In late November, Barcelona-based Portuguese artist Carlos Bunga took over the lobby of the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, installing an architecturally scaled artwork made out of his signature materials: cardboard, packing tape and paint. The site-specific sculpture, which fills two walls adjacent to the museum's semi-monumental staircase, is enigmatically entitled Landscape (2011) and is part of Hammer Projects: Carlos Bunga, a show that includes not only the installation but also a selection of Bunga's drawings, paintings, sculptures, and videos dating from 2002 to 2008. The title conforms to a naming conceit reserved for visual artists and poets. Everyday vocabulary is held up for more specific inquiry. Language vagaries are turned over and over for multiple readings.
Bunga is trained as a painter and his work, often temporary and provisional, brings an air of improvisation to an otherwise static space. As Bunga explained in a 2010 interview with curators of the Fundação Bienal de São Paulo, "There is this frequent feeling that the places we intervene in can teach us much more than what we ourselves can give, or leaving this 'mental space' open to the circumstances of interchange in a researching process where the possibilities are infinite." With Bunga's title, however, no natural read, or readings, emerges from these possibilities. The viewer is left pondering which landscape is represented: political, economic, cultural, urban, or even pastoral?
Built by hand over the course of three weeks, Landscape is part collage and part sculpture. Cardboard and packing tape come together into a provisional form—a shadow-box relief that picks up on the somewhat classical proportions of the Hammer museum's lobby. Paint—flat swathes of pink, turquoise, yellow, and white—peels and cracks where it covers the tape, underscoring the artwork's ephemeral qualities and leaving room for a host of imaginings. Colors and construction allow allusions to drift towards South American favelas and Skid Row shelters. But the shades and forms could just as easily reference the kind of ticky-tacky residential housing that follows the U.S. Sun Belt.
Los Angeles' urban fabric is woven from these bleached-out pastel boxes, so it's unsurprising to find a graphic match in the Hammer lobby. Landscape, then, is appropriate for the museum entryway. Yet, this easy parallel leads to a more complicated question: Is the site is appropriate for Landscape? The exhibition includes a small gallery with a few models, collages, and videos. Once framed piece entitled More Space for Another Construction (2007–8) depicts a white color field painted on top of a page ripped from the coffee table book The New American House: Innovation in Residential Design and Construction.
Bunga augmented the composition with a few geometric lines sketched in red brushstrokes. The appropriation and defacement of the glossy page seems to be a commentary on the assumptive American dream of home ownership. But politics in the installation and solo show are more latent than overt. Bunga's Landscape may call attention to architectural elements charged with spatial politics—a security camera or emergency exit door—but ultimately, the critique remains comfortably confined within the Hammer's air-conditioned space on Wilshire Boulevard.
Bunga's installation opened on November 25, just days before LAPD officers launched a midnight raid on the Occupy tent city encamped around Los Angeles City Hall, clearing out the protesters with varying degrees of force. Even weeks after that event, it is difficult to decouple the activist shantytown from Bunga's more institutional occupation. In the past, the artist videotaped himself destroying his own cardboard sculptures. In a video from 2004, he frenetically, and almost violently, tears his piece, Kursaal Project (2004), down by hand in front of a Manifesta audience. It's unclear if this will be the fate of the Hammer installation. Given the growing unrest of the OWS movement and its relationship to banks and the home foreclosure crisis, one can only hope that Bunga will wrench his tropical-hued piece from the institutional chill and, perhaps, re-engage and intervene within the urban landscape.
Hammer Projects: Carlos Bunga
On view through 22 April 2012
Curated by Corrina Peipon
10899 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles