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High-impact works at PST's Performance and Public Art Festival

January 24, 2012 |  4:45 pm

Jennifer West
Ever since Hans Arp let free-falling scraps of paper shape his collages and Marcel Duchamp let free-floating threads shape his canvases, artists of a certain breed have invited accident into their artwork. But two rather explosive performances this weekend, part of the Pacific Standard Time festival that runs through Sunday, showed that not all accidents pack the same creative punch.
 
Artists in both events made use of projectiles as tools for painting and instruments for ceding some of their usual control. First up, starting at noon in an outdoor shooting range set against the scrubby hills of Tujunga, a dozen artists paid homage to Niki de Saint Phalle’s 1962  “shooting pictures” by taking turns firing a rifle at artworks they had rigged with spray paint cans, bags of acrylic paint, pouches of bleach and other liquids designed to explode in unpredictable ways.
 
Later, just before sunset, a couple hundred people gathered on a grassy field near the Rose Bowl in Pasadena to see Richard Jackson crash a large, remote-controlled model airplane loaded with paint bombs into a 19-foot-tall canvas, creating an abstract painting.
 
Only the accidents in both events didn’t quite go according to plan.

Jackson_impactAt the Rose Bowl the large model plane with a 15-foot wingspan began picking up speed for ascent but failed to lift off the ground. You could hear people laughing nervously.
 
“Look — I think the tail fell off,” said one man in the crowd. “That’s the stabilizer,” said another, who explained that he used to sell aerospace parts.
 
 “I’m going to find out what happened,” said Irene Tsatsos, director of the Armory Center for the Arts, where the large canvas and debris will be part of an exhibition devoted to the artist opening next month. She began texting Jackson’s crew from her position near the front of the crowd.
 
“Richard likes it when things don’t go exactly according to plan,” she said. “If things go too smoothly, he doesn’t think it’s interesting.”
 
But apparently an aborted takeoff was not the sort of chance intrusion desired by the artist, who is famous for making mechanical devices that make paintings. After nearly half an hour, another ascent was attempted. This time the plane fulfilled its pseudo-military mission — crashing into the center of the canvas, where a large insignia read “Accidents in Abstract Painting.”
 
On impact, the plane broke apart and the paint balls inside — actually paint loaded into glass globe-shaped Christmas tree ornaments — shattered, releasing spurts of red, blue, green and yellow paint.
 
Jackson, stopping for a moment after the performance to pick up some debris that flew far afield, said the delay didn’t bother him. “We just taped that part of the tail back on, no problem. When things go wrong, you have to be creative.”
 
A similar show-must-go-on spirit played out at the De Saint Phalle homage, a much smaller invitation-only event that was overrun with writers and photographers, representing both the usual art-world outlets (Art in America) and the unusual (Italian Rolling Stone).
 
Yael Lipschutz, the event organizer, said she was inspired by the L.A. area  performances of De Saint Phalle, who died in 2002. Traveling to California in 1962  with her soon-to-be second husband, Swiss artist Jean Tinguely, De Saint Phalle did one shoot in a parking lot on the Sunset Strip and another in the hills of Malibu. A film documenting the latter shows how she fired a rifle and a small cannon to explode bags of paint onto an all-white assemblage. She provocatively called herself a “terrorist in art,” and the image of the hyper-stylish, French-born artist taking aim made the rounds.
 
It would be wrong to cast the original performances as completely spontaneous and media-free, but with so many photographers, the new project seemed more of a blog-friendly press event than a '60s-style happening. And the artists contributed to the feeling that little was being left to chance. A couple of artists who couldn’t quite hit the targets embedded in their pieces from 30 feet stepped closer until they could. And others fired extra rounds to help guarantee a more visually compelling result.
 
They used a Winchester Model 63 semi-automatic .22 rifle provided by Noah Kienholz, whose father, the late artist Ed Kienholz, had once helped De Saint Phalle reload her guns. “It’s basically point and shoot, and it has a scope, not open sight, which seemed really reassuring to everyone,” Kienholz said. The rifle came from his father’s gun collection.
 
Alex Becerra used the rifle to shoot at two works: a funky assemblage of a self-portrait that he made containing a cast of his own face and hands (also a used futon) and an enigmatic plaster and papier-mâché sculpture that he made on behalf of artist Liz Craft, based on a large cast of an eyeball she is using in her work. (Craft now lives in New York and did not make it to the shooting range.)
 
BecerraOne of the few artists who had shot a gun before this project, Becerra quickly fired a round of 10 bullets into his self-portrait, which, loaded with spray paint cans and cans of foam, exploded into a bloody, frothy mess. He then set his sights on Craft’s work until the pupil was sprayed with green. “Hitting that last spray can really helped. It gives me something exciting to report back to Liz.”
 
Jennifer West, who has a history of soaking, scraping and otherwise damaging film strips to create abstract or atmospheric effects within the frames, shot at film strips hanging from a board alongside various liquids: bottles of cough syrup, packets of purple hair dye, tubes of yogurt. “I’ve shot film before with paint balls and Nerf balls, so this is the ultimate,” she said. “I was actually really nervous, I didn’t know I’d be strong enough to pull the trigger. But it’s scarily easy.” (Well, not all that easy; West was one of the artists who stepped closer to hit her target.)
 
Alexandra Grant, who made a white spherical sculpture that referenced De Saint Phalle’s in its color and use of animal bones, said the act of shooting didn’t interest her nearly as much as “the question of how women get written into art history or not. Niki de Saint Phalle is known for her giant ‘Mama’ sculptures but not for her more conceptual work, so my participation is meant to draw attention to that.” In this spirit Grant had her boyfriend do the shooting.
 
In many ways the odd man out that day, Matthew Monahan created a work that didn’t gush or splatter or drip in the manner of an action-painting. Instead, his artwork consisted of a pair of emotionally loaded portraits, one showing the face of a man with wild eyes and unruly hair and the other, a heavy-lidded woman. For each, he photocopied the original charcoal drawing 200 times to make a thick stack of paper bound together into a book-like form that could stand on edge.
 
Monahan fired a round into the back of each stack so the paper would tear and flare out in ways that dramatically sculpted the faces.  “I’m not that great a shot but I tried to get a lot in the mouth area,” he said.
 
As for his decision not to use paints or other liquids, he said that was easy. “I knew right away I didn’t want to do anything with painting, because it didn’t really suit my work,” he said. And he admitted that De Saint Phalle's passion for shooting was not a big source of inspiration. “I was trying to think of the rifle as another drawing tool, the way you would use an eraser or drill gun, not some horribly destructive thing.”

RELATED:

Performance art festival a visual feast

PST: Young artists talk about the sweeping exhibit

-- Jori Finkel

www.twitter.com/jorifinkel


Photos, from top: Jennifer West takes aim at her film strips, with Noah Kienholz nearby for reloading the rifle. Credit: Jori Finkel/Los Angeles Times.

Richard Jackson, "Accidents in Abstract Painting," 1/22/12, Area H, Rose Bowl, Pasadena, produced by Armory Center for the Arts. Part of the Pacific Standard Time Performance and Public Art Festival. Courtesy of LA><ART and the artist. Credit: Kelly Akashi

Alex Becerra's self-portrait after his shoot. Credit: Jori Finkel/Los Angeles Times.

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