The first sign that something is different at the gallery Hauser & Wirth is tents that fill its lovely courtyard, hemmed in by a fancy restaurant, an urban garden, a pricey gift shop and many rooms full of blue-chip art. David Hammons is having his first solo exhibition in L.A. in 45 years, and his opening salvo is a heartbreaker.
The entire courtyard and the breezeway leading out to 2nd Street are filled with tents of various colors — not the kind you see at weddings or the farmers market, but the kind found in homeless encampments. I briefly entertained the thought that Hauser & Wirth had turned its courtyard into temporary housing — there are chickens living in the garden, after all. But that, of course, was silly. It’s only art.
Since the 1960s, when he began his career in L.A. before moving to New York, Hammons has held up a probing mirror to the inequities and blind spots of contemporary life. With this tent city, he has created a microcosm of L.A., where the insanely wealthy pass by the nearly destitute on a daily basis. Some of the tents are screen-printed with phrases like, “This could be u and u.” But as I watched the diners, shoppers and art lovers mill about, that call to empathy seemed futile.
This poignant frustration, and a resulting antic perversity, run throughout Hammons’ work. The exhibition is a retrospective, although unless you are familiar with his work, you would be hard-pressed to know it. In addition to the courtyard, the show spans three large galleries but offers no list of works with titles, dates and media; the scant wall texts are scrawled in pencil by the artist, and the press release is an abstract doodle. The show is dedicated to the memory of free-jazz musician Ornette Coleman, and like listening to his far-ranging compositions, you just have to go with the flow.
In many pieces Hammons thumbs his nose at the art world. Large abstract paintings are fully or partially covered with dirty, tattered tarps or worn-out rugs. Atmospheric drawings were made by bouncing a basketball or using Kool-Aid. One room is full of dress forms wearing fur coats whose backsides are splattered and lacerated with paint. They face a tall mirror in an ornate frame that has been covered with battered pieces of sheet metal.
In another room stand three empty vitrines on wooden pedestals. The figurative sculptures they were designed to contain are actually hidden inside the pedestals; only their feet are visible beneath, and you have to kneel down to see them. The idea of prostrating ourselves to see only a smidgen of the art is hilarious, upending our privilege as viewers (voyeurs?) by making us grovel.
In another gallery is a large bound book on a pedestal. A scrawled wall text encourages us to turn the pages, informing us that it’s “A History of Harlem.” All of its pages are solid black. This blackness can be seen as a refusal to signify or as a visual pun on “black” history, but it’s also the opposite of a blank (white) page. Perhaps the story of the historically African American neighborhood is so full that it cannot be told, in much the way the text in a Glenn Ligon painting obliterates itself by being painted over and over again. The artists, musicians, writers and thinkers who emerged from Harlem have indelibly marked American culture, but they haven’t always been visible to the rest of us.
Hammons’ work exposes, indeed occupies, such gaps. Art is often a rarefied realm where quotidian experience is transformed, but Hammons’ practice also prods us to see the art in the everyday. It points out the door, toward life.
Hauser & Wirth, 901 E. 3rd St., L.A. Tuesdays-Sundays, through Aug. 11. (213) 943-1620, hauserwirth.com