Rebels Without A Canvas

BMA's new exhibit challenges what making art really means


October 12, 2003|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

I was fixin' to start fidgeting as I approached the entrance to Work Ethic, the long-anticipated show about the changing nature of artistic labor that opens today at the Baltimore Museum of Art .

After all, this was billed as an exhibition of artists who mostly rejected the very idea of having their works presented in museums, along with the notion that artworks are beautiful, precious objects whose main reason for being is to serve as luxury items that can be bought and sold.

So I was braced for a humorless exercise in textual criticism whose visual interest was secondary to a lot of theoretical blather about the "dematerialization of the art object," the moral failings of capitalism, etc.

Imagine, then, my relief when I discovered how engaging Work Ethic is -- by turns quirky, moving, mystifying and playful -- and in the end so intelligently intriguing that an hour and a half sped by before I knew it. My fidgets had fugited.

Not that curator Helen Molesworth, formerly of the BMA and now chief of exhibitions at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, underplays the intellectual challenges embodied in these works, which are considerable, because they go to the heart of what art is and artists do -- or should be doing.

As soon as I stepped across the gallery threshold, those challenges were apparent.

On the opposite wall is one of Frank Stella's large "black paintings," an imposing canvas six feet tall that the artist covered with a uniform coat of black paint except for a pattern of pale, thin, unpainted lines marking the boundaries between brushstrokes, which form a ghostly geometric network peeking through the dark pigment.

To the left of the Stella hang a pair of nondescript black-and-white photos of a guy digging a trench, who turns out to be performance artist Chris Burden.

A wall label states that "when asked by an art school in Vancouver to come and speak, he refused and requested instead that he be provided with a wheel barrow, a shovel and a pick ax. Burden stated that during his four-day stay he was going to 'dig a straight ditch about 2 feet wide and three feet deep.' " And that's about all the artist had to say on that subject.

Ooo-kaay. Turn the corner and you come upon a giant video projection of artist Bruce Nauman in his studio monotonously playing a single, scratchy note on a violin that sounds as if it hasn't been tuned in 400 years.

Good thing the volume is turned down or it would clear the gallery in a second. It's so absurd it's almost painful to watch; yet it's comical, too, like the guy who taught his dog to cook ham and eggs, then explained, "He doesn't do it well, but the amazing thing is that he does it at all."

The piece is titled Playing a Note on the Violin While I Walk Around the Studio 1967-1968.

And right there, in those three pieces, you pretty much have the ambience of this show. It's odd, unremittingly unconventional, occasionally irritating, yet interesting enough overall in its unrepentant rebelliousness and damn-the-torpedoes assault on everything we've been taught is sacred about art that something like the Stockholm syndrome sets in eventually. In the end, you wind up secretly cheering on these hooligan practitioners for the sheer brazenness of their performative antics.

Yoko Ono's 'Cut Piece'

Their earnestness can also be heartbreaking. Take Yoko Ono's pioneering 1964 performance at Carnegie Hall titled "Cut Piece," which was not a musical recital at all but rather a spectacular and (for its time) disturbing bit of political theater.

In the early 1960s, Ono, today best known as the widow of Beatles singer John Lennon, belonged to the international avant-garde movement Fluxus, whose members staged informal events called "happenings" that relied on audience participation to complete their artworks.

Fluxus, which included such artists as Allan Kaprow and composer John Cage, championed the idea that art should be about the celebration of life, not the creation of tangible objects.

Ono's "performance art" grew out of these ideas.

In "Cut Piece," she sat on a bare stage and invited members of the audience to snip off pieces of her clothing with a pair of scissors while she recorded the event on film.

The BMA's vi-deo of Ono's film depicts the artist en-during the process of being literally stripped naked in public by total strangers -- both men and women -- who seem completely indifferent to her growing discomfort.

The film ends as the last audience member cuts away the straps holding Ono's bra, forcing her to cover her bare breasts with her arms. The camera goes to black while registering Ono's face as a mask of stoic vulnerability.

Ono's performances helped pioneer art practices based on the artist's own body, identity and gender that would be widely employed in the decades that followed. They also helped blur traditional distinctions between the works created by artists and the audiences for whom they were intended.

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