A funny thing about artists

Lecture: A. Clarke Bedford aims to keep the art world from becoming a parody of itself.

May 31, 2001|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

The work of conceptual artist Coleslaw Baklava moves through a dizzying succession of phases, not the least significant of which was his photographic investigation of parking lots. These include close-ups of reserved parking spaces.

"They're about status," says A. Clarke Bedford, artist and lecturer, pointing to a slide of an untitled piece known simply as "RESERVED 796." The numbers, you see, the notion of hierarchical structure and, well, it's probably too deeply political to go into fully right here and now.

"And then these arrows," says Bedford, showing two slides of arrows painted on the asphalt, "which is all about direction. Where you're going ... or not."

Indeed, one needs a road map to follow the career of Baklava, who also raised cabbages in rows as a documented performance piece. That particular work, Bedford recalls, suggested issues of "growth" and, quite possibly, "decay." Then there were his experiments with "identity art," including projects in which he assembled in a series of lidded jars the ingredients for both coleslaw and, oddly enough, baklava. This is not to mention the egg phase, and his work in "Earth art," which culminated in a monumental outdoor piece called "Rock pile with Porto-Potty."

"He's very prolific," says Bedford, " 'cause he doesn't do anything."

Baklava also does not necessarily exist, except in the imagination of Bedford, who surely exists as a 53-year-old man living in Hyattsville. When not working as a full-time conservator at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington or poking around thrift stores and antique shops, he's making satirical artworks from shards of familiar cultural images. It might be best to picture him ambling through some vast art historical/cultural thrift store of the mind, a gray-bearded, foppish figure in a flowered necktie, suspenders and silk vest, one ironic eyebrow constantly raised at the amusing possibilities of his situation.

His situation is merely our own inheritance of what T.S. Eliot called a "heap of broken images" that have a certain tendency to reappear.

"I think it is clear that we live in a time interested more in recycling pre-existing creative moments than inventing new ones, sometimes acknowledging that it is so and sometimes pretending otherwise," Bedford wrote in a catalog of a recent group exhibition at Maryland Art Place in Baltimore. "Rather than fight or deny this sign of a decadent period, why not celebrate it?" And so he does, pushing modern and postmodern art's self-referential tendencies to broad extremes that would please any fan of Monty Python.

A famous Egyptian bust of Queen Nefertiti is outfitted with a 1950s hairdo and sunglasses. Rembrandt's "The Syndics of the Cloth Drapers' Guild" is juxtaposed with a back view of a reclining female nude so that the august gentlemen appear to be checking her out in a most lascivious fashion. (What the heck, they're already known mainly as an emblem of cheap cigars.) The humble argyle sock attains iconic status by virtue of sundry artistic interpretations: the Cubist socks, the surrealistic "Tormented Socks."

Gothic architecture, the Parthenon, Civil War photographic portraiture, 1960s album covers, Gumby, the Venus de Milo and the Venus of Willendorf - in Bedford's universe, they're all up for grabs.

Not unlike Coleslaw Baklava, Bedford has moved through a few phases in his painting, drawing and sculpture. As he recalls, his work in this antic version of postmodern pastiche began about 15 years ago when, for reasons he cannot exactly recall, he painted a picture of a canvas by Piet Mondrian, the 20th-century Dutch abstractionist, stuck in a tree like some hapless tabby.

"It was a joke on naturalism and modernism," says Bedford, who took off in that satiric direction and has not turned back, making scores of collages, sculptures and photographs. In the last couple years he has been shaping slides of these pieces into art history "lectures."

Recently he stopped by Maryland Art Place at the invitation of executive director Jack Rasmussen to give a small lunch group a much-abbreviated version of his performance, which can run up to two hours. It seemed to take a while for the group to catch on, as Bedford's deadpan delivery is rather professorial. The first broad hint of things going in another direction appeared when Bedford showed an old slide of a woman wearing a pair of Martian antennae and immediately donned an identical set of antennae - springy things with balls on the tips that waggled around when Bedford moved his head.

The presentation included a glimpse of the 19th-century career of Frederick Draper Kalley, who was "perhaps the most enthusiastic but inept art collector of his time and, as such, was instrumental in defining American taste for generations." It was Kalley, for example, who "said the cult of the fragment would inevitably lead to an obsession with body parts."

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