David Hammons: Ornette Coleman: Harmolodic Thinker
by Jonah Gray
David Hammons’ first exhibition in his native Los Angeles after 45 years was deeply contradictory. On one hand, it lamely gestured at the unequal distribution of power and resources of the neighbourhood in which the massive Hauser & Wirth gallery and its encompassing cultural complex is located. On the other, the exhibition’s decision to let the work speak for itself—that is, to display very few titles or wall captions and no didactic material of any kind— worked surprisingly well, opening up the sprawling retrospective for unexpected encounters and interpretations to spring forth.
Arriving at the afternoon opening, myself and hordes of enthusiastic attendees were met on the sidewalk outside the gallery by the sight of a white stone carver on his knees, dressed in a tuxedo, chiselling the words “Black Lives Matter” into a large rock. This striking performance was followed on the path to the main galleries by a sea of camping tents, which completely overwhelmed Hauser & Wirth’s usually airy, open central courtyard. Including tents stencilled with the slogan “this could be u,” this makeshift encampment was surely meant to acknowledge LA’s homelessness crisis and the gentrification of the Arts District in which the gallery itself is complicit. These tents were tone-deaf, at best, to the situation of the people obliged to sleep rough on adjacent streets.
Hauser & Wirth’s city-block-sized complex is a microcosm of how gentrification works through the privatization of the commons. If you didn’t know that it was run by a private corporation with international interests, you might be forgiven for thinking that it was a public museum. There is an open-air restaurant in the middle of the courtyard as well as an urban garden with chickens running around. For Hammons’ tent installation to be nestled in this simulacrum of a public space—which is actually a carefully stage-managed commercial venue—felt blatantly hypocritical.
It wasn’t until I returned weeks later that the exhibition’s other, more subtle aspects revealed themselves. Ironically, the way that they did was partly thanks to its peculiar institutional setting. At a public museum, it is hard to imagine an artist getting away with not providing any guiding text beyond the occasional title, scrawled in pencil on the wall by the work. As a veteran of such institutions, I was taken aback that a show of this scale and importance left so much to the imagination. I am happy to report, however, that my instinctive concerns were mostly unfounded.
Why worry about this at all? Hammons’ art is famously oblique and the exact materials and method of production are usually of crucial significance. For example, the giant grey, cloud-like “drawings” placed at intervals throughout the show were made by dribbling a basketball on a sheet of paper. I knew this ahead of time, but had I only seen them for the first time at this exhibition that fact would have remained a mystery. I don’t know how many similar details escaped me for the same reason. But with prolonged attention and some amateur detective work, I began to find clues about one work nestled within another. What I found was a web of associative connections that brought together the show’s disparate paintings, readymade sculptures, videos and installations. The exhibition is titled Ornette Coleman: Harmolodic Thinker after the multi-instrumentalist’s pioneering free jazz method of improvisation. The open-ended associative thinking in Hammons’ work acts as a kind of visual correlate to the theory of Harmolodics.
One of the many short videos screened in a room at the heart of the exhibition, entitled Kamau Daáood, showed the eponymous poet reading one of his poems into the mouth of an empty glass bottle—with the help of a funnel—like a reverse megaphone for capturing speech. As Daáood concludes, Hammons reaches in to seal the bottle as if to preserve the verses inside. This vignette immediately had me reconsidering the many bottles—which I had assumed to be empty—that were dotted throughout the exhibition.
Maybe it was just a slow day, but the guard in the larger of the two galleries—an older African-American man—was eager to talk. He beckoned me over to a piece that I had just walked past. A large, fabric-bound book lay on a makeshift rostrum. It said History of Harlem on the cover and he urged me to flip through it. None of the pages had any text, but each one was made from a different kind of black paper with varying degrees of texture and transparency. Turning the pages made different patterns of shadow appear on the pages underneath. The shadows in this book, he told me, invited us to look again at other shadows in the rest of the show. He proceeded to walk me around the gallery to a number of vantage points from which to observe the shadows on the floor that were being cast by the lights above various sculptures. One coalesced into a silhouette of a man holding two birds, another was very clearly an angel with its wings outspread. I could never fully tell if he was putting me on, but the guard maintained that these observations had only occurred to him after countless hours of walking through the show and I’m inclined to believe him. At first, I was convinced that withholding titles and captions was a failure of basic generosity. Such little details are a key way that an artist or institution invites gallery goers into the work. In this case, that particular decision and the conversations that arose in the absence of a more authoritative text are a reminder of the many other ways to relate to art than through such official, institutional frames.
The subtlety with which some of Hammons’ work prompted this insight is what underlines the heavy- handedness of the tent piece. Hammons is at his best when he calls attention to the inadequacy of representation. In History of Harlem, for example, the gaps completely override textual representation. It is a meditation on the spaces in between, on the very conditions of representability. The tents, by contrast, fall flat because they attempt to address homelessness at the level of representation. We are asked to consider the tents as symbols rather than what they actually are and to overlook the hollowness of “raising awareness” about homelessness in a venue implicated in worsening the problem. It stands to reason that exploring the limits of representation should produce some failures amidst its successes. Still, this exhibition’s contradictory impulses—to incisively reveal the shortcomings of representation only to back down from this observation—are difficult to reconcile, even if they do testify to the formidable range of an artistic practice resolutely premised on finding and calling attention to those spaces in between.