One of the biggest yet largely unnoticed blunders in U.S. contemporary art occurred in the mid-1990s when the little Long Beach Museum of Art decided to terminate its video art program, consisting of groundbreaking exhibitions, a production facility that had served scores of artists, and a collection of tapes representing a significant part of video art history. If the museum's director and board of trustees didn't particularly like the stuff or didn't understand it, at lease they should have recognized that it had value, had put the museum on the map, and was worth supporting.
The Long Beach Museum, which used to attract crowds from Los Angeles to its video openings, is now inconsequential in the world of art. But its loss became the public's gain, when the Getty Research Institute--the scholarly arm of the Getty Center--offered in 2006 to rescue the Long Beach video collection and conserve it. The first example of what the Getty is doing with the collection is unveiled in "California Video," a show that features single-channel videos, projections, and installations from 58 artists and artist groups. Most of the work in the show comes from the Long Beach archive, with additional works--mostly produced in the past few years from a new crop of video artists--gathered from other sources.
Because of the inclusion of recent works, "California Video" aims to be seen as a complete survey rather than just as a historical show. Despite a great variety of work, from performance-based videos to pseudo-documentaries to experiments in electronics to diverse installations, it's hard not to see the show in two distinct parts rather than as a continuum. First there are the old, mostly black-and-white works made in the 1970s, when the Sony Portapak became readily available and artists started playing with it, followed by recent efforts in which sophisticated digital equipment has provided a toolbox of effects at anyone's fingertips.
The show, spread out over a maze-like configuration of small rooms and corridors, opens, in fact, by inviting the comparison between the beginnings of video art and its current state by situating one old work next to two relatively new pieces. The old is represented by John Baldessari's I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art (1971), in which a hand is viewed writing the title sentence over and over for the 32 minutes and 21 seconds of the videotape. It is shown in black-and-white on an old, chipped Sony Trinitron television set. It's a sly and witty exercise, as Baldessari subverts his stated aim just by the act of creating the piece. Just steps away are two pieces by Diana Thater, representing the new guard. On one wall, two color monitors show Surface Effect (1997), an image of a psychedelic orange and blue sky mirrored by a similar image shown upside down. On the opposite wall is Continuous Only (2006), a nine-channel video installation with footage shot from a crane at the top of a rainforest.
Thater, who often projects images in large installations, has said that one of her goals is to make work that is gorgeous. By filling the screens or environment with rich colors and intricate textures, she wants viewers both to lose themselves in a space and become hyper-aware of it. But not much happens when viewing these two videos. Their high production values seem as important as the work itself, which depends heavily on the technology of its making and its display.
When artists like Baldessari were starting with video, they had very little to work with, and yet the results were often remarkable. This comes across repeatedly when viewing the first half of the show, which mostly includes historical work from the Long Beach collection. There are well-known examples, such as William Wegman turning his bare chest and stomach into a doughy face in Stomach Song (1970-72) just by moving his stomach muscles, Skip Arnold in Marks (1984) throwing himself around a room until his bruised body collapses, and Bruce Nauman's Video Surveillance Piece (Public Room, Private Room) (1969-70), one of his many ingenious installations that continue to confound viewers even after they've figured out the logic behind them.
Among the 6,000 tapes the Long Beach Museum collected, there was one I found bizarrely intriguing. It is by David Askevold, who sadly died last January. The focus of his video, John Todd and His Songs (1976-77), is his former student from UC Irvine, who appears in a series of scenes, mostly rambling about his art and fending off questions from his exasperated fellow students. In one monologue, Todd balances a plywood cutout of a whale on his lap and plays with crude props while turning the Pinocchio tale into a psychological drama. It is Askevold's skill that Todd never turns into a caricature.
In his ongoing single-channel video piece, Self-Portrait: Every Year (1972-ongoing), Jay McCafferty shows himself shaving his face and repeating the mantra, "When I shave, I use this mirror." It's not particularly profound and yet watching McCafferty age in this annual rite is engaging. None of these early works relied on much more than a simple camera and a performer, yet they suffered nothing because of those limited resources.
The show delivers a Wizard of Oz moment when the black-and-white videos give way to the color of electronic experiments from artists like Stephen Beck and Warner Jepson, which lead to rooms featuring today's video artists. These artists seem to have been chosen for their star power, and they include Bill Viola, Jennifer Steinkamp, and Mike Kelley, among others.
Judging by the work in "California Video," one could come to the conclusion that as video technology became more sophisticated, the work turned more serious, and lost all of its sense of humor and innocence. There is Thater's work, an installation about the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII called Framed (1989) by Bruce and Norman Yonemoto, but most especially Bill Viola's installation The Sleepers (1992) showing images of sleeping people on monitors submerged in oil drums, and his earlier video, Anthem (1983), about the ills of the postindustrial world. Because of his good intentions and cerebral inclinations, Viola is an artist whom curators universally adore. With work that always deals with big issues such as life, death, transformation, and mysticism, Viola always aims for epiphanies, but he also can come off as suffocating.
Less sedate perhaps is Mike Kelley's Candy Cane Throne (2005) from his Day Is Done project (2004-05), a rich parody of high school pageantry, and Stanya Kahn and Harry Dodge's Whacker (2005), which both acknowledge the power of those raw historical video works through their slackerish narratives.
But these are exceptions. Compared to video art production in other parts of the world, there was often something irreverent about video from California. It never took itself too seriously. But too often, the work in this show from recent years seems self-important and a slave to the latest technology. During one of the many Getty events supporting the show, Bill Viola said, "The palette for artists has never been greater than it is now." While he may consider technological magic an asset, the examples he provides in "California Video" don't bear that out.
The old Long Beach material may look and sound rough, but it still packs a punch more than 30 years later. While the recent works may be visually flawless, they work so hard to make you feel something important that they leave you cold. In the show's comprehensive catalogue, Thater herself explains the situation succinctly when she says, "people are always more creative when they have almost nothing than they are when they have everything." That could be the lesson of this show.
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|Date:||Jun 22, 2008|
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