what happens when performance art isn’t performed?

I hit up the Los Angeles Goes Live show at LACE in West Hollywood on Tuesday night and it gave me a chance to think about performance art.  Several galleries in Los Angeles are attempting to give us an overview of their own history as part of the Pacific Standard Time initiative.  Cirrus opened last week with an ode to their own exhibition history, and that was essentially the case at the LACE show as well.  Both shows had a wall covered with notes, letters, and receipts giving us a peek behind the scenes of some of their most important events and exhibitions.  At Cirrus, this piece of the puzzle was tucked away through the hall that leads to the back patio and another exhibition space upstairs, at LACE it took up the entire left wall as you enter the first of three rooms in the gallery.  It really is interesting to have access to these glimpses into what makes the art come alive, but for someone who wasn’t there and isn’t privy to the details of the pieces mentioned, it is a little difficult to enjoy thoroughly.

This feeling continued for me throughout the LACE show on Tuesday. The exhibit did a great job of giving viewers access to pieces of the history of performance art and context as to the history of performance art, but I was left wondering about the actual art.  In the second room there were costumes from some pieces and short didactic panels that contained the artists’ names and the titles of the pieces but I missed a real description of the piece itself.  Obviously I recognized many of the names, but having not been in Los Angeles in the 70’s and 80’s I didn’t have the reference to be able to fill in those blanks.  This section was curated by Ellina Kevorkian  and is intended to posit “clothing or objects used in a performance [as] not remnants but a sculptural void holding an inherent performance to be fulfilled.” The third room brought some of this together with three large screens that rotated pictures of performances from this time period.  Some of these photographs showed the costumes from the second room in action, and others were not referenced elsewhere in the exhibit.  All in all I didn’t feel like I came away from the show understanding the connections between these artists nor did I feel like I really understood what the performances looked or felt like during that time period.  I was also disappointed that there wasn’t mention of Los Angeles’ contribution as unique, in terms of performance art, to what was going on in the rest of the country and world.

Along with the exhibition of performance art documentation, LACE has also commissioned re-stagings of several performance pieces.  This, I feel, is the most successful way to update and document performance art for a new audience.  These performances will be spaces out through the year of PST, and there were two on the opening night. Cheri Gaulke’s “Peep Totter Fly” took up the right wall in the first room of the exhibit with multiple pairs of red high heels in various sizes, meant to be worn by audience members as they walked through the space.  This was accompanied by a short performance wherein several people clad all in white synchronously put on shoes and marched along Hollywood Boulevard.  A bit innocuous given Hollywood Boulevard’s usual crowds, but an interesting moment none-the-less.  This was accompanied by a video of high heels marching in natural environments that could have been larger on the wall, but was beautifully shot and a nice addition to the contributory performance of the heels on the wall.  I must mention that Ms. Gaulke was my teacher in high school and so I’m a little biased given that she was inspirational in my early years as an artist…

In the last room we were treated to a video installation (that ran between the montage of photographic images I mentioned earlier) of a Heather Cassils piece, “Cuts: A Traditional Sculpture.”  Cassils draws from two well-known performance works from the 70’s and 80’s, Eleanor Antin’s “Carving: A Traditional Sculpture” and Lynda Beglis’ “Advertisement in Artforum.”  We were shown short video snips of Cassils’ earlier works and then the two channel video of “Cuts,” wherein she documents herself transforming her body through hormones, bodybuilding, and a strict diet.  The transformation was extraordinary and the photography and video truly allowed us into the performance (probably because it was conceived as a video project and not just a performance).  This ode to the history of performance art conceived and produced for a contemporary audience was a wonderful addition to the show, I just wish there had been a didactic panel giving the viewer more information about what the Cassils piece was referencing.

All in all I was taken back to my early days in art school at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where I hung out with many performance artists.  I remember always being so interested in what they were doing, and thinking so much of the interventions they were making in social preconceptions… but, really, I don’t know that I truly understood much of it.  I pranced up and down Michigan avenue dressed in my best goth attire, went in and out of fancy high-end hotels wielding a metal chain menacingly for a friend’s video project, but I’m not sure that we really did anything with these performances beyond amusing ourselves.  The thing about performance art (and, really, all art), is that it must draw the viewer in to some degree, before it can confront them.  The performance pieces that I observed on Tuesday were able to do this.  Gaulke’s piece through humor, personal engagement, and beauty before the dull pain of wearing those heels set in, and Cassils’ piece through fascination and awe at her transformation, before the idea of bodily change and preconceptions about beauty, strength, and sex took hold.  I still can’t claim to be someone who truly “gets” performance art, but I can say I still revere those who utilize the medium to great ends.  I look forward to experiencing more from the series!

PST is just getting started here in LA – check out the full schedule here:

To find out more about programming at LACE – check out their web site here:

Cheri Gaulke's 1978 performance, "Broken Shoes"

Heather Cassils Performance "Cuts"


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