Forcing the viewer to think


Adrian Piper's unsettling work engages the intellect as well as the eye, and demands a response.

November 28, 1999|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

In 1970, during the height of the Vietnam War, a precocious schoolgirl with waist-length tresses and the face of a Raphael Madonna submitted a single, neatly typewritten page of text as her contribution to a group show of young artists at New York's Museum of Modern Art.

"The work originally intended for this space has been withdrawn," the document read. "I submit its absence as evidence of the inability of art expression to have meaningful existence under conditions other than those of peace, equality, truth, trust and freedom."

With that dramatic gesture, Adrian Piper became one of the pioneers of conceptual art, a heady, in-your-face mix of texts, images and performances that seeks to obliterate the boundaries between art and life by engaging the viewer in unexpected and often uncomfortable ways.

Like many of her generation, Piper was profoundly troubled by America's long involvement in Vietnam. Her refusal to submit conventional artwork for MOMA's landmark "Information" show was a typically forceful attempt to bring the popular discontent of the streets into the hermetically sealed art world elite.

The conceptual art practiced by Piper and her contemporaries was meant, in the words of artist Sol LeWitt, to "engage the mind of the viewer rather than his eye or emotions," and to create a new relationship between subject and object that made viewers active participants in the transformation of their world.

Nearly three decades later, Piper's art can still shock. Her retrospective exhibition at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, which opened last month, celebrates a long career devoted to unconventional, creative thinking.

A professor of philosophy at Wellesley College in Massachusetts as well as an artist, Piper has been a seminal influence on a generation of younger artists whose goal has been to establish more direct, active relationships between art and the world in which it exists.

Along the way, she has challenged received wisdom regarding three of American society's most explosive issues -- those of race, class and gender.

Still, describing an exhibition of conceptual art is a little like trying to describe a color or a flavor. However comprehensive the description, the qualities that make them unique can only be savored by actually seeing or tasting them.

Perceptions of race

Since the 1970s, Piper's art has focused mainly on her experiences as an African-American woman whose fair skin and straight hair often cause people to consider her white. Many of her pieces analyze how perceptions of race not only structure Americans' public interactions but also their private identities.

However, while Piper has been most identified with works that deconstruct racial stereotypes and myths, in recent years many of her pieces deal with universal human themes.

Take, for example, the artist's ironically titled "Ashes to Ashes," a heart-rending installation piece about her parents' death from smoking-related illnesses.

"Theirs was a marriage of passion rather than convenience," reads a large printed panel that accompanies three photographs taken at different stages in her parents' lives -- one of a carefree young couple, another of a happy family gathering, a final shot of Piper's dying mother at home in bed.

"They both started smoking in their teens," the text continues. " 'Everyone did it,' they said later. It was about being young and independent, and daring."

As the text explains, Piper's mother eventually developed emphysema, which left her so short of breath she was unable to walk. The doctors warned Piper's father to quit so his second-hand smoke wouldn't effect his wife's lungs, but try as he might, he couldn't kick the habit.

As his wife grew weaker, he blamed himself for her illness. Then he was diagnosed with cancer himself. The disease slowly wasted his body as his wife watched in horror.

After his death, Piper's mother took to her bed. The final sentence reads, "Near the end, when she had no breath left even to move or speak, she would look at his picture lovingly, and smile with anticipation."

It's a stunning piece, in which the artist's skill and sensitivity as a writer makes image and text meld into a unified whole that expresses her pain with passionate intensity.

Another piece, titled "Please, God," is a videotape loop that depicts a group of little black girls happily dancing in front of a window.

A repeating text that slowly crawls across the top of the screen expresses anxiety for the girls' future, while a soundtrack of three Billie Holiday songs -- "God Bless the Child," "Stormy Blues" and "Strange Fruit" -- plays in the background.

Another video confronts the viewer with a harrowing loop of the Rodney King tape that shows the black motorist being brutally assaulted by Los Angeles police.

Accompanying the visuals is a voice-over of former President Bush's pleading for calm after riots erupted when an all-white jury acquitted the officers of brutality charges.

Viewers must participate

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