Just inside the entrance of Westwood's Hammer Museum stands a human-sized gingerbread hut by artist Nayland Blake. Left unadorned, its friendly, sugary scent wafts throughout the lobby.
Across the room and up the museum's sweeping staircase, a harder-edged artwork of towering black-and-white text by Barbara Kruger reaches to the ceiling, dwarfing Blake's hut. "YOU," it screams. "You are here to get cultured. To get smarter, richer, younger, angrier, funnier, skinnier, hipper, hotter, wiser, weirder, cuter, and kinder."
The juxtapositions of the art installations are clear: physical and sensual versus verbal and intellectual, a fairy-tale dream versus a bold, consumer-driven directive.
It's as if a dialogue between the works is taking place in the lobby. And it makes a dramatic beginning to "Take It or Leave It," the museum's heady and provocative new exhibition that opens Sunday with work from the late 1970s to the present in a variety of media by 35 American artists, including Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy, Adrian Piper, Sherrie Levine and David Wojnarowicz.
"Take It or Leave It" is a long-mulled, personal project for Anne Ellegood, the Hammer's senior curator, and Johanna Burton, a curator of education and public engagement at New York's New Museum (which isn't affiliated with the show).
"We're exploring the intersection of art appropriation and institutional critique, which hasn't really been done before in a museum show," Ellegood says. "We're broadening the definition [of institution], trying to complicate that term a little bit."
"Take It or Leave It," Ellegood explains, aims to challenge power structures and social-cultural institutions — be it politics, media, racism, sexism or art museums themselves — through artists who borrow and re-contextualize images, text and other elements from pop culture and fine art, among other places, to make a conceptual point.
"It's a risky show," Ellegood says in a museum gallery as art is installed. "It's so exciting but also terrifying. I'm equally as exhilarated as I am anxious."
Art appropriation itself can be somewhat controversial; it's the hip-hop of the art world, often sampling bits and pieces of other artists' work in newly imagined scenarios. As in the recording industry, however, copyright issues can come into play. Appropriation artist Richard Prince was sued in 2012 by photographer Patrick Cariou after he used Cariou's photographs in collage works. (The original ruling, rejecting Prince's fair use defense, was overturned last year.) Philosophically, the less manipulated the borrowed art elements are, the more questions arise about originality and what constitutes art. Which, at its core, is one point of "Take It or Leave It" — to spark dialogue.
"The content can be upsetting, the content can be funny, the content can be melancholic," Ellegood says. "It's artists who want to have a debate — with the public but also with each other. These artists are asking: 'What does it mean to make an artwork and put it in a public space and see what happens?'"
With that question in mind, it's fortuitous that the Hammer will officially start its new policy of free admission and more-lenient photography guidelines on the exhibition's opening day to encourage visitors to share the work they see at the Hammer on social media.
Ellegood says the timing is right.
"This show, in part, thinks about the role of the museum in our culture, advocating for a sort of criticality — but there's also a real love of museums too," she says. "So it seems like an appropriate moment to institute new policies. Contemporary art is grappling with the most relevant and difficult concerns of the day. This is a space in which we can really engage with those ideas."
Beyond the Kruger and Blake lobby installations, the exhibition opens with three works that directly address the idea of museums themselves. One wall, by Renee Green, resembles a period museum, with small, 19th century-looking upholstered chairs and beautifully handcrafted red-and-white floral wallpaper — except the seemingly archaic images on the wallpaper depict slave lynchings.
A Mark Dion installation includes jars of seafood, which he bought in a New York fish market and preserved in alcohol. They're meticulously lined on a shelf in a scientific fashion, as if on display at a natural history museum.
Andrea Fraser's video, "Museum Highlights: A Gallery Talk from 1989," shows the artist performing at the Philadelphia Museum of Art by way of giving a museum tour. Her script consists almost entirely of quotations from museum publications.