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Hammer biennial lends artists a helping hand

Many art-world biennials feature ambitious new work. This one also helped to fund it.

May 25, 2012|By Jori Finkel, Los Angeles Times

Meg Cranston, who made two expansive murals for the Hammer lobby (one is a parade of Bic lighters in of-the-moment Pantone colors; the other, a super-sized version of her 2006 "California" collage), said she was surprised to learn that the Hammer was covering her paint costs and the fees of hiring two teams of painters. Cranston's last experience participating in a biennial — representing the U.S. in the emerging artists section of the Venice Biennale in 1993 — was different: "As I recall in Venice, there was a moment when they weren't even going to pay for shipping."

Pearl Hsiung also received help with fabrication: The Hammer constructed a wooden armature to support her free-standing mural and paid to produce the vinyl rainbow above it. Of the armature, she said: "I don't have a lot of experience with exhibition-quality construction, and it felt daunting. It was a big relief to me when I found out the museum was going to make it."

Koki Tanaka received another form of support: When he needed to find musicians who play the marimba for his new video, the curators helped locate the talent for him. He then shot the video in the Hammer's Billy Wilder Theater.

Dan Finsel, an artist inspired by Farrah Fawcett to the point of wearing a blond feathered wig at times, said having the chance to participate in "Made in L.A." helped shape his video/sculpture installation, three years in the making, in ways that are hard to gauge. "If my work were being produced for a smaller space or context, who knows what it would look like?"

While the five curators organizing the show made it a rule that they all had to agree on all artists to include them in the biennial, they did pair with particular artists to help oversee their projects. Finsel described curator Ali Subotnick of the Hammer "as supportive as a mother to me, emotionally and in every way."

Dashiell Manley, who made a clamshell-shaped fiberglass bathtub as the sculptural component of a mixed-media installation, credited Lauri Firstenberg with giving interesting feedback on his work. He had previously made a plaster version of the tub that served as a site for performance and as "a character" in his videos. But the tub was not waterproof. "After the second time I got in it and filled it with water, it cracked and leaked and snapped in several spots."

Firstenberg, the founder of LAX Art, said she was drawn to the way Manley was thinking about his own archive as an artist, which connects to some of the loose themes she identifies as running through the show: "materiality, archaeology, theatricality, mythology and subjectivity." (Of the focus on commissions, she said: "The process is as important as the product.")

When she saw a photo of the bathtub, she encouraged him to remake it. She put him in touch with her longtime fabricator, Benchmark Scenery in Glendale. She also helped line up the referral needed for him to post his project on the micro-funding arts website USA Projects, where he raised more than $6,000.

She says biennial visitors just might see Manley do an unscheduled performance in the tub this summer.

Still, no matter how supportive the curators tried to be, there were limits. Several artists said that the biennial's financial contributions covered only a fraction of their total costs. Others wondered why each artist received different amounts of funding.

Ellegood explained that the amounts were determined case by case. "It might sound more fair if we said that every artist gets $2,000," she said. "But every artist's needs are different. If you are a filmmaker planning to go to India to shoot a new film, that's different than needing canvas and paint, and I think artists understand that."

Then there were the artists' projects that, despite plenty of institutional support, just couldn't be completed as planned. There were two particularly ambitious projects that took major detours.

Tanaka, who did the video with marimba players, had originally proposed swapping a work of art at the Hammer Museum with a caged animal from the L.A. Zoo — he suggested Paul McCarthy's rather lumpy, sad-sack sculpture "White Snow Dwarf (Dopey #1)" for a giraffe. He didn't get far with the idea — just far enough for biennial curator Malik Gaines to write about the artist's intentions in the exhibition catalog.

Camilo Ontiveros had an idea for an unusual border-crossing project: He would bring to the U.S. 1 cubic meter of soil from Tepic, the city in Nayarit, Mexico, where his brother works as an agricultural scientist. But his online application with the USDA was swiftly denied — "in 30 minutes," he said, laughing — because of numerous regulations meant to prevent "a variety of dangerous organisms" from entering the U.S.

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