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.
Constructing a history of performance art is more difficult than it is for other art forms. With painting, sculpture, printmaking, etc. the physical object is typically the object of study. With performance art, as with theater and dance, the actual work of art is not a thing, but an experience; what remains are only the trappings—costumes, sets, props—and, if someone had the foresight, some kind of media documentation. None of these is the work itself, but unless you were there, these artifacts are the only way to know and preserve it.
Founded in 1978 by a group of experimental artists, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE) became a hub for the area’s diverse and inventive live art scene. The organization’s contribution to Pacific Standard Time is the exhibition and performance series, “Los Angeles Goes Live: Performance Art in Southern California 1970-1983.” The show includes plenty of artifacts and documentation from this feisty, eclectic scene, many from LACE’s own archives, but it also attempts to bring the legacy of this rich moment to life in the present. To that end, it has invited a mix of original artists to revisit works from the period and younger artists to create new ones inspired by them. True to the spirit of performance art, the show attempts to make history relevant in the moment, and it is thoroughly engaging.
Although there are ten artists or collectives included in the show, only three of them have installed works in the gallery in any traditional sense. Cheri Gaulke’s installation greets viewers like a shoe store with only one choice—hot red high heels. The shoes are provided in most women’s and men’s sizes, and viewers are encouraged to wear them while walking around the gallery. Building on early performances that advanced a feminist critique of women’s footwear, Gaulke has also created a video loop of various people walking in the shoes across different natural terrains—mud, sand, rock, etc. It’s amusing and gets its point across—nature never planned for high heels.
From there you can hobble into Ellina Kevorkian’s installation, which is really a mini-show all to itself. Assembling costumes and props (or re-creations thereof) from classic performances of the 70s and 80s, Kevorkian worked with the artists to develop entertaining and informative audio guides for each piece, accessible via cell phone.
Most, like those by Senga Nengudi and Nancy Buchanan, provide relatively straightforward recollections of the performances associated with the costumes. But Eleanor Antin uses the audio guide as an occasion for a new verbal performance, recreating the world of her character, Eleanora Antinova (a black ballerina with Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe) as a train journey through the bitter Russian winter. African American artist Ed Bereal fuses these two approaches, transitioning seamlessly between his recollection of a subversive, white face performance as Uncle Sam, and the voice of the caricatured icon himself. Although the audio guide format is familiar, it’s refreshing to see the artifacts of performance art given the reverential treatment usually reserved for Hollywood costumes.
Also drawing attention to the importance of the artist’s body is a fascinating photo and video installation by Heather Cassils, a stunt person, bodybuilder, and artist who spent five months on a strict diet and exercise regimen that included taking male hormones. The piece is an homage to an extended performance by Antin, who compared dieting to the sculpting of the body in ancient Greek statues.
Like Antin, Cassils photographed herself every day from four different angles. She then took the idea further by assembling the stills into a video animation of her progress from already well-muscled female to aggressively sculpted androgyne. In this, she also invokes artist Lynda Benglis, who famously ran an ad in Artforum depicting her taut nude body with a giant, fake, decidedly male appendage. Cassils’ imagery is less in-your-face—she’s wearing a jock strap—but no less powerful in redefining the possibilities of the human physique.
So far, I have not seen any of the exhibition’s live events, but if they manage to revivify the past as the gallery exhibition has, they should be equally compelling. These events include artist collective OJO’s telephone performances, which will be recorded on a 45” record, Liz Glynn’s Spirit Resurrection potluck, and an outdoor piece at Barnsdall Park by Dorian Wood that traced connections between important figures in the L.A. performance art and underground club scenes. On Oct. 13, Ulysses Jenkins will reformulate his 1980 performance, “Black Gold Fever,” as a ritual collaboration with seven other artists exploring the legacy of Columbus.
Works by Jeri Allyn and Inez Bush, Denise Uyehara and James Luna, and Suzanne Lacy follow later this fall and in January, as part of the Pacific Standard Time Performance and Public Art Festival. The full schedule of “Los Angeles Goes Live” events can be found here.
Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, 6522 Hollywood Blvd., (323) 957-1777, through Jan. 29. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays. www.welcometolace.org
Upper photo: The Waitresses, "Ready to Order," 1978. Credit: Maria Karras
Lower photo: Cheri Gaulke, dancing with a skeleton puppet with bound feet in "Broken Shoes," 1978. Credit: Courtesy of Cheri Gaulke. Photograph by Sheila Ruth.