Based on the artists in it, the Hammer's "Take It or Leave It" exhibition should be a staggeringly good show.
Gretchen Bender, for instance, was a badass. Her video installation Total Recall, on 24 television monitors and three big screens in the Hammer's video gallery, splices together animation, imagery of a photojournalist on foreign assignment, footage of a General Electric plant and a creeping electronic soundtrack by her collaborator, Stuart Argabright. The late-'80s footage and technology are dated, of course, but the effect is still frenetic and anxiety-producing in the best way. Those 27 screens simultaneously playing eight different scenes feel as if they're about to reveal some kind of a conspiracy: GE's logo flashes while the journalist stares out at you and an unknowing crowd rushes by — what's going to happen to everyone?
"You have to make some kind of break or glitch ... and shove your content into it there," Bender said in 1987, the year she made Total Recall. The artist, who died of cancer in 2004, meant that one way to upset the normalcy of mainstream imagery to which we've become so accustomed is to sabotage from the inside, adopting its look and feel before mixing things up.
"Take It or Leave It" — TIOLI for short — came about because curators Anne Ellegood of the Hammer and Johanna Burton of the New Museum had wanted to do a show about appropriation, featuring art that, like Bender's, borrows from and alters what already exists in culture.
In the process of researching, they realized that the artists who most interested them probably could also be grouped in with the institutional critique genre — art that examines museums, galleries and other organizations of the art world.
It's still artist Hans Haacke who's synonymous with institutional critique, even if it's not a term he uses. In the early 1970s, he documented dubious financial affiliations of Guggenheim board members and real estate holdings of museum donors as part of his artwork.
Not long after, Sherrie Levine, an artist in TIOLI, began the work that's still referenced in art class lectures when instructors try to explain appropriation. She would take iconic images made decades earlier, usually by male photographers, and rephotograph them, presenting them as her own but titling them to acknowledge their source: After Walker Evans, After Edward Weston.
Maybe she wasn't directly critiquing institutions in the way Haacke was, but she was questioning how imagery related to power. What made something worthy of art-historical clout? Who determined who the author was?
Ellegood and Burton wanted their exhibition to show the resonances and overlaps between artists who appropriated and who critiqued art institutions.
The exciting thing about this project was never actually the joining of these two categories. It was that it would bring together artists who had not necessarily shown together before, who wanted to be provocative yet had an intense interest in sensory experience, because they'd learned from advertising and television how inseparable style and mood were from message. "To try to make sure that we mean what we want to mean" is how artist Andrea Fraser has described the mandate of those working in this vein.
While it's unquestionably gratifying to see some of these individual artists' work on display, TIOLI's chock-fullness and framing — the wall labels, the placement of works — too often stifles the art's strategic sensuality. It makes the works seem more like historical examples that illustrate a curatorial thesis, less like still-influential attempts to shake up assumptions.
Fraser's work bookends the exhibition: footage of her performing as a museum docent with exaggerated seriousness at the start and, at the end, footage of her stripping down to Gucci underwear as she authoritatively mimics the different kinds of speech makers at museum openings (the politician, the museum director, the curator).
Harsh wall texts Fraser composed in 1990 also pop up throughout TIOLI. She originally included these in a show that opened just after the passing of Senator Jesse Helms' amendment restricting government funding for artists. The senator especially objected to certain artworks' political, sexual sensibilities. "Offensive and tasteless; tasteless, offensive and downright disgusting," one of Fraser's labels says. Another: "These works are crude, blasphemous ... by people to whom nothing is sacred."
Fraser is an exceptional artist, but you don't want to turn away from something like Cady Noland's Frame Device, a cage of silver pipes and walkers that ominously contains nothing, and see one of Fraser's parodies of narrow-mindedness. The parodies jerk you out of any musings on, say, Noland's stoicism or painter John Miller's twisted depictions of nude dancers with U.S. flags around their necks, into a-you-versus-the-bigot-on-the-wall dynamic.
Even without the distraction of the wall texts, it's hard to focus. Consider the room in which David Wojnarowicz's fiery, ragged-edged paintings, made the year of his AIDS diagnosis, combine symbols of industry with decaying bodies and loud newspaper clippings and hang along one wall. Sue Williams' paintings turning bodies into aggressive, perverse patterns hang in a corner, too close to Mike Kelley's taxonomy of handcrafted stuffed animals, laid out on tables like specimens. Tom Burr's Single Partition Platform, a cool aluminum-and-plywood contraption that makes you think of surveillance and detainment, is in another corner. A fire extinguisher, undoubtedly there for code reasons, is so close to William Leavitt's installation against the back wall that I was initially sure, wrongly, that it was part of the artwork.
It may not be unusual for an idea-driven show to be overstuffed in this way — MOCA's 2012 "Under the Big Black Sun," about Southern California in the 1970s, was bigger and worse. Still, such shows end up being mostly valuable for insiders, people who already know how impactful the work can be when experienced in full. They often don't communicate its relevance to a more general audience, at least not as well as they could.
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TIOLI opened the night after the Winter Olympics started in Sochi, and just after Masha Gessen's new book about the Pussy Riot punk-art collective came out. Gessen gave you reason to worry that Nadya Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, the two Pussy Riot members jailed the longest, would be back behind bars after the Olympic closing ceremony (as it turns out, they would be), and presented the relationship between political realities and artists as burningly relevant. In the Pussy Riot trial, every detail about the performance the group had done at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, telling the mother of God to become a feminist and chase Putin out, took on heightened importance: how high they raised their legs while dancing, whether a shirt strap fell off a shoulder.
After she had been convicted of hooliganism and sent to a penal colony, Nadya would request that Gessen use a pseudonym when corresponding with her, suggesting the name of American feminist artist Martha Rosler, who has two works in TIOLI. "Hello, Martha," Nadya would write, anecdotal evidence that provocative young people think about the institution-critiquing appropriationists who preceded them.
At the Hammer, it's Bender's installation, alone in the video gallery, that feels immersive and relevant in the way other work ideally would have. She chose that title, Total Recall, because she had read rumors about Arnold Schwarzenegger's forthcoming corporate sci-fi action movie of the same name in a tabloid. But she debuted her project three years before his. You can sense how thrilling it must have been to co-opt and complicate a blockbuster that hadn't happened yet.
TAKE IT OR LEAVE IT: INSTITUTION, IMAGE, IDEOLOGY | Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd, Wstwd. | Through May 18 | hammer.ucla.edu