Originally published in Kaleidoscope 21: Decoding Curating
Jesi Khadivi: You are the curator of the upcoming edition of “Made in L.A.,” a biennial exhibition hosted by Los Angeles' Hammer Museum. I’d like to begin by discussing the exhibition’s curatorial framework. In your review of the 2012 edition for Artforum you questioned whether such a biennial was even necessary in a city like Los Angeles. How did this inform your approach to curating “Made in L.A. 2014”? Do you think the biennial is necessary now, having gone through the process yourself?
Michael Ned Holte: When Annie Philbin invited me to curate “Made in L.A. 2014,” the review hadn’t even been published yet. The first thing I told her was that she should read it before fully extending the invitation. Critically addressing the questions that the review raised was always underlying my research and preparation for the show. The show is important—in part because Los Angeles is truly an extraordinary city. Whether it’s necessary is for someone else to decide. Part of what the show does is register where things are at in a given moment in the city of Los Angeles. There is a constant influx of creative people and the primary constituency of what we describe as an art world or community here changes so rapidly. K-Chung Radio is an example of something that didn’t exist—or wasn’t recognizable—at the time of the last “Made in L.A.” Gabriel Kuri, an established artist who is, by all accounts, a very international artist, is a recent arrival in Los Angeles. He didn’t come to go to school, but because the city is conducive in many other ways to being an artist at his point in his career.
JK: This edition of “Made in L.A.” not only includes emerging artists and overlooked artistic positions, but also a radio station, the above mentioned K-Chung, and two exhibition spaces, Public Fiction and Los Angeles Museum of Art. Can you talk about what influenced these choices and how each will be presented in the gallery spaces at the Hammer?
MNH: Public Fiction, Los Angeles Museum of Art, and K-Chung Radio were important really early on in thinking about the show, in part because we were interested in thinking about the way that artists see the city. Lauren Mackler, who started Public Fiction and arrived in Los Angeles in 2011, is an artist but working in the context of an institution or what I’ve been calling a “micro-institution.” Alice Konitz, who has been in Los Angeles since the late ’90s and has an important presence here as an individual artist, only recently opened the Los Angeles Museum of Art and has been working in the context of a micro-institution exhibiting the work of other artists, particularly her peers.It was important for my co-curator Connie Butler and me to think about the ways that artists were looking at the city and the kinds of communities that were being formed outside of the larger institutional framework—meaning outside of museums and schools— things that were happening on their own accord because of the ambitions of an individual, but also of these small communities and networks of people. We were interested in bringing those smaller things into the context of something much larger like the Hammer Museum, which is larger in relative scale. It’s not the largest institution in the world, but it’s larger than the Los Angeles Museum of Art, which is about nine by twelve feet. There is a different kind of audience for a show like “Made in LA” than there is for a show at Public Fiction in Highland Park or the Los Angeles Museum of Art in Eagle Rock. We were interested in what it meant to transfer those smaller platforms into this larger platform and introduce it to a much larger audience than they might have had prior to “Made in LA.”
JK: Projects like “Pacific Standard Time” (2011-2012) oscillated between reclaiming lesser-known local histories and making a mark for Los Angeles as an international hub for contemporary art. Further afield, exhibitions such as “Based in Berlin” (2010) drew furor from local critics who believed the exhibition exported the Berlin scene while obscuring local needs, namely more robust funding for the city’s existing non-profits, as well as new venues to show work made by emerging and mid-career artists in the city. I don’t want to write the narrative of one exhibition onto another, but I’m curious as to the resonance of this example. How does “Made in L.A.” navigate the potential tension between responding to a broader civic agenda and to the needs of artists?
MNH: I feel like these kinds of shows mean different things to different people. A show like “Made in L.A.” fulfills a certain function for the museum—perhaps it also fulfills a certain civic function, but it remains, I think, an important platform for the artists in the show. No one that we invited to be in the show said no. So that’s telling, right? And I didn’t say no to being one of the curators, even though I had similar questions.We were also interested in the fact that L.A. is a city where a lot of artists work, but don’t exhibit their work. Another function of the show would be to show the work that is being made here, but otherwise not being shown here. And for a lot of these artists it’s their first show in a Los Angeles. This includes not only recent art school graduates, but artists like Kim Fisher, who has been living in Los Angeles for ten years, but has never had her work shown in a local museum. An artist like Tala Madani, for example, has exhibited at Moderna Museet and been on the cover of Frieze, but has never exhibited in Los Angeles. We felt there was something very important about showing the work that was being made here and “Made in L.A.” was an important opportunity to do that. I think the show certainly does fulfill certain functions in terms of the Hammer and how the Hammer has situated itself in relation to local institutions. It’s a small institution when compared to the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) or the Getty or the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. But it’s done an amazing job at exhibiting emerging artists in L.A. in the past decade. It has occupied a really important position for younger artists in the city.
JK: An impressive range of curators have made their mark in Los Angeles. Who do you feel has played an instrumental role in developing the arts ecosystem in the city—both historically and today? Also, how do you feel that L.A. will be affected by recent shifts in key curatorial positions, such as the recent arrival of Philippe Vergne and the announcement of Helen Molesworth as MOCA’s chief curator?MNH: There is indeed serious curatorial talent in Los Angeles, and it's only getting better with the recent arrival of Philippe Vergne and Helen Molesworth at MOCA—not to mention the return of Connie Butler as the Hammer's new chief curator. There have been many others in recent years: Ali Subotnick, Anne Ellegood, Franklin Sirmans and Bennett Simpson are all contributing to the Los Angeles art community as well as the field at large. As you suggest, there is a long history of important curators here—perhaps too long to summarize. But a good starting point would be the significant work Walter Hopps, who was a Los Angeles native, and organized the first-ever retrospectives of Marcel Duchamp, Kurt Schwitters and Joseph Cornell, among other significant exhibitions, at the Pasadena Art Museum. In the years after I arrived in Los Angeles, the shows that most impacted me and informed my understanding of contemporary exhibition-making were at MOCA. I'm thinking of the defining historical surveys there: Paul Schimmel's "Out of Actions," Ann Goldstein's "A Minimal Future?" and Connie Butler's "WACK!: Art and the Feminist Revolution" were all incredibly important shows—and not just for me. JK: Do you think that it’s possible to curate a scene? Are there broader local questions that the exhibition surveys?
MNH: Connie Butler has been using the term “core sample” a lot and I think that’s a good way to look at it. We did hundreds of studio visits and went to lots of exhibitions and had really extensive lists of artists, but there is a sense that it’s kind of bottomless in a way; there is no way that we could have a complete awareness of what was going on. Overall, there were a number of things that we tried to attend to when curating the exhibition. One had to do with micro-institutions, one had to do with artists that were coming out of school, as well as an awareness of certain artists who had been here for a long time and working mostly undercover, people like Michael and Magdalena Suarez Frimkess, who had been making ceramics in their studio in Venice, just off Abbot Kinney, for four decades or more and really aren’t participating in any of these scenes, except that they are artists who are deeply admired and collected by a number of artists that we do think of as important younger-generation artists in L.A. In some ways the Frimkesses have been working in some kind of isolated time capsule, completely oblivious to people like Lauren Mackler in Highland Park or James Kidd’s studio. At the same time, their work is being looked at and taken seriously by a new generation of artists and is entering the discourse again. We’ve also included a show within the show, curated by David France, who is the curator of the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archive at the University of Southern California libraries. The exhibition is called “Tony Green Amid Voluptuous Calm.” We asked David to present Tony’s work in a historical context. This approach suggests that the notion of community in Los Angeles is not a new one; it’s actually deeply historical. You can point back to the scene around Wallace Berman in Topanga for a historical precedent. Even in the late 1950s and early 1960s in Los Angeles, there was not one monolithic scene, but a complex network of smaller scenes going on, so an exhibition like “Made in L.A.” made in 1960 would have had to account for the variety of things going on. We also wanted to point to the fleeting or tenuous nature of some of these mergers, an important historical moment that wasn’t really that long ago. How much can change in a quarter-century in a city and its understanding of itself and the kind of work being done there? There’s nothing monolithic about a scene. It’s contingent. I use the metaphor of the microclimate in my essay, but I also talk a lot about Venn diagrams and see the city as a network of gently overlapping, or intensely overlapping, Venn diagrams. This is a more realistic model.