Palm Fronds and Car Parts: Assemblage Arka in Los Angeles

A decade ago, priced out of renting an apartment and studio in Los Angeles, the artist Dominique Moody built a steel-clad, wood structure on a 20-foot flatbed trailer. It was an experiment in making a small, mobile abode before the tiny home trend took off. It offered a place to sleep, and dream. It was also in many ways an artwork.

Steeped in assemblage, the process of making art from found or scavenged objects, Moody, 66, fashioned her home out of reclaimed materials where others would have gone straight to Home Depot. She made her porch of leftover floorboards from a barn and took an old bicycle apart, hanging her shower curtain from its tire rim. And she turned the doors of industrial washing machines into the windows or “portals” of her itinerant house, dubbed the Nomad, where she lived from 2015 to 2020.

Starting Oct. 1, the Nomad will be parked outside the Hammer Museum as part of the sixth edition of “Made in L.A.,” a biennial spotlighting emerging and underrecognized artists living in Los Angeles. And it serves as a teaser for what’s inside, as this year’s exhibition is not just made in Los Angeles, but to an extraordinary degree made of it, with objects scavenged from the city streets — ranging from palm fronds to broken car parts — showing up in many of the works. The biggest found object will be Moody’s rusty — she prefers to say “beautifully patinated” — 1950 Ford tow truck, which will be parked alongside the Nomad.

Moody’s mobile home, the Nomad, will be parked outside the Hammer. It’s made largely from reclaimed materials, like washing machine doors turned into windows or “portals.”Credit…Khari Scott
Moody lived in this tiny home—or large artwork—from 2015 to 2020.Credit…Khari Scott

Moody designed her 2023 exhibition “Sacred Studio” to showcase her prized collections, from old railroad spikes found near Watts Towers to magnifying glasses she’s received as gifts. Credit…Michael Tyrone Delaney for The New York Times

The biennial’s curators, Diana Nawi and Pablo José Ramírez, did not set out to showcase any one medium or theme when they took on 200 studio visits last year. But of 39 artists they selected for the show, nearly a dozen are working with found or scavenged objects to create their mixed-media, culturally rooted sculpture and installations. These artists are expanding the rich history of assemblage in L.A., which dates back at least to the 1920s, when the Italian-born artist Simon Rodia began building, by hand, the Watts Towers out of scrap rebar, broken glass, shards of pottery and other detritus from Watts.

“Our show is very object-oriented,” said Nawi, who suggested assemblage became more resonant or urgent during the pandemic, when artists’ orbits shrunk. “You could see a lot of artists drawing from their immediate surroundings. Curiosity allows for everyday objects and materials to take on profound meaning if you attune yourself to them.”

Ramírez talked about assemblage as part of a larger embrace of vernacular materials by artists and curators. “We are seeing more shows of craft-related work, more ceramics, more Indigenous work.”

Moody shifted from detailed drawing to object-making in her 20s as she was losing her eyesight; she is now “partially sighted” or legally blind. “To me what’s so wonderful about assemblage is that when you find pieces, they come with a story,” she said. “Assemblage is often commentary on social things that happen around us, but also intimate and specific to our own personal narratives and memories.”

Moody walked this reporter through her August exhibition at Arts at Blue Roof, designed to showcase her prized collections, from old railroad spikes found near Watts Towers to magnifying glasses she’s received as gifts. Pointing to the colorful glass bottles on an altar-like platform she built for the show, she shared a story about her father, a U.S. Army officer who never thought of himself as an artist but lined the windowsills of her childhood home in Philadelphia with bottles to achieve startling stained-glass-like effects.

The artist Maria Maea looks for overgrown palm trees, weaving the fronds together in a self-taught “street-punk L.A. weaving” style, she said.Credit…Michael Tyrone Delaney for The New York Times

For the Hammer, Maria Maea, 35, is creating one of her signature large female figures — she calls them “future ancestors” — most likely out of “wood, palm fronds, bones, corn cobs, seeds from my garden, mirrors and car parts,” she said. A first-generation American of Mexican and Samoan lineage, Maea has worked as a costume and set designer and considers L.A. a mecca for “disposable culture — we have Hollywood, we have production culture. We have couches or entire living room sets that will live for months on our street corner,” Maea said, going on to describe household discards, “and people will add to or subtract from it.”

A lot of her material comes from these urban collections. She also looks for overgrown palm trees that could use some pruning, weaving the fronds together in a self-taught “street-punk L.A. weaving” style.

Miller Robinson, 30, an Indigenous artist with Karuk, Yurok and European ancestry, identifies as “two-spirit” and “gender expansive.” They consider assemblage a way to honor the individuality of objects by putting them in dialogue with each other. One of Robinson’s biennial artworks combines fishing lures that belonged to their grandfather, who was white, with a trove of acorns, a traditional food for many Native communities. Another work, touching on the vulnerability of the human body, features a bundle of glass tubes containing Robinson’s blood, seawater and Los Angeles River water, adorned with pearls and Band-Aids.

“My worldview comes from being an Indigenous artist, and I think of every material as having a certain type of aliveness, agency, vibrancy,” Robinson said.

“I try to make my materials very visible,” they added, “acknowledging that the parts are very different.”

More painterly in approach, Esteban Ramón Pérez, 33, makes canvases that are stitched together from leather scraps from the upholstery business, his father’s line of work and his early trade too. He considers this an example of “rasquachismo,” a term his father uses to mean resourcefulness and that art historians have adopted to refer to the recycling popular in Chicano art. He also makes enigmatic and witty sculptures stringing up chili peppers, boxing gloves and peacock feathers that point to the cocky machismo of Latino culture.

Miller Robinson’s “Saak Chivchaksururaam (Obsidian Archway)” combines steel mesh, fishing lures and acorns, among other materials.Credit…Miller Robinson
Also drawn to organic materials, Maea included in “The Jade” (2021) branches, onion blossoms, woven palms, sunflower, lobster claws, squash and a lowrider bike.Credit…Elon Schoenholz
Chiffon Thomas’s largest work in the biennial, “Untitled” (2021), includes wood pieces salvaged from colonial and Victorian houses, materials he associates with the legacy of racism.Credit…Hammer Museum

Chiffon Thomas, 32, takes as his found objects the ornate wood columns retrieved from demolished Colonial and Victorian-style mansions on the East Coast — “the emblems of something oppressive, something that held my family back,” he said, describing the legacy of racial discrimination. “The architecture was a symbol of all this history, a ghost of the history still very present operating in this insidious way.”

Thomas’s largest work at the Hammer will feature a Black figurative bust made mainly from concrete, with split wood columns and stair spindles extending like wings. These wings pin the figure in place.

Thomas mentioned Nari Ward, Lee Bontecou and Noah Purifoy as inspiration, and, like other biennial artists, he has made a pilgrimage to Purifoy’s art park in Joshua Tree, Calif., — an outdoor museum that delivered the unlikely discovery thrills of a junkyard. With that visit in 2021, Thomas realized the importance of using the actual wood pieces instead of casting, even at the risk of using them up.

Purifoy famously made sculptures in the 1960s out of the charred debris from the Watts riots. He was also the founding director of Watts Towers Art Center, a cultural hub at the foot of the Watts Towers that has exhibited important artists like John Outterbridge, Senga Nengudi and Kenzi Shiokava. The subtitle of this year’s biennial, “Acts of Living,” comes from a quote by Purifoy about creativity as a way of life.

One participant, Teresa Tolliver, 78, knew Purifoy and sometimes cut up his catalogs to use in her own work. The Hammer will show a colorful menagerie of her sculptures called “Wild Things,” made from 2003 to 2005 — metal frames in animal shapes that she covers with materials like raffia, ribbons, and the occasional lobster claw as bird beak.

Esteban Rámon Pérez creates canvas-like sculptures out of leather scraps leftover from the upholstery business, as in “Como la Flor (Toreado),” 2021.Credit…James Cohan
Teresa Tolliver embellished metal frames with ribbons, raffia and more to create the creatures known as “Wild Things,” 2003-2005.Credit…via Teresa Tolliver and Sebastian Gladstone, Los Angeles

Moody noted that Outterbridge and Purifoy were transplants from the American South, which has its own rich history of yard art. “The reason you find so many within the Black community embracing assemblage art is because it’s an accepted aesthetic, and also because economically it’s accessible,” she said. (Her “maiden voyage” in the Nomad in 2016 was to see Purifoy’s outdoor museum, and she stayed nearby for six months.)

The younger assemblage artists in the biennial, who express interest in issues like climate change and food insecurity, tend to rely more heavily on organic materials like seeds and bones. Their work points to the abundance of wildlife that still survives in the cityscape of L.A. It can also attract insects and vermin, a challenge for museums. Maea, for instance, had to deliver a large box of corn cobs, seeds and raw materials to the Hammer two months before the show’s opening to be deoxygenated, killing any forms of life. She also expects the “finished” artwork to evolve, perhaps sagging or drooping.

Unstable materials can also create storage and conservation issues, something museums have confronted with assemblageartists throughout the 20th century, from Dada greats like Kurt Schwitters to theform’s great flourishing in the 1960s in the hands of artists as varied as Fluxus founder George Maciunas, Dieter Roth, Ed Kienholz and Betye Saar.

“I think of every material as having a certain type of aliveness, agency, vibrancy,” said Miller Robinson, shown in their L.A. studio.Credit…Paasha Motamedi

Robinson talks of the fragility of the work and will play that up in performances at the museum. Thomas plans to make weekly trips to the Hammer, where he will activate one of his figurative sculptures, suspended from a material lift, a machine that he will crank by hand.

The Nomad, short for Narrative Odyssey Manifesting Artistic Dreams, is vulnerable in yet another way. It was vandalized three years ago, leading Moody to create an acrylic enclosure for the porch so passers-by can peer into it “like a diorama,” she said. To enter, Hammer visitors must arrive at set times. When they do, Moody will be on hand to answer questions about the carefully chosen, richly patinated materials that make up her dream home. Be prepared. As she likes to say, “ordinary objects have extraordinary stories.”

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