Friday, October 28, 2011

Humans are the new medium

If you live in Los Angeles and write about art, it's likely that all-things-Pacific Standard Time are leaving your fingertips. And no, I don't mean the time zone, but the title of an initiative spanning Southern California that aims to explore the L.A. art scene from 1945-1980.

A recent PST foray brought me to the 18th Street Arts Center in Santa Monica, a sort of mini art colony that has workspaces, studios and an exhibition gallery. Their current show, "Collaboration Labs: Southern California Artists and the Artist Space Movement," is thought-provoking and immersive with its video installations and vintage photographs. The exhibit ventures to explore just what the title implies: artist-run spaces, specifically as an alternative to the gallery space, in the 1970s. In a decade rife with instability, such collaborations reflected not only political and social concerns, but also a desire to cooperate and collectivize.

One of the period's seminal artists, Barbara Smith, caught my eye. Born in Pasadena, CA and known for her performance art, Smith stole my heart with her 1972 work "Nude Frieze." Captured in a series of black and white photographs, the performance involved suspending naked people to a wall with nothing but duct-tape. (Since the photos are pretty explicit, click here to see an example; to whet your appetites, I included a PG-13 image above.) A highly orchestrated affair, Smith served as a sort of "conductor," directing people through a microphone to tape her nude subjects to a wall. After remaining suspended for a given period, the nudes broke free. The end result? A wall of flaccid tape revealing some suggestion of the bodies it once adhered--a sort of relic of the performance.

Smith's work is rife with allusions, from the Crucifixion to the sculptural friezes of Graeco-Roman antiquity. Here Smith is the sculptor, modeling her "material" for the purpose of enacting a vision. Her vision involves a form of sacrifice, albeit a cooperative one, where the subjects have consented to be painfully adhered to a wall. Unless you're into S&M, I have a hard time finding physical joy in this experience...

The impact of Smith's work can undoubtedly stand alone, but I can't help thinking about a
similar piece made a decade earlier. Yves Klein, a sort of conceptual artist from France, launched a series called "Anthropometries" in the 1960s. Under his supervision, a tuxedo-clad Klein directed nude women to cover themselves in paint and impress their bodies atop a large canvas. The entire performance was accompanied by a live classical orchestra and audience; one can only imagine the spectacle. Ultimately, the sole remnant of this event was the imprint of women's bodies on a canvas, similar to the wall of tape from Smith's "Nude Frieze."

It's hard to deny that Smith was engaging in a dialogue with Klein. There are, of course, differences, but the general theme of supervising a human "medium" is hard to ignore. Whether Klein's work is collaborative is questionable, but he did not forcefully compel his subjects to participate--they were consciously and willfully involved in the process, even if to ultimately follow the artist's directions. However, the gender element is ridden with controversy, a tone that isn't as potent in Barbara Smith's work. By re-enacting the tradition of the empowered male artist and quite female muse, Klein is clearly playing with gender roles. It's comically ambiguous, though, since we can't identify whether he is critiquing this dynamic or celebrating it.

If you want to fully experience the glory of Barbara Smith and some of her collaborators, the 18th Street Arts Center is worth paying a visit indeed.