Permanent-collection exhibitions at museums tend toward either filler or fodder.

Filler — and our financially dissolute Museum of Contemporary Art suffered through more than a year of it — is a cheap way to fill gallery space by emptying out the warehouses. Or they're fodder, perhaps to satiate benefactors, but hopefully more often they can create ready rumination about what art means to a place and its institutions.

Permanent-collection shows reveal the memory of art at a museum — its gaps and lacunae, its brave choices and fumbling mistakes. Currently on view, we have a curious and wonderful stretch of contemporary history, good and bad, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the longest-running institution to show contemporary art in the city. A largely new cast of contemporary curators — with Christine Y. Kim and Franklin Sirmans joining Rita Gonzalez — have used the exhibit “Human Nature” to rewrite what art in the city has meant and, en route, redefine what the blurry definition of “contemporary” means here.

In the first room of the exhibition, for instance, hangs a piece by erstwhile Angeleno and now deservedly famous New York conceptualist David Hammons, Injustice Case, a 1968 work that came into the museum, as many works by black Americans shamefully did in the era of civil rights, through the backdoor. A body print of a bound and gagged figure framed by an American flag, it was made in response to a judge forcing Black Panther Bobby Seale to be bound and gagged at his trial that same year. It is a physically arresting political statement that hints at the long career of Hammons, who took on such potent issues with increasing grace and dark comedy in the following decades.

The work came to the museum through the community rental gallery in the basement (a sop the museum throws to locals and amateurs), in an exhibition that itself was a weak response to black political activists who had pointed out, rightly, that the museum ought to acknowledge in its higher-level staff and programming that an important segment of America is black and should be included in its hallowed halls. According to the museum's website, Injustice Case has been shown only one other time in the last 40 years, and that was more than a decade ago.

LACMA has a complicated history with people of color, as well as women. In 1972, three artists from the collective Asco spray-painted their names onto the LACMA entrance in response to the institution's neglect of Chicanos. “Art and Technology,” LACMA's controversial exhibition from 1970, was met with protests for not including women artists.

In “Human Nature,” almost all of the early rooms focus on a different node in contemporary art (the body, politics, language, identity), with a smattering of works from canonical (usually white, male) artists and at least one local L.A. representative of that trend — but also, in most cases, at least one artist (if not many) of international extraction or of color. Since there is no racial majority in the state of California, we are now, in that totally postmodern sense, a collection of minorities, which is itself a closer reflection of what the wider world actually looks like, where white people have never been the majority. As Sirmans, the head of contemporary art at LACMA (the first African-American to hold this position) and co-curator of this exhibition, told me recently, “We wanted to show a different take. Not corrective, but reflective of the changes of the last 40 years. Our background comes from broadening the stance of scholarship and curatorial work.”

With economic and institutional opportunities opening up for artists of color and from places outside of the U.S. and Europe (not to mention curators, embodied by LACMA's current contemporary department), the background of artists working on the highest level has, thankfully, changed dramatically. “Human Nature,” as a major exhibition, is the first I've seen in Los Angeles that wholly reflects this changed makeup of a changed world.

In this regard, the most striking moment in the exhibition comes in a room organized loosely around how language has been used in art. Alongside the deadpan sign paintings by local hero John Baldessari and a striking wall piece by Mel Bochner (which includes the text “Language is not transparent”), two neon signs face each other: a splayed-out wagon wheel of text from 1983 by Bruce Nauman, Human Nature/Life Death/Knows Doesn't Know, and 2009's Rückenfigur, by Glenn Ligon.

The debased commercial signage better associated with casinos and titty bars flashes “Human” but also “Animal Nature” in Nauman's work, the difference between the two a subtle flicker, while circling the spokes of this wheel cycle the flashing words “Pain/Pleasure/Love/Hate/Life/Death.”

Directly facing it on the opposite wall hangs the piece by Ligon, who is currently the subject of a retrospective at the Whitney Museum in New York that will travel to LACMA this fall. The German Rückenfigur vaguely translates to “figure seen from behind.” Here in neon is the word “America,” and while the letters appear to be backward, they're actually facing away from us, a look (perhaps of shame) to the wall. The white light of a shamed but still bright America from Ligon, who is black, mixes with the joyful noise of Nauman's crass colors and textual ambiguities.

The work of Nauman, who is white, has long dealt with the difficulties of language, double entendres and the mischievousness of meaning. The artist, who won the Golden Lion for the U.S.' participation in the last Venice Biennale, is widely considered one of the most influential artists working today. His influence can be seen in Ligon's work as he takes Nauman's play and adds a meditation on race and national history. As Sirmans says, Ligon's work is “a piece that questions the idea of America. There's some dichotomy, some ambiguity here that's being questioned. America has many different meanings.” And so does Los Angeles. Throughout his career, Ligon has thought about blackness and black history in America, and when his work is set against Nauman's, it brings out less the wordplay of Nauman and more the subtle politics of the piece, making the statement heavier with political import.

The final rooms of the exhibition include works primarily from artists who live in Los Angeles. Many of them were purchased by the museum's Modern and Contemporary Art Council, and the artists received that purchase at important junctures in their careers. One example is Mark Bradford's 2002 painting Biggie, Biggie, Biggie, named after the rapper Notorious B.I.G. (who was murdered across the street from LACMA in 1997).

Bradford and other L.A. artists of color included in these rooms and elsewhere in the exhibit, such as Kori Newkirk and Rodney McMillian, plus the strength of women artists on view, including Alexandra Grant and Amanda Ross-Ho, show that LACMA has committed itself to wholly nurturing the diversity of Los Angeles artists. Grant looks at words via her forest of signs, creating Technicolor webs of language. Ross-Ho explores her process by including sheetrock cut right out of the wall of her studio, revealing both the considered trajectories and the serendipitous accidents of making art.

“Human Nature” is neither filler nor fodder, but something more historically substantive for the museum and its history. LACMA here proves it is not anymore a museum that Asco — which has an upcoming retrospective at the museum — or David Hammons or feminists would have to picket.

Newkirk once famously said in an interview with Thelma Golden, “I just live in L.A. I'm not of there.” In some ways this statement was varyingly true for LACMA over the years, but thankfully and demonstrably it doesn't feel that way now.


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