State of Mind: New California Art Circa 1970
Vancouver is a veritable Mecca for conceptual art at the moment with the Vancouver Art Gallery’s Ian Wallace and Traffic exhibitions and State of Mind: New California Art Circa 1970 on view at the Belkin. It’s interesting to view Traffic and State of Mind in conjunction as they both address a similar time period and attempt to trace a lineage of conceptual art practices using a regional approach. State of Mind, which was originally presented at the Orange County Museum of Art as part of the Pacific Standard Time series of exhibitions, is a dense, considered and at times surprising exploration of the multifarious art practices that emerged in the Golden State in opposition to the conservative, mainstream New York art world. These practices were experimental, defiantly anti-commercial and were often married to larger political, social, environmental and feminist concerns – the conflation of art and life – that infused the work with a new power and intensity. While State of Mind includes early work by many artists who would later become significant art world figures – John Baldessari, Paul McCarthy, Ed Ruscha – there is an equal emphasis on artists who may be less well known but whose work was equally as revolutionary at the time. It’s this combination of the familiar and the unexpected that makes State of Mind more than a mere celebration of artists who now exist comfortably as part of the canon.
Walking through State of Mind is an overwhelming experience; this is a tightly installed show that is practically bursting at the seams. While we typically dislike a crowded show, somehow the sheer quantity and variety of work in the exhibition mimics the energetic fervor and passion of the time. Organized thematically by subject and theoretical intent to help ground the viewer, it becomes clear when viewing the exhibition that the work doesn’t fit neatly into didactic categories (the environment, domestic space, politics, process, etc.); artists, in collapsing boundaries between disciplines and modes of presentation, created works that could not be so easily defined. Much of the production from this period was ephemeral – site specific and performance based actions – and State of Mind does an admirable job of using photographic and video documentation and ephemera to represent this important facet of art making.
While it’s always invigorating to view early works by some of our favourite artists in person – we never tire of seeing Ed Ruscha and Paul McCarthy’s early explorations of the urban environment, particularly McCarthy’s slide projection May 1, 1971 — some of the most exciting pieces in the exhibition are those that we had never previously encountered. Barbara T. Smith’s rubbery, phallic Field Piece installation was a revelation; visitors are invited to walk through the nearly 10 foot tall translucent resin blades that illuminate at random, a vestige of a time when art was meant to be experienced viscerally, not viewed from a distance behind panes of glass and stanchions. Allen Ruppersberg’s Al’s Grand Hotel and Lynn Hershman’s Dante Hotel, which both challenge the relationship between the viewer and the work of art, were also highlights. State of Mind presents comprehensive documentation and ephemera related to these event-based works and it’s a real treat. The neon sign, soundtrack, stationary, and photo documentation of Al’s Grand Hotel give viewers a real sense of this project which saw Ruppersberg operate a functioning hotel for a number of weekends in 1971. The nascent feminist art movement also receives its due in State of Mind with important works by Martha Rosler and Eleanor Antin – including Antin’s influential Representational Painting in which the artist transforms herself through the fastidious application of makeup. Artists’ use of their bodies as the material and subject of their work transcends feminist art and the exhibition features a number of groundbreaking performances and videos that challenge the body’s limits including Chris Burden’s powerful comment on the Kent State massacre Shoot.
It’s interesting to observe how a region emerges as a hotbed of artistic production at a particular moment in time and State of Mind offers convincing evidence that both northern and southern California became centers for avant-garde conceptual practices in the 1970s. Regional shows are always a tricky proposition; trying to draw conclusions about work based mainly on geographic proximity rarely produces satisfying results. Yet what links the varied and rather disparate objects, photographs and video in State of Mind is the experimental and rebellious approach to art making that is discernable throughout. Using a diverse range of media and methods these artists challenged the very definition of what constitutes art, in addition to how it is presented and experienced, and indelibly altered the course of contemporary art for the next half century.