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Laguna Art Museum Revives UC Irvine's Forgotten Avant-Garde Renaissance

Over 40 years ago, UC Irvine birthed a groundswell of creativity that was almost forgotten—until the current Laguna Art Museum retrospective.

As a famous Mark Twain quote about Irvine goes ...

Just kidding. There are no famous quotes about Irvine, which isn't to mean there have been no viable creative responses to the Irvine experience. Far from it. Just see the work of recent Mark Twain Prize recipient, Irvine-born Will Ferrell.

Or better yet, see Laguna Art Museum’s latest exhibition, Best Kept Secret: UCI and the Development of Contemporary Art in Southern California, 1964-1971.

Decades before Irvine bloated into the tract-home-parking-lot-apartment-complex-business-park flatland of evenly-spaced boulevards and toll roads that it is today, it was basically a vacuous circumference of dirt surrounding the newly constructed UC Irvine campus, where a city planned to house 50,000 residents was born. Not exactly the typical building blocks for a soon-to-transpire renaissance of contemporary art.

However, back when the UCI campus was still mostly surrounded by ranch land in its inaugural year of 1964 (the same year the Gulf of Tonkin incident, parts of which were eventually revealed to have never occurred, led to a resolution passed by Congress granting President Johnson approval to go to war in Vietnam), several synchronistic events converged onto the infantile Southern Californian city-to-be, allowing for the organic explosion of just such a renaissance.

An explosion evidenced in the way Ed Bereal’s “War Babies” Poster (1961) comments on his own generation of twentysomethings raised in the shadow of WWII, through the satirizing of cultural stereotypes and taboos. In the way Tony DeLap’s Four Dots (1962) places emphasis on a multi-level continuity between properties of form, with four letters in either of the title’s words, four corners, 16 (four-times-four) steps leading to an omega point encased by four dots, where you can see through to the opposite/identical side. In the way Larry Bell’s cubes of glass and chrome plated metal, particularly Bette and the Giant Jewfish (1963), lure you into meandering in circles around its mirrors and their infinite possible reflections. In the way Laddie John Dill’s use of glass and argon gas to make Light Sentences (1970) collapsed paradigms of art vocabulary and mechanical devices, while implying a kind of mystical communication forged in the space between one light sentence and another. In the way the recreation of John Mason’s mortar-less Unfinished Arch (1973) challenges the eye to make sense of its gravity-defying form.

And that’s barely scratching the surface of what Best Kept Secret—Laguna Art Museum's showpiece in the Southern California-wide Pacific Standard Time: Art In LA 1945-1980 collaboration—has to offer.

But how on Earth did all this mold-cracking work spring forth from a brand new university in the middle of nowhere?

In many respects, it began with UCI’s appointment of John Coplans, writer and editor for Artforum magazine, as director of the University Art Gallery. This was critical, since Coplans was responsible for recruiting art professors; a process of recruitment that set an eclectic precedent.

Enter vanguardist professors/mentors: Tony DeLap, Larry Bell, Ed Bereal, Vija Celmins, Robert Irwin, Craig Kauffman, John Mason and Ed Moses (to name a few). Followed by vanguardist students/mentors: Marsha Red Adams, Michael Asher, Nancy Buchanan, Chris Burden, Ned Evans, Richard Newton, Alexis Smith, Barbara T. Smith and Robert Wilhite (again, to name only a few).

And the final component: artistic freedom. The freedom to be unpredictable; to engage in video, performance, conceptualism, feminism, Light and Space; to create/reveal/dismantle work with vivacity; to confront social-conscious ideas in fun-radical-shocking modes; to abandon purity of artisan in favor of the excitement found when fusing seemingly disparate techniques in unorthodox ways. Free in a particularly Southern California attitude when compared to New York, as Best Kept Secret essayist Peter Frank recalls, “heterogeneous to the point of unpredictability, but never aimless ... free of the sectarian baggage with which art discourse in America’s art capital seemed laden.”

In short, the students were treated as equals within the ever-evolving art movements, seen as those who will one day carry the torch, so to speak (or literally for Adam’s Catharsis), and were thereby encouraged to embrace/expand their own propensity to not only pose challenges, but more importantly, elucidate them through their work.

To accommodate a balance between mentorship and dialogue, classes were loosely structured. For example, in a 1969 studio course, Larry Bell offered no outline or assignments. Instead, he had the class visit the studios of artists Ron Cooper and Guy Dill, as well as Bell's own Venice studio, where students witnessed a performance by Guy de Cointet. Other “assignments” included watching classic films, a field trip to Union Station in Los Angeles to appreciate the architecture, and a camping excursion. By the end of the course, all but three students had dropped out.

“I was being shown how to see and think like an artist,” says Ned Evans, one of the three, about Bell’s course. “He assumed that was what we all wanted to be. Larry didn’t make distinctions about what was art” and what was not art. Evans’ Whitewater #22 (1972) is on display at LAM, an acrylic-on-canvas juxtaposing the seemingly chaotic unpredictability of whitewater with the overarching tidal patterns of nature expressed through an implicit grid.

For many enrolled at UCI, the lack of traditional pedagogy combined with the total absence of a local art community, inadequate studio space, and unremarkable landscape in all directions proved too much to bear. At the