Pacific Standard Time will explore the origins of the Los Angeles art world through museum exhibitions throughout Southern California over the next six months. Times art reviewer Sharon Mizota has set the goal of seeing all of them. This is her latest report.
With a few exceptions, the only art I’ve seen since September has been part of Pacific Standard Time, a circumstance that leaves me feeling as if I’m traveling in a wobbly time warp that nets out somewhere in the early 1970s. “State of Mind: New California Art circa 1970” at the Orange County Museum of Art does little to dispel this sensation, focusing on a narrow but fertile span of time, from the late 1960s to the mid-'70s.
It includes more than 150 works of art that could be described as “conceptual,” that is, installation, performance, video — basically, any form that didn’t come with centuries of artistic, moneyed baggage. Since then, of course, conceptual art has become a dominant influence (and is exceedingly marketable), and many of these works are familiar. Ed Ruscha’s artist’s book, “Every Building on the Sunset Strip,” Bas Jan Ader’s films of himself crying and falling, and documentation of Chris Burden’s “Shoot,” in which he had himself shot in the arm, are unavoidable but obligatory signposts.
However, the show also includes many surprises. An uncharacteristically demure 1971 work by Paul McCarthy is a sequence of 25 slides of the same street corner taken at different moments. Equally modest and self-contained is a clear plastic wall piece by Michael Asher, better known for large-scale architectural interventions.
Most intriguing is documentation of a spate of performance works by San Francisco Bay Area artists, a cohort somewhat outside the official scope of PST but one that has resonance for OCMA. Formerly known as the Newport Harbor Art Museum, it played host to a range of conceptual art shows, including “The San Francisco Performance Exhibition” in 1972. Curated by artist Tom Marioni, it included an interactive piece by Paul Kos — daring visitors to use a pool table surrounded by animal traps — and a work by Bonnie Sherk in which a rat gave birth inside a tent.
Nowadays PETA would have something to say about that, but Sherk also put her own body out there. In 1971’s “Public Lunch,” she dined in a cage in the Lion House at the San Francisco Zoo alongside feline neighbors enjoying their meals. And in “Sitting Still Series,” she sat in a chair at various outdoor locations for an hour at a time. Effecting a subtle, fleeting change in the landscape, she became a work of public sculpture, in a way, but also drew attention to the plain fact of physical presence.
Sherk’s performances weren’t explicitly political, but other Bay Area artists joined public art with activism. In 1969, Joe Hawley, Mel Henderson and Alfred Young wrote the word “OIL” in nontoxic dye in the waters of San Francisco Bay near the Standard Oil docks. They also once called 100 yellow cabs to the intersection of Market and Castro in San Francisco, strangling traffic in a move that presaged flash mob tactics.
Terri Keyser, Marc Keyser and David Shire of Sam’s Café, a collective run out of a former greasy spoon near UC Berkeley, also orchestrated several, er, time-based, participatory works that might otherwise be regarded as complex pranks or nascent forms of culture jamming. For their final piece in 1971, titled “Sam’s Collection Agency,” they sent fake bills to middle-income San Francisco residents with contact phone numbers for the local newspapers, TV stations and Bank of America. The switchboards clogged with calls. These companies also received a “press kit” from Sam’s Café that included vials purportedly filled with the artists’ excrement. Tried in federal court for sending a “filthy and vile substance” through the mail, the artists were acquitted on the testimony of an expert witness — an art critic — who stated that the act was in fact conceptual art.
Although there is plenty to look at in “State of Mind,” the exhibition’s chief appeal is stories like these — the narratives that unfold from the objects. It’s the way in which conceptual art foregrounds that unspooling, the point at which art meets life (and sometimes disappears into it) that has made it so endlessly compelling. As artist Douglas Huebler once said, “The world is full of objects, more or less interesting: I do not wish to add any more.”
-- Sharon Mizota
Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach, (949) 759-1122, through Jan. 22. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays. www.ocma.net
Photos, from top: Bonnie Sherk, "Sitting Still II," November 1970 from the "Sitting Still" series; performance documentation: Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco. Photo: Robert Campbell / Chamois Moon, courtesy SFMOMA Research Library and Archives.
Chris Burden, "Shoot," Nov. 19, 1971; performance at F Space, Santa Ana, Calif. Photo courtesy of the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive; gift of the Naify Family. Descriptive text for "Shoot": “At 7:45 p.m. I was shot in the left arm by a friend. The bullet was a copper jacket .22 long rifle. My friend was standing about fifteen feet from me.”