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Review: 'Suspension of Beliefs' at Steve Turner Contemporary

May 21, 2009 |  4:30 pm

Barbarian Active for nearly a decade, the performance collective My Barbarian has made a name for itself. Its peculiar brand of musical theater combines theory-inflected social critique and parody with high school talent-show aesthetics and over-the-top glam-rock stage antics, all delivered with a weird enthusiasm that renders even the most obscure references giddily palatable.

In performances, recordings, videos and installations, most of them at least obliquely narrative, the three-member group (Malik Gaines, Jade Gordon and Alexandro Segade) draws on a bafflingly disparate array of influences, including ancient mythology, Broadway musicals, Noh theater and Jazzercise. The result is a distinctive visual and theatrical language that feels driven by a logic all its own.

Their most recent enterprise — and the focus of their show “Suspension of Beliefs” at Steve Turner Contemporary — is “Post-Living Ante-Action Theater (PoLAAT)”, a series of workshops conducted in multiple cities over the last year.

Building on the tropes of 1960s experimental theater, the group sought to train participants in a handful of principles encouraging self-awareness and interactivity, as outlined in a statement written by Segade. “Estrangement” is one, for instance: “the performer acts out the distance between themselves and what they are doing.”

“Indistinction” is another: “contradictory formal and institutional distinctions are set in oppositional motion. The performer does two things at once, such as singing a love song and paying taxes.”

In both the statement and the video footage contained in the exhibition, it is difficult to sort the satire from the sincerity, which is clearly part of the point — and key to the canniness of the group’s approach.
The climate of irony that settled across the arts in the 1980s and ’90s has made it a complicated thing to succeed, largely because it would seem to leave room for only two reactions: a dour, inflexible criticality on the one hand and blind, market-oriented enthusiasm on the other.

My Barbarian is one of an encouraging number of contemporary artists managing to forge a middle path, one that takes as a given the necessity for both criticality and enthusiasm, that embraces ambiguity and the confusion of referents as a reality rather than a strategy, that recognizes the value of humor, spectacle and visual pleasure.

That said, the exhibition itself is less than satisfying. The installation is a minimally coherent jumble, with half a dozen video projections scattered at varying angles around the gallery, cluttering the space without somehow seeming large enough to dominate it. Each of the four projections in the main space is further divided into two panels, making for a total of eight simultaneous frames of action, some scattered with subtitles, some not, and countless competing layers of sound.

The chaos might be interesting if the footage itself were compelling, but it rarely is. Most merely documents the activity of the workshops: groups of people — mostly sans costume — in bland institutional spaces either sitting and listening or engaged in various exercises, looking generally earnest and a little silly.

There are hints of intriguing conceptual issues: gaps in verbal and cultural translation; allusions to issues of globalism, collectivity, and political ideologies. But it would take a good deal of concentrated effort to draw these threads into a meaningful order.

The entertaining exception is a pair of videos screened on a monitor in the gallery’s narrow front room that were made in the more theatrical fashion of My Barbarian’s past work — one that features the trio floating on a boat down the Nile, the other in the style of an Italian neo-realist film.

The impulse to bridge the gap between performer and audience, spectacle and interactivity, is a worthy one, and it looks to have been a success insofar as the workshops’ participants are concerned. But there remains the gap between event and exhibition, and the disconnect here is conspicuous.

It is a significant issue given the rising importance of the event as a medium in its own right, particularly in Los Angeles, and one that My Barbarian is certainly shrewd enough to engage.

-- Holly Myers

Steve Turner Contemporary, 6026 Wilshire Blvd., L.A., (323) 931-3721, through May 30. Closed Sunday and Monday.

Photo: My Barbarian: Suspension of Beliefs. Credit: Steve Turner Contemporary.