Oct. 2 – Rebecca Cleman’s Program

Oct. 2 overview— Videos by Lynda Benglis, Dara Birnbaum, Pat Hearn, Lynn Hershman Leeson, Cynthia Maughan, Howardena Pindell and Martha Wilson as Nancy Reagan, programmed by Rebecca Cleman, Director of Distribution of Electronic Arts Intermix

First, an apology for anyone expecting 90s works. As it turned out, my selections for tonight coalesced around a relatively narrow time-frame ranging from roughly the mid 1970s to the mid 1980s. I doubt this is purely coincidence. Though affordable cameras first became available to the consumer in the late 1960s, video probably didn’t become broadly influential until later in the 1970s, especially as it was being integrated into the arts community. In the mid 1980s more sophisticated editing tools would dramatically affect the type of video and media art being produced.

I wanted to hone in on one of the first major artistic approaches to video in its earliest manifestations: direct performances for camera. These were usually recorded in real time before a fixed camera, with a minimalist aesthetic. There is a slight departure here in Lynda Benglis’ “The Amazing Bow Wow,” an ambitious video-narrative in which Benglis performs as the owner of a hermaphroditic dog…

As Dara Birnbaum articulates in her early Portapak piece “Pivot: Turning Around Suppositions,” the specific relationship of camera to subject mimics other power dynamics, particularly gendered power dynamics. This is an excellent starting point for a program that as a whole represents female artists’ use of video to create discomfiting and confrontational works that exploit the camera’s gaze. These works all on some level involve impersonations or an assumed “camera presence,” that pivot on fixed assumptions about gender, race, and class.

In screening order:

Dara Birnbaum
Pivot: Turning Around Suppositions, 1976, 10 min

This is a rare opportunity to see an early Portapak work by Dara Birnbaum. “Pivot: Turning Around Suppositions” is a striking example of Birnbaum’s rigorous examination of the power structures implicit in viewer-television, camera-subject, and male-female dynamics. A relatively simple exercise with profound implications, the “pivot” here is between a static camera focused on a moving female performer (Birnbaum), and a static performer captured by a moving camera.

As Birnbaum observes in the piece’s conclusion:

“It is hoped that this piece will become an investigative exercise, allowing a better understanding of the openness and limitations present when adopting a chosen role in the film-making process. The suppositions are daily conversational extractions, although it may be easily seen that in their very extraction they may become exaggerated, or larger than life, thus there is a great freedom involved in interpretation. This occurs both in the projected psychology of the cameraman and the inner psychology of the performer. The strength of the piece derives from the visible manifestation of the participants, and their expressed similarities and differences due to different psychological interpretation and stress.”

Pat Hearn
Bondage, 1980, 7:40 min

Before becoming a legendary art dealer, Hearn was a fearless and eccentric performance artist. Simultaneous to her receiving a grant from MIT to support her art, Hearn had a night job as a stripper. From a remembrance of Hearn by the artist Mary Heilmann: “She would appear on stage covered with balloons that patrons would pop, one by one, with their cigarettes. On her last night on the job, as each man popped a balloon, she shot him with red paint from a squirt gun.” “Bondage” is an uncomfortable, sadomasochistic performance video from this time.

Lynda Benglis
The Amazing Bow Wow, 1976, 32 min

The Amazing Bow Wow tells the tragic tale of a hermaphroditic dog, reduced to performing as a tent-show freak. Problems begin when Bow Wow’s owners, small-time carnival impresarios Babu (Stanton Kaye) and Rexina (Lynda Benglis), discover that their dog can not only talk, but is also highly intelligent. Its extraordinary abilities provoke fear and jealousy in Babu, and, conversely, affection and protectiveness in Rexina. As Bow Wow’s relationship with Rexina becomes sexually charged, Babu attempts to castrate the animal, but in a terrible twist of fate mistakenly cuts off its tongue.

Text from EAI Online Catalogue: http://www.eai.org. Reprinted with
permission by Electronic Arts Intermix.

Howardena Pindell
Free, White, and 21, 1980, 12 min

Like Lynda Benglis, over the course of an established career of more than thirty years, Pindell has balanced formal abstraction with overtly political art. “Free, White, and 21” is a powerful video account of the racism Pindell has witnessed and experienced in her lifetime, as described by Pindell in a direct camera address. Throughout, she is undermined by a know-it-all blond woman (Pindell in “white face”), symbolizing the skeptical white majority who are “sympathetic” but reluctant to acknowledge the continued effects of racism, especially in the art world.

Martha Wilson
Martha Wilson as Nancy Reagan, 1985, 9:32 min

Founding Director of Franklin Furnace Archive, Wilson is also an artist who has been working since the early 1970’s, as recently represented in an excellent exhibition at the Mitchell Algus Gallery. In his review of the show for the New York Times, Holland Cotter wrote: “If I were to make a list of the half-dozen most important people for art in downtown Manhattan in the 1970s…the conceptual artist and performer Martha Wilson would be on it.”

In this keenly observed portrayal of Nancy Reagan – right down to her pristine white gloves – Wilson represents the schoolmarmish First Lady’s view of the arts to an audience at Exit Art. In conclusion, she condescendingly suggests that artists keep their concern and focus on art, rather than politics. Waving an arm sparkling with jewelry, she adds, sneeringly: “Let us handle the new tax law.”

Performed for Oracle, performance series at Exit Art, New York.
Video by Susan Britton and Julie Harrison

Cynthia Maughan
Selected Works (excerpt), 1973-78, 20 min

“A third-generation Angeleno, Cynthia Maughan grew up on the periphery of Hollywood, while absorbing and delighting in the movie industry’s more marginal productions. In her three-hundred-plus videos from the early 1970s on, Maughan dryly rifles through the formulaic look of monster movies, sci-fi, horror, melodrama, Western, noir, and B-grade cult flicks to texture her pithy storytelling. Situating herself as actor and narrator of short, contained videos, Maughan delivers cautionary tales, folk songs, social histories, and simple actions with a contemptuous, comic, and, at times, woeful voice.”

Text by Catherine Taft, from the exhibition catalog “California Video: Artists and Histories.” This is a selection of works that were presented in the J. Paul Getty Museum’s 2008 exhibition, curated by Glenn Phillips.

Lynn Hershman Leeson
Confessions of a Chameleon, 1986, 9:09 min

Summarizing the work of San-Francisco based artist Lynn Hershman, LACMA curator Howard Fox writes: “Hershman’s art is among the most enigmatic, psychologically troubling, and philosophically ambivalent art produced by her generation.” Hershman’s pioneering work in video, film, installation, photography, and interactive computer and net-based media art investigates the mediation of media in creating a public identity, especially as it relates to a woman’s identity in a culture that tends to be hostile and aggressive towards her. “Confessions of a Chameleon,” the first in a series of videos entitled “The Electronic Diaries” (1986 – 1989) exemplifies Hershman’s provocation of media representations. Playing the role of a “dubious narrator,” she both exposes and cloaks the impact of traumatizing personal experiences, creating a portrait of herself that is unsettled by its ambivalent sense of veracity.

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