist and Sow & Tailor, Los Angeles. Accessed October 27, 2023. 

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