New Acquisition: Bruce Conner, Three Screen Ray

April 25, 2012

Bruce Conner was one of the most important artists of the Beat Generation, a visionary whose work simultaneously epitomizes the aesthetics of his contemporaries and looks forward to the sensibilities of younger generations of artists. Conner’s practice points to a postmodernist sensibility well before its time, using both figurative and abstract vocabularies in a wide variety of media, including not only video and film but also assemblage, collage, drawing, prints, and photographs.

Conner’s films are acknowledged to be his most influential legacy, “a new way of imagining visual perception” as groundbreaking as cubist paintings were in the 1910s. Major filmmakers and artists ranging from Dennis Hopper to Christian Marclay have acknowledged the influence of Conner on their own work.  Using the collage aesthetic of his work in other media, Conner’s pioneering films combine found footage from a variety of sources (commercial movies, advertisements, government promotional films, etc.) with his own original footage to create social critiques that are simultaneously seductive and scathing. Born in Kansas, Conner moved to San Francisco in 1957; he remained in the Bay Area (with a brief 1961–62 interlude in Mexico) until his death in 2008.

Bruce Conner, Three Screen Ray (still), 1961/2006, no. 4/6, purchased with funds provided by Brad and Colleen Bell, Victoria Jackson and Bill Guthy, Jane and Marc Nathanson, and Steve Tisch through the 2012 Collectors Committee, © Estate of Bruce Conner

Three Screen Ray is based on Conner’s second film, Cosmic Ray of 1961, the first time he combined found footage with footage he shot himself.  In 2006 he edited the fast-paced, black-and-white collage that is Cosmic Ray into is a three-channel video projection. The central channel of Three Screen Ray is the 1961 film exactly; the left and right channels are edited versions.  Both Cosmic Ray and Three Screen Ray, which has lovingly been called “a cinematic slot machine of disparate images,” are synchronized to a live recording of soul pioneer Ray Charles’s “What’d I Say.” As Conner described it, “I felt that I was…presenting the eyes for Ray Charles …I was supplying his vision.”

Bruce Conner, Three Screen Ray (still), 1961/2006, no. 4/6, purchased with funds provided by Brad and Colleen Bell, Victoria Jackson and Bill Guthy, Jane and Marc Nathanson, and Steve Tisch through the 2012 Collectors Committee, © Estate of Bruce Conner

Three Screen Ray is a funny yet serious social critique juxtaposing hundreds of images ranging from nude women and fighter airplanes to cartoon figures, firing cannons, and Conner’s signature use of commercial film countdown leader. It also includes visual references to non-Western cultures including a many-armed Hindu deity and tribal dancing from an ethnographic film. Conner even tipped his hat to abstract expressionism—at its peak in 1961—by marking and staining the actual celluloid of the original Cosmic Ray with ink and corrosive chemicals so that moments of it look like an action painting akin to Jackson Pollock’s drips.

Bruce Conner, Three Screen Ray (still), 1961/2006, no. 4/6, purchased with funds provided by Brad and Colleen Bell, Victoria Jackson and Bill Guthy, Jane and Marc Nathanson, and Steve Tisch through the 2012 Collectors Committee, © Estate of Bruce Conner

Both Cosmic Ray and Three Screen Ray represent a critical link between early twentieth-century avant-garde cinema—particularly the black-and-white films of Hans Richter and Fernand Léger—and music videos, which came to the fore towards the end of the century.  

Carol S. Eliel, curator, Modern Art


New Acquisition: Robert Rauschenberg, Currents

April 24, 2012

One of the most important artists of the past century, Robert Rauschenberg famously declared himself to be working “in the gap between art and life.” Currents is a superlative example of this radical approach. Hijacking the immersive scale of abstract expressionism, Rauschenberg channeled the energy and anxiety of the world around him. The Cold War, the civil rights movement, the conflict in Vietnam, and the rarefication of high culture: these and other divisive forces had opened the chasm he resolved to occupy.

