In some cases, this can be a tremendous benefit. I was impressed with Mark Bradford’s work when I first saw it at Watts Towers Arts Center in 2000, but lost interest as subsequent shows seemed to recycle the novelty medium of collaged hair-permanent end papers without displaying any formal growth. But the group of Bradford’s recent works in “Eden’s Edge” is dazzling, thanks to a dramatic turning up of the contrast over the last couple of years, resulting in a corresponding increase in textural and compositional complexity, overlaying hard-edged graphic design on what was a somewhat mushy impressionism and transforming it into something new and remarkable.

Similarly, Liz Craft’s first solo show — a closed-circuit sculptural installation called “Living Edge” that could stand as the absent signature piece of this exhibit — was a qualified knockout, but many of her infrequent later inclusions in L.A. group shows came off as relative one-liners. It wasn’t until her second L.A. solo show seven years later — a crowd of hippie-kitschy “hairy guys” occupying Peres Projects — that it became readily apparent that Craft had emerged from the shadow of Jennifer Pastor as an important and singular L.A. voice.

The key in this case is the “seven years” thing — Craft’s tour-de-force Death Rider (Virgo)— a wooden iron horse cast in bronze, straddled by Death and a phantom biker chick — may be familiar to those who made it to the 2004 Whitney Biennial. But it, like so much of the important art that is made here, has never been exhibited in L.A. Another example is Matthew Monahan, whose awkwardly elegant dry-wall pedestal-mounted mash-ups of previous works and intricately symmetrical stoner transfer-paper monoprints have been causing a stir back East and in Amsterdam; he doesn’t even have a gallery here.

This is a collateral benefit of “Eden’s Edge” — the chance to see works that were never exhibited here, like Jason Rhoades’ Twelve-Wheel Waggon Wheel Chandelier (a 2004 substitute for a new work the deceased artist was planning for the Hammer’s vault gallery), which was shown previously in Switzerland, or Monica Majoli’s recent breakthrough series of large-scale washy watercolors depicting suspended rubber enthusiasts, which debuted at last year’s Whitney. On the other end of the fame scale, Rebecca Morales — whose odd gouache-on-calf-vellum floral studies look like needlecraft projects from a parallel universe — has exhibited locally only at the militantly figurative Koplin Del Rio gallery. And I’d never even heard of the quirky video-artist team of Harry Dodge and Stanya Kahn.

Other selections give a second chance to see work that may have been overlooked — Ginny Bishton’s fabulous Walking Drawing photo-collages because Richard Telles stubbornly refuses to relocate from Beverly Boulevard to one of the art malls, or Elliott Hundley’s pincushion-palette-turned-artwork Deathless Aphrodite of the Spangled Mind, which showed briefly in a group show at Overtones Gallery while Hundley was in his first year at grad school, and got snapped up by Fred Hoffman. In its “Eden’s Edge” configuration, Hundley’s Aphrodite is fleshed out — or refracted, rather — by the presence of four other works that split its spectral sweep into more focused monochromatic pictorial inventories, making apparent a strong overlap with Bishton’s masterful attention to color — over and above their penchant for cutting out tiny little bits of photographs and sticking them down.

These are the kind of synchronicities that arise when you let the art do the talking. There are some curious oversights — Anna Sew Hoy’s funky clay Scholar Rocks and Dreamcatcher are engaging enough and dovetail neatly with the adjacent revivalist kitsch of Liz Craft, but the spectacularly filigreed tree stumps of her Broken Arm series would have linked up in an additional two or three directions. I can think of a half-dozen other painters working the same multiple-naked-people-inserted-in-barely-adequate-pseudo-German-bad-painting routine as Matt Greene, to similarly negligible effect. Much as I’m emotionally attracted to her highly crafted black-light visionary mysticism, I’m still not convinced that Sharon Ellis is a major artist, though both these artists’ work seems more substantial in this company.

Such unfortunate divergences from my taste are more than offset by punchy mini-surveys of Lari Pittman’s queasily exquisite canvases and Jim Shaw’s dream-derived paperback covers, monumental Ganesha sculpture, and a suite of drawings that mulches the corpus of capitalism into a Dionysian hedge-orgy. But of course my taste isn’t the point. “Eden’s Edge” succeeds as a representation of contemporary art in Los Angeles not because Garrels’ choices were correct, but because they were personal. Which, when you get down to it, is all any curator really has to offer that isn’t already in the art.

EDEN’S EDGE: Fifteen L.A. Artists | The Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., L.A. | Through September 2

More images from the Hammer Museum's show, Eden's Edge

Tom Christie's interview with The Hammer's Gary Garrels

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