From the Academy to the Avant Garde - The Family Jewels

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Visual Studies Workshop, Rochester, NY (1981)




From the Academy to the Avant Garde, a traveling exhibition produced by Visual Studies Workshop, 1981. Curator Richard Simmons. Catalog introduction Arthur Tsuchiya. Videotapes in order of viewing Howard Fried, Davidson Gigliotti, Juan Downey, Tony Labat, Frank Gillette, Les Levine

Visual Studies Workshop
Visual Studies Workshop and traveling
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Exhibition curated by Richard Simmons for Visual Studies Workshop THE FAMILYJEWELS Burton White of Harvard's Child Development Center, found that about one child in every thirty was brilliant and happy (a percentage that leaves nearly 97 percent of us dull and sad). These bright children are from a wide variety of backgrounds and have only one detectable factor in common: all spend much of their time in open, blank staring .... When blank staring takes place before a TV screen (as it does for our 97 percent dull and sad), the child bonds to the chaos of that screen. He is not being egocentric as designed by nature, but exocentric - he is constantly pulled outside his center. The screen is the center of his world and impinges upon him. Whether this impingment is cartoon mayhem, commands to buy corn flakes, instructions on how to spell Sesame Street or read the encyclopedia, is absolutely of no consequence. The content is inconsequential-the formal device itself and its effects are all that counts, and all that will ever count. No content can be conceived that can overcome the dramatic split of self that the mechanism itself induces. (1) (My italics) How are we to understand the works of William Blake? Is it odd that this question is not asked about all art, certainly not contemporary art? In a contemporary gallery the problem of meaning is usually bumped by a more pressing concern: is this good art? Criteria for merit range from gut response (through there are many different guts) to a professional critic's weight and measure of an artist's skill in composition and execution, of the balance between innovation and homage, and of that same gut response, now adjusted upward by all this mental strife. (2) When Arthur Tsuchiya invited me to curate an exhibition of artists' videotapes, we agreed that a small selection of recent tapes with a common interest was more practical than surveying all the activities under the video art umbrella. This was an easy agreement for me since my last exhibition contained work by forty artists and limited the amount of time one could devote to them individually. I felt that many of the tapes deserved more attention, and I knew from my own experience that the more I watched them, the more intelligence they offered. It was this unfading quality which I wanted to pursue in this exhibition. I knew I would find most of what I was looking for in imaginatively constructed narrative styles. Narrative ideas require direction and control and, like film, video lends itself well to complex ideas which require timing. Unlike film, video has the dimensions of intimacy and the miniature proscenium as opposed to cinematic spectacle. This is a useful distinction if an artist needs an intimate setting for his material. In varying degrees each of these artists understands television beyond its technical possibilities. In Symptomatic Syntax, Frank Gillette uses it like a fishbowl, upsetting the serenity of natural phenomena with an unanswerable temporal argument. Les Levine's Visions from the God World treats it as a window through which we see civilization and ritual. In Difficult Music, produced by Davidson Gigliotti, performance artists Laurie Anderson, Louis Grenier, Julia Heyward, Tim Maul, and James Lecesne, use appropriate personnae to speak to us directly. Michael Smith performs a visual art spin-off as a travelogue host/TV salesman using commodities towards an indelible end. Juan Downey exploits television's technical devices in Through the Looking Glass to reflect on media culture delivered to a narcissistic society. Howard Fried is the unseen, ingratiating television politician in Making a Paid Political Announcement. Finally, in Challenge: P.O. V Tony Labat assumes the role of television commentator for a psychological self-portrait about control and circumstance. The subjects these narrative artists are working with are no less complex than the human spirit, affected by physical, emotional, intellectual and social realities. They are no less spiritual than William Blake, whose pictorial icons were symbolic of consciousness and survive from the turn of the 18th century. In speaking, Blake showed that he wanted "to melt apparent surfaces away and show the infinite which was hid." Blake talked about the Divine Imagination, and hated the Royal Academy for being inexact and responsive to the corporeal but not the spiritual world. As we shall see from Juan Downey's tape, Diego Valesquez had similar inclinations in the 17th century, manifested in compositional structure. The artists in this exhibition pursue equally immaterial insights using methods and a medium which supports a philosophical exchange. In this regard they have much in common with Velasquez, these artists are all media sculptors, building an imaginative space within which our own imaginations and intellectual curiosity are activated. It's sort of like preparing a fine meal for perception. This method also conveys the sense of adventure, discovery and empathy that the artists experience. In an earlier tape, Vitos Reef (1978), Howard Fried describes this action as "the adventure of information transmitted." Richard Foreman in Out of the Body Travel (I 978), says; "I'm going to teach you everything I know, be ready." In Barricade to Blue (I 978), Rita Myers describes the location as "the perimeter of the ineffable, where thinking and being coalesce." Admittedly, I have a personal attachment to the constructs represented in this exhibition but those constructs were not the only influence on my selection. My other considerations are more formal than romantic and can only be described with critical language. Criticism implies rules and standards, and every artist knows inspiration doesn't come from rules unless you can make something you like out of them. Weinstein is right in saying there are many different guts in determining good art, but artists do work with subjective standards. These standards are created and defined by accumulated art information and how each artist feels about the things they make. Artists are not charged with verbally elaborating on their collected sensibilities, so critics do it for them; but they are always at odds with that portion which is fugitive from language-intuition. Trying to identify standards is like tracking the family jewels, cloaked in semantics and continually reinvested in artistic freedom. Criticism is a language problem which affects art commerce, making opposition to it understandable. When Clement Greenburg originally wrote about abstract expressionist artists who were working out the syntactical limitations of the cubists, he elevated that particular approach to art at the expense of artists who had an equal sense of skill and history and had transcended the attachment to traditional materials. It was Greenburg's folly to neglect those artists whose intellectual eloquence and material freedom we now know as stunningly innovative. Greenburg's ideas however, are useful. He articulately epitomized workmanship, invention, and was informed by art, three of man's highest standards of philosophical qualification. It is in light of this criteria that strengths and weaknesses can be found and gut responses can be felt. It would be fair to say that these elements, working in tandem, contribute to the foundation of my most critical response. I am reminded here of an aesthete's lesson; you can take a dull idea and make it pretty but it's still a dull idea. On the other hand, you can take a good idea and no matter what you do with it, it's still a good idea. In this exhibition we have both technical proficiency and good ideas. In Laurie Anderson's piece, one can see a gestural economy that is staggeringly sheer compared to the breadth of her text. Like Anderson, ail of the artists in this exhibition exercise a high degree of control and invention, and this endows each piece with an intense and enduring life of its own. It is always a pleasure to find something that makes one's mind work; the pursuit of understanding is an enterprise common both to traditionally motivated artists like Juan Downey, and to bizarre performance artists like Michael Smith. Hence the title From the Academy to the Avant-Garde. Whether these tapes mitigate against Burton White's assertion-that the content of television can never overcome the effect of watching it- is a judgment that can only be made by the individual viewer. Richard Simmons was curator of video and film at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, New York 1974-1981. During this period, he curated over sixty exhibitions of artists' video tapes and gallery installations including two nationally circulating anthologies: New Work and Abstract Video Imagery (1976) and Everson Video Revue (1979). He is a parttime faculty member at the San Francisco Art Institute where he teaches production and criticism. Simmons presently considers himself a free lance artist/curator specializing in the production and promotion of difficult and unusual projects. 1. The Bond of Power by Joseph Chilton Pierce; NY: Dutton (I 98 I) pp. 162, 164. 2. "William Blake: The Eye Sees More than the Heart Knows," by Jeff Weinstein. Village Voice Sept. 23-29, 1981, pp. 103, 104.