Art Review: Lucas Murgida at Charlie James Gallery
Performance art, as everybody knows, can be difficult: messy, obscure, intimidating, boring, baffling and occasionally, downright painful.
San Francisco-based performance artist Lucas Murgida, in his solo debut at Charlie James Gallery, looks like the sort of person who couldn’t be difficult if he tried. With the boyish good looks of Tobey Maguire, a voice that one imagines patiently explaining complicated things to children, and the gentle manner of an understanding locksmith — which, in fact, he is (but more on that in a moment) — he puts a friendly face on a challenging tradition, employing its methods to explore a complex range of phenomena without resorting to sensationalism or mystification.
It is a refreshing combination. If you’re wondering, for instance, about the two wooden refrigerators, the big table, the dangling wire headpiece, and the string and pulley system that links them all together in the gallery, he explains their significance quite plainly in a video that plays in the corner, as well as on the gallery’s website.
In the performance that occurred on the show’s opening night, he recounted, he stood at the table wearing the headpiece, each end of which looped into the corners of his mouth, while offering to massage the interior of the mouths of willing viewers — stimulating pressure points for relaxation, apparently — and extemporizing (much as he does in the video) on the conceptual parameters of the piece.
They revolve around the notion of “herding,” or manipulating the movement and behaviors of groups, in this case with the help of a pair of “food troughs” (the refrigerators) stocked with drinks and snacks. Every time the doors were opened, however, the pulley system drew the headpiece upward, which raised the corners of Murgida’s mouth into a painful-looking smile — making visible the complex give-and-take dynamic between artist and viewer at an opening.
At the root of this and the dozen or so other performances and projects represented in photographs around the gallery is an earnest, undogmatic interest in the figure of the worker, and in the relationship of the worker to the particular constituency he serves. Each series revolves around a form of employment that Murgida actually performed at the time the work was made.
While working as a cabinet maker, for instance, he produced a series of functionally peculiar objects, such as a dining set in which individuals sit back to back on a miniature table and eat, facing outward, off absurdly oversized chairs. While busing tables, he “deconstructed” his uniform in ways that called attention to the discomforts and demands of the service industry — cutting the soles out of his shoes and walking for 12 hours, suspending his shirt from a post office flagpole and documenting the removal of his belt by the female employee of a massage parlor, to name a few.
After becoming a locksmith in 2003, he created the Locksmithing Institute to offer workshops on the trade — and its metaphorical implications — in a variety of public spaces. At the same time, he began studying to become an Iyengar yoga teacher, intending “to compare the similarities between how we culturally guard and lock our spaces against how we physically lock and guard our bodies.”
(The exhibition itself is short on these sorts of explanations, but you’ll find them all on the artist’s neatly organized website: lucasmurgida.com)
In his most recent work, Murgida assumes the role of the artist in the same research-like manner: testing, prodding and drawing out various aspects of the artist’s relationship — both psychological and physiological — to the viewer.
In one piece, he configured a newspaper box to emit dense clouds of sage smoke every time it was opened, effectively “cleansing” unsuspecting passersby. In another, he built a long cabinet, parked it on a New York street corner and hid inside until someone claimed the cabinet and took him home. (He found himself in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant.)
Murgida is a searcher, it seems, an inquirer. It is unassuming but nonetheless rigorous work, undertaken with an easy, guileless attitude that makes one eager to follow along.
Charlie James Gallery, 975 Chung King Road, Los Angeles, (213) 687-0844, through Aug. 29. Closed Sunday through Tuesday. cjamesgallery.com
Above: In a scene from his performance piece, Murgida massages the inside of a viewer's mouth. Photo credit: Image courtesy of the artist and Charlie James Gallery.