Robert Rauschenberg, Currents (detail), 1970, gift of the 2012 Collectors Committee, with additional funds provided by Gail and Tony Ganz, © Robert Rauschenberg Estate/Licensed by VAGA, New York, photo courtesy Peter Freeman Inc., New York, photo by Jerry Mathiason

Rauschenberg undertook to bring “serious journalism” into the fine-art realm with Currents, which expresses his intention literally, insofar as it comprises screenprinted extracts from the January and February 1970 issues of major metropolitan newspapers. This fusion of high and low culture refers back to Picasso’s incorporation of newspaper in his cubist collages, and to Rauschenberg’s own renowned Combine paintings and sculptures of the mid-1950s. Currents deploys the material and meaning of newsprint, and the work’s brash activism aligns it with the contemporaneous New Journalism. “Absolute truth is a very rare and dangerous commodity in the context of professional journalism,” according to Hunter S. Thompson, but for Rauschenberg, truth-telling was worth the risk:

I want to shake people awake. I want people to look at the material and react to it. I want to make them aware of individual responsibility, both for themselves and for the rest of the human race. It has become easy to be complacent about the world…. I made [Currents] as realistically as I could, as austerely as possible, in the most direct way I knew how, because, knowing that it was art, people had to take a second look, at least, at the facts they were wrapping their garbage in.

Robert Rauschenberg, Currents (detail), 1970, gift of the 2012 Collectors Committee, with additional funds provided by Gail and Tony Ganz, © Robert Rauschenberg Estate/Licensed by VAGA, New York, photo courtesy Peter Freeman Inc., New York, photo by Jerry Mathiason

The dense messiness of the clippings, strewn across a sixty-foot expanse, creates a disorienting effect. “The world condition permitted me no choice of subject or color and method/composition,” the artist wrote emphatically. The first themes to emerge from the welter of headlines are grim: murders and riots offer stark evidence of social upheaval. More sustained observation reveals an art-world subtext, with articles documenting Expo ’70 in Osaka, Japan, and a new work by Richard Serra. Art, Rauschenberg suggests, has constructive potential amid general disintegration.

In keeping with his political convictions and experimental ethos, Rauschenberg participated in LACMA’s Art & Technology project simultaneously with his work on Currents. His three-year A&T collaboration with Teledyne resulted in the sound sculpture Mud Muse, a huge tank of sludgy volcanic ash that bubbles audibly as electrical signals pass through it. Deliberately atavistic, Mud Muse is an astute counterpart to Currents, which manifests the equally haphazard signals of so-called civilization.

Rauschenberg had been making large-scale prints for several years, and the commission to fill a long wall at Dayton’s Gallery 12 in Minneapolis gave him the opportunity to exceed all previous efforts by any artist to date. First, he made thirty-six collages, 30 x 30 inches each, which were then photomechanically transferred to screens for printing at Styria Studios in Glendale. Since its display at the Pasadena Art Museum shortly after its completion, Currents has not been seen in Los Angeles. Of the original six editioned prints and two artist’s proofs, one proof was destroyed by the artist, four impressions remain with his estate, and only two are in museum collections (the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts). Rauschenberg’s Currents is a critical work of art in every sense. As a tactical and technical achievement, it is as timely now as ever.

Britt Salvesen, curator and department head, Wallis Annenberg Photography Department and Prints & Drawings Department


What is the Sound of Four Hands Closing?

December 19, 2011

It’s easy to describe Bruce Nauman’s For Beginners (all the combinations of the thumb and fingers). There it is, right in the title: two sets of hands displayed on a large, two-sided screen, palms facing out as two voices command different combinations of fingers and thumbs to close. Five fingers in a row, combinations of four fingers in a row, three fingers, and so on.

Bruce Nauman, For Beginners (all the combinations of the thumb and fingers), 2010, collection of the Los Angeles Museum of Art and Artis, Image courtesy Sperone Westwater, New York. © 2011 Bruce Nauman / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

It’s easy to describe what it is, sure, but it’s harder to describe what it does. That’s largely because, despite the work having a huge, imposing visual element, the sound of the video piece is dominating. The two voices instructing the hands are, more specifically, two sets of the same voice, each instructing the fingers to open and close in different intervals. For instance, while one voice speaks “third finger, fourth finger, thumb, first finger,” the other is saying “first finger, second finger, third finger,” and so forth. They speak over each other, at equal volume and tone.

