Museum  November 12, 2020  Jordan Riefe

"Made in L.A." Unites Angelenos

Courtesy of the artist

Brandon Landers, CJ, 2020. Oil on canvas.

For six months the 2020 iteration of Made in L.A. has been on ice. It is art without an audience, hanging in an existential funk. This year’s show won’t open until the city lifts its ban on indoor gatherings, or March 2021, whichever comes first. Split between the usual host, the Hammer Museum, the westside’s premier modern art venue, and the Huntington Art Museum in San Marino, focussing on more traditional artwork, the biennial show highlights thirty emerging artists from the L.A. scene.

The two shows mirror each other but aren't twins, presenting the same artists but different works. Guest curators are LA-based Lauren Mackler and Paris-based Myriam Ben Salah, both of whom work independently, as well as Hammer assistant curator Ikechukwu Onyewuenyi. Together they chose artists from roughly 300 studio visits conducted over eight months.

Joshua White

Christina Forrer's Intervention (2020, cotton, wool, linen, silk, and watercolor) installed at Made in L.A. 2020, the Huntington Art Museum and Botanical Gardens, San Marino.

Included are Aria Dean, Harmony Holiday, Larry Johnson, Kahlil Joseph, Brandon D. Landers, Monica Majoli, and Reynaldo Rivera, to name a few. Rather than exhibit a survey of the city’s talent as it has in the past, Made in L.A. 2020 aims to be a group show organized around three concepts: entertainment, horror, and the fourth wall. 

“We built this exhibition with the architecture that we pulled out of the conversations we had in the artists' studio,” says Meckler of the disparate principles that function as a loose organizing construct. But whatever their shortcomings as architects, they make up for in taste with a show that is always compelling.

Buck Ellison’s videos greet visitors in the Hammer lobby, anodyne ‘advertisements’ done in the generic esthetic employed by a bank or pharmaceutical company depicting archetypes of white privilege and white masculinity. 

“Entertainment was interesting to us not only because it’s such a perennial subject in Los Angeles in art, culture and in politics, but also because it's a model of communication for the distribution of ideas. We felt that through entertainment there were tactics that communicate complicated ideas, conceptual ideas,” offers Meckler.

Courtesy of the artist

Reynaldo Rivera (b. Mexicali, 1964), Gaby and Melissa, La Plaza, 1993. Digital print from negative.

Such ideas are found in Reynaldo Rivera’s black-and-white photos of trans women and drag performers backstage in L.A.’s club scene during the 1980s and ‘90s. They neatly dovetail with Monica Majoli’s watercolor depictions of centerfolds from 1970s gay magazines, Blue Boy, (referencing the pride of the Huntington Museum, William Gainsborough’s Blue Boy).

Collection UCLA Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts, Hammer Museum

Monica Majoli (American, b.1963), Blueboy (Roger), 2018. Watercolor woodcut transfer on paper.

Straddling two of the show’s organizing principles is Sabrina Tarasoff's Beyond Baroque: A Haunted House. As its title suggests, it is a spook house based on Beyond Baroque, a legendary meeting place for artists and poets begun in the early 1960s in Venice. The work here is inspired by the period spanning 1976 to 1986, including names like Dennis Cooper, Bob Flanagan and Sheree Rose, Amy Gerstler, and David Trinidad. Inside, viewers find an oversized bloody tooth suspended above an apple core, a glory hole with a penis with a nail driven through it, and a close-up video of someone’s bloodied derriere being whipped.

Courtesy of the artist, Balice Hertling, Paris, and The Sunday Painter, London

Buck Ellison (American, b. 1987), Dick and Betsy, The Ritz-Carlton, Dallas, Texas, 1984, 2019. Archival pigment print.

“Horror demands things of us that we are not always willing to acknowledge. But when we acknowledge the comingling of horror, esthetics, pleasure, how might that upend expectations?” asks Onyewuenyi. He cites Harmony Holiday’s archival short film, God’s Suicide, which focuses on author James Baldwin’s multiple attempts at his own life. “This is a vulnerable figure that moved with a degree of uncertainty of how his life would end up.”

Nascent horror lurks in Buck Ellison’s portrait of the Prince children, depicting a 6-year-old Erik Prince, who grew up to found military contractor Blackwater, and his sister, who grew up to become Betsy DeVos.

In theater and film, to break the fourth wall is to directly address the audience. In art, it can mean transcending the boundaries of a gallery, or it can occur by reminding the viewer a gallery surrounds them. “We wanted to deconstruct the fiction of the exhibition by having the viewer aware of their position in the apparatus,” offers Ben Salah. “Some of the walls that we built are actually unfinished or uncovered, a literal reference to being the fourth wall.”

Larry Johnson breaks the fourth wall by posting billboards in MacArthur Park, featuring the word “Notary” with an arrow, or an owl tweeting “Who, who, who, can ever get enough of Bristol Palin?”

Joshua White, Courtesy of the artist, David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, and 303 Gallery, New York

Larry Johnson (American, b. 1959), Bristol, 2020. Billboard at Hoover St. and W. Seventh St., Los Angeles 90005 (facing east).

“They're advertisements in disguise, but they aren’t. They are art pieces from our exhibition permeating the space outside the museum,” says Ben Salah. “That leans back also to our idea around distributing ideas and complex images that aren’t normally in the realm of entertainment, putting them in the space of entertainment.”

Breaking all walls, Justen LeRoy’s podcast, SON, centered on community hubs in South Central, is available at the Hammer website. And Kahlil Joseph’s BLK NEWS, a broadcast series representing “conceptual journalism,” has posted newsstands in black-owned businesses across the city. 

Minutes from the Huntington, Pasadena was the city’s museum center as well as the seat of wealth and influence in Los Angeles dating to the nineteenth century. As L.A. grew, new money populated the area between downtown and the coast, creating a counterbalance pushing west and eventually demoting Pasadena to the status of wealthy suburb. By splitting the show between two venues, Made in L.A. 2020 deftly bridges the gap, making it convenient to Angelenos everywhere.

“Set in two institutions, bracketing the city in its sprawl, we installed the show in a way that you can have a full experience,” explains Mackler who, like the others, waits for the order to be lifted so people can finally see the artwork. “The full experience is to see both exhibitions as they're truly complimentary.”

About the Author

Jordan Riefe

Jordan Riefe has been covering the film business since the late 90s for outlets like Reuters,, and The Wrap. He wrote a movie that was produced in China in 2007. Riefe currently serves as West Coast theatre critic for The Hollywood Reporter, while also covering art and culture for The Guardian, Cultured Magazine, LA Weekly and KCET Artbound.

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