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.
Appropriation, Fraser says, is key to artists getting their points across — in her case, about the history of U.S. art museums within the context of public policy and philanthropy.
“It’s a process of bringing parts of the world into our studios and practices or even into ourselves in performance in order to work on the world and try to change it,” she says. “It is fundamental to what art is and what artists do.”
Picasso’s layering of newspaper bits into some of his paintings, Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Can series and Roy Lichtenstein’s comic book-inspired works paved the way for the art appropriationist movement, which didn’t formally take shape until the late ‘70s and early ‘80s with statement-oriented works by artists such as Levine, Kruger and Prince.
Today, in a digital era that assumes a remix culture, appropriation is omnipresent. Images are shared and re-purposed on social media daily, and even writers such as experimental poet Kenneth Goldsmith incorporate snippets of others’ text. Some say we may even be headed for an appropriation backlash.
“It’s lost its trangressiveness and radicality,” says USC’s Dwayne Moser, who researches art appropriation and works as a graduate coordinator in the university’s Roski School of Art and Design. “I’d like to think we’re growing out of it and will start to prize the original for a while, the handcrafted and unique.”
But Andrew Freeman, art instructor at CalArts, still sees merit in appropriation.
“It’s relevant but easily misunderstood,” he says. “Art appropriation is putting ideas in front of skill.”
Freeman points to Kelley’s large-scale installation “Craft Morphology Flow Chart” in the “Take It or Leave It” show. It arranges stuffed animals — sock puppets and knitted sea creatures — on tables where they’re grouped by physical appearance, as if in a zoo. Mug shots of the animals hang on the walls.
“You could look at the work and say, ‘He put a bunch of stuffed animals on a table’ — they don’t see evidence of his artistic hand, so [viewers] might feel they’re being duped or that it’s cynical,” Freeman says. “But it looks like he’s talking about childhood and sexuality and projection. It’s not meant to be a toy but psychoactive.”
Stephen Prina’s “The Second Sentence of Everything I Read Is You: Mourning Sex” is a spare, pale blue lounge with six pillow-top benches and a guitar instrumental coming from wall speakers. “Things Felix Forgot to Tell Us” is stenciled across the back wall, a nod to Felix Gonzalez-Torres, whose art is also in the show.
The installation, an ode to architecture, transience and the politics of space, originally showed in Cologne, Germany, and at the Tokyo Triennale — it both literally and figuratively carries traces from those exhibitions. The carpet, originally cut to fit Cologne’s Galerie Gisela Capitain, doesn’t quite fit the Hammer gallery; it’s never been washed, so it shows dirt smudges from previous foot traffic. The benches are made from the crates in which the work was shipped to L.A.
“This is trying to give form to its transience,” Prina says. “It’s not as much about appropriating an image as appropriating sizes and shapes — it takes its characteristics from the architecture of the space.”
Inside one of the Hammer spaces being transformed, a roll of Green’s handcrafted wallpaper lies unfurled on the hardwood floor; nearby, two workmen hang a speaker grid on a half-painted wall for Prina’s installation.
It’s the culmination of almost seven years that Ellegood and Burton spent batting around ideas. At first, the friends brainstormed during casual phone conversations or over lunch; these talks led to a more rigorous conception of the exhibition. In 2009, after Ellegood came to the Hammer from the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., the two began bringing “Take It or Leave It” to life.
Now, however, the real fun begins. “There’ll be lots of questions,” Ellegood says. “This is work deliberately designed to be engaging.”
Like good appropriationist curators, they’re going for a balance between creating an experience that museum-goers will enjoy even as they’re exposed to breakthrough ideas.
“When you do a so-called historical show,” Ellegood says, “how do you keep it feeling relevant in the present? For me, thinking about the artists, it’s the willingness to go into this discursive space in their work, to encourage a dialogue. This is a diverse group of artists — and we brought them together for a reason.”
‘Take It or Leave It: Institution, Image, Ideology’
Where: Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles
When: Through May 18
Contact: (310) 443-7000, hammer.ucla.edu