The artwork occupies its own gallery on the first floor of BCAM, where the voices echo through the spacious room. On entering the other day, it sounded to me like cacophony. The longer I listened, however, the more musical it became. And by musical I’m thinking less of Beyoncé, more of Steve Reich, whose early works involved tape loops of the same voice played at slightly different speeds, causing them to fall out of phase before eventually synching back up again.  Nauman’s voices are not exactly the same as Reich’s loops, but a similar thing is happening—just when the dual instructions seem a barrage of confusion, they suddenly, coincidentally, powerfully, come together to say THUMB. It hits so abruptly and with such clarity that it has the power of a drum or cannon shot. At one point as I sat in front of the screens the voices hit onto a whole string of simultaneous commands—”first finger, second finger, third finger”—before jogging away from each other again.

I started listening for patterns, intentional or not. It became hypnotic (aided by the lulling images of the giant fingers in front of me, opening and closing, opening and closing, opening and closing). A colleague of mine equated it to a Gregorian chant. In a way, yes—the voice is deep and commanding—but the rhythm is all wrong. So I started thinking about the cadence of the voice. And suddenly I realized: it was a waltz! “SECOND fin-ger / THIRD fin-ger / FOURTH fin-ger / THUMB.”

Or, something approaching a waltz; it is plain speech, not song. I find that I, personally, tend to become enamored of sounds before visuals (if that isn’t apparent). That isn’t true for everyone, for sure. In the fifteen minutes I’d spent with For Beginners, it became more and more like a kind of music to me. That didn’t seem to be the case for the guard positioned in the gallery. She asked me if I liked the piece and I told her I thought it was great. She sort of winced, then asked if we could trade jobs for the day. I almost took her up on it.

Scott Tennent


Robert Therrien: The Art of Two Minds

December 5, 2011

Maybe you know this riddle someone recently told me: You leave home, you make three left turns, and you arrive back facing two masked men. What’s going on?

To some extent Robert Therrien’s art engenders, if considered as a whole, a puzzle that is both profound and quite silly. These visual puns are the foundation of pop art’s reverence of modern life. But for Therrien, these sculptural entities seem to be flying in opposite directions and for entirely different purposes. Maybe it is churlish of me to expect something else. Long guard duty can leave you with questions that mere looking can’t quite resolve.

You step onto the third floor of the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, and as you enter the gallery to the left, you encounter a large, haphazard stack of giant ivory plates. To your right is a fairly small painting of a blue oval. Thus, the journey begins between them. As you continue on, you realize there’s another stack, only this one is blue. Walking around these stacks gives you a dizzy sensation—which tells you something more about the art. It’s funny.

Installation view of "Robert Therrien: Selections from the Broad Collection and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art." Artworks © Robert Therrien/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

In the next room you find a beautifully upholstered black leather bed rising up, twisting toward the ceiling. It’s almost musical and all that is missing is a top hat, but of course, there it is—a straw boater in wood standing on its brim. It’s theater! Somewhere between commentary and sculptural invention, all the pieces placate this divide of the precarious and the pure.

Robert Therrien, Untitled (black beds), 1998, gift of Gail and Tony Ganz in memory of Robert Shapazian, © Robert Therrien/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

So, to me, Therrien’s art is about structure and reception more than form. Admittedly, at times this is a cultural joke freighted as it were as pop art and minimalism—where Disney meets Kandinsky, where Mies van der Rohe and Sealy Posturepedic meet surrealism and the film Inception. Robert Therrien manages to mine an absurdist dreamscape that lodges somewhere between Lewis Carroll and late-twentieth-century art’s fascination with Koons-ish zany domesticity and monumentality. It’s play that goes beyond playfulness. It’s a quirky world of everyday hardcore encounters—pots and pans, dishes, stoves, and tables with their intrinsic lived-in messiness and odd character construction that are somehow passionately pushed to another degree of scale and heft that bestows on them a torturous reality of restless, unstable energy. Contrapuntally, he gives us these extraordinary reductive forms in which the ghost of some previous utilitarian item merely existed. Here, we lose that topsy-turvy, disconcerting abstraction for perfect shapes, a geometrical universe in which artists in general seem to be perpetually entangled—that perfect world.

Installation view of "Robert Therrien: Selections from the Broad Collection and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art." Artworks © Robert Therrien/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

I recently had the pleasure of viewing a large selection of Therrien’s works at the Gagosian Gallery, including beards in all forms—from normal-sized plastic beards to gigantic wire “hairs” in a wooden cage. I could not help but think of Jack and the Bean Stalk, pathetically. His recurring cartoon images keep one off balance. Thus, Robert Therrien creates a disquieting world in which you never quite laugh and that, for me, echoes modernism’s split personality by which any very real object in the Duchampian universal parlance of art—the human stuff—can simply be labeled and made ironically perverse, vaguely macabre, or weirdly humorous with sexual or sexless overtones and a messy undertow of violence and unease. On the other hand, the long shadow of Kazimir Malevich is cast where Therrien finds himself in the cool embrace of the same clean, frictionless forms as one of his heroes, Constantin Brancusi, and his Bird in Space. Just maybe, Robert Therrien was trying to fit them together. But more likely than not, he was prepared to live with the dichotomy of his own making—the puzzle’s sweet chaos in which nothing is really settled. Oh! And, of course, the answer is you’ve arrived at home plate.

Hylan Booker


East and West, Past and Present: Ai Weiwei’s Zodiac Heads

September 22, 2011

In ancient China one’s Zodiac sign was fixed by the position of the planet Jupiter during the year of one’s birth (it takes twelve years for Jupiter to orbit the sun). On this level, Ai Weiwei Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads represents a system of measuring time and distinguishing characteristics of the human psyche linked to the heavens above.

Ai Weiwei: Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads, installation view, © Ai Weiwei

In the mid-eighteenth century the Qianlong Emperor, ruler of the Qing (Ch’ing) dynasty—a Manchu (not Chinese) by birth—was fascinated by European technology. On the condition that they not proselytize, he invited European Jesuit priests into the Forbidden City, where they worked as scientists, engineers, architects, and artists. These priests spoke, read, and wrote Chinese fluently; in this way they could easily communicate with the most eminent Chinese and Manchu scholar-officials in the Forbidden City. Sent to China by the Vatican with the mission of converting China to the Catholic Church (in which they largely failed), these priests nonetheless had an enormous influence on Chinese intellectual and artistic life.

Among the projects commissioned by the Emperor from the Jesuits was a grand palace known as the Yuan Ming Yuan, or “Palace of Perfect Brightness.” It consisted of a mix of styles: sections built in traditional Chinese wooden architecture and others made of marble, imitating such European palaces as Versailles. In front of one building in the European manner was a large fountain, with twelve animal-headed waterspouts. These functioned as symbols of the Zodiac and of the hours of the day (the Chinese measured the day in units equivalent to two Western hours, which when multiplied by twelve makes up a twenty-four hour day).

In an astonishing irony, in 1860 the entire Palace was destroyed and looted by British and French troops as part of military actions of the Second Opium War. Of the twelve original bronze heads, seven survive. In casting his new Zodiac Heads, Ai Weiwei carefully followed the style of the originals, but exercised considerable artistic license in designing the five heads whose models are missing (including the dragon).

Ai Weiwei’s Zodiac Heads are thus a multi-layered meditation on political power, the nature of time, and the often tormented relationship between China and West, at the same time calling into question the arbitrary nature of such concepts as “national treasure.” That all of this is accomplished with considerable humor is a tribute to Ai’s detachment. I am proud that LACMA is showing this work by one of China’s greatest artists and most courageous social critics.

Stephen Little, curator, Chinese and Korean Art


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 835 other followers

%d bloggers like this: