Sunday, May 5, 2013

A Glimpse of California Conceptual Art

Every once in a while I like to challenge myself by stepping out of my comfort zone.  I recently did this by visiting Site Santa Fe, the contemporary kunsthalle in town.

At the moment they have 3 exhibitions which explore conceptual art from the 1960’s  and1970’s in California, but some of it goes on to the present.

When you come into the museum you hear these strange high pitched noises which sounded a bit like my son when he started playing the violin as a little boy.  Turns out that it was a work of art by Mungo Thomson (1969-).  It is called, “Crickets” and consists of an HD-video and audio installation.  The artist is interested in background sounds and believes crickets to be a ubiquitous aural backdrop.  He collaborated with the West Coast composer Michael Webster to transcribe a compilation of field crickets chirping from different parts of the world for violin, clarinet, flute and percussion.  This becomes more interesting when you learn that for the Whitney Museum in New York at the 2008 Biennial he substituted the coat check hangars with ones based on orchestral triangles, then, at least, you begin to understand where he is coming from. Now there is a concept for you!

The main exhibition is called  “State of Mind: New California Art circa 1970”.  There are 150 works by some 60 different artists represented in this exhibition.  These artists  were more daring than artists in the rest of the country at the time and are more into experimentation.  They were even more interested in exploring techniques than subject matter.

The best known artist in the show is Bruce Nauman (1941-).  His piece is from the Guggenheim Museum and is called “Yellow Room (Triangular)” 1973.  It is just that,  three walls painted a bright yellow intensified by long fluorescent bulbs mounted at the top of each one.  I was encouraged to step inside and when I did I became totally disoriented.  If you have vertigo this is definitely one to skip, it is, however, very effective but to what end I am not sure.

A work that I found easier to understand and I really liked was a photographic piece by Robert Kinmont  (1937-) called “8 Natural Handstands”.  I am obviously not alone because one of the 8 images in this piece is used on all the promotional material for the show.  In each frame you see a man standing on his hands in various outdoor settings such as a forest, a stream, and a precipice.  The latter is, of course, the most arresting and interestingly enough this is the first one in the series.  The concept here seems simple; on our hands we will see the world differently!

There was lots of video and I must admit I did not get much of it or rather why what was done was done.  There was one, however, that I could relate to even if it was a rather frustrating one.  It is called “Roping Boar’s Tusk”, 1971 and was created by Paul Kos (1942-).  It shows this young cowboy with glasses, presumably sunglasses, twirling his lasso and throwing it toward the rock formation, which is Boar’s Tusk.  The thing is that Boar’s Tusk is way in the distance.  It is a comment on frustration or futility and I don’t know which.  Paul Kos is a native of Utah where the video was shot and I could speculate that it represents his frustration at no longer living there.  The film was done with a Super 8 camera showing all its graininess when it is blown up to its current proportions.  In an unintentional way it manages to convey not just the location but when it was created as well.

The third exhibition is the work of Linda Mary Montano (1942-), a performance artist. It included work from the late 1960’s to the present.  What grabbed me was pseudo interactive piece and was made just for this exhibition.  It developed from what the artist does as performance art.  In this case one walks into a room and sits at a desk before a video of a woman, quite unattractively filmed, who is trying to welcome you.  She tells you she went to the dentist to have her teeth whitened and put on fresh makeup to greet you.  She compliments you on your shirt and the way you have dressed and then asks if there is anything you wish to speak with her about.   One is encouraged to write a comment on the chalkboard, which takes up the other 3 walls of the room and is already covered with the comments of others; an eraser and chalk are supplied.  Then our artist/counselor says goodbye at least 20 times!

As is usually the case at Site Santa Fe there are young guards-cum-docents throughout the exhibition.  Most of them are artists and writers themselves and they are there to explain and help the visitor understand the exhibits.  For this show that is most welcome.  If you are interested you will have to hurry because the shows closes May 19.

As I am lamenting the lack of photos for this Missive I realize that maybe for a conceptual piece it is appropriate to let the images be in everyone’s imagination rather than impose what the artist was thinking!

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