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  • Still Thinking About David Hammons

    Do you not HATE not realizing your true feelings about a show until after you've been published? After I wrote this piece for artnet on Friday, I went back on Saturday and saw something I missed the first time: a white man dressed in formal attire chiseling BLACK LIVES MATTER into a stone in front of the gallery. To me this is reads an act of atonement for centuries of ignorance, to be imprinted forever into the historical record.

    Other favorite pieces I’ve never seen before: a 36-foot-long trail of an exquisite corpse game played over several decades including Betye Saar, Bruce Conner, and Romare Bearden as players. A giant red ball with a hot wheels-sized Mars rover on it, in reference to a 1997 Mars Rover a 12-year-old girl named Sojourner, after Sojourner Truth; the freezer full of books on the oral history of his scantily documented 1980s snowball sale. A lamp whose shade is actually a Sotheby’s shopping bag printed with the crosshatched fluorescent tubes of a Dan Flavin piece. Let’s hear it for readymades.

     There is basically one, and consequently oft-cited interview, where David Hammons tells Kellie Jones in 1986 that the art audience is the worst audience. That in LA, artists like Noah Purifoy and Roland Welton were “outrageously rude to anybody,” regardless of how much money they had, and that in New York, he was appalled by artists’ willingness to grovel just to be near someone with money. His hostility towards this system, towards the press, the collectors, and the dealers is written plainly all the gallery walls, in pencil: THIS REMINDS ME OF. HOW MANY OF THESE DID YOU MAKE. HAS ANYONE ELSE SEEN THESE? IT’S BEEN DONE BEFORE. His unwillingness to speak to, to cater to them (us) is reflected in his unwillingness to translate the visual language of his work. Basically, this work is not for you (us). I like that that leaves his intentions to speculation.

     When he lived in LA, he “was still working in frames,” namely his commercially successful bodyprints, he told Jones, but sharing a studio on Slauson with Senga Nengudi helped him become more conceptual. He moved to New York and veered further into conceptualism and an arte povera inflected with the material vernacular of black culture. He made increasingly unsaleable works and retreated further from the spotlight, only making him more sought-after, more mythologized.

    The show is visceral, blistering, sprawling, gorgeous. He once complained that the art world was too educated, too conservative, and never has any fun. There’s an element of performance he’s asked of his audience akin to jumping through hoops—and they do it. A photo of two viewers grinning ear to ear, faces pressed almost to the ground looking beneath a Hammons plinth leads into a gallery where there are three of those plinths, topped with empty vitrines. Press your face nearly to the ground, and below the plinths you’ll see feet. You’ll then be well positioned to view a photograph mounted on the wall nearly touching the floor. While you’re down there, you might also notice that on the opposite wall, well above eye level, there’s a small shrine to some unknown deity. There’s so much fun in this show, at our own expense—I get the sense that he’s laughing at us, not with us. You are the emperor, and he’s here with your clothes.

    As for the tents: Hammons has a way of seeing people, or showing them who they are. The fur coats that debuted on the upper east side are here, backs still singed and splashed with paint, set before an ornate, covered mirror that these figures represented by dressforms cannot see themselves in. The tents are a ubiquitous sight on an increasing number of L.A. street corners that far exceeds the limits of Skid Row. If you live in L.A. you recognize them immediately, either as visual reminders of civic failure, or as triggers to reflexively grip harder to our steering wheels and lock our gazes to the road. There have been many many artists whose visions of L.A. include palm trees, swimming pools, and the saturated gradients of a sunset, but this is one of the first times I’ve seen someone portray the city like this, as it really looks in real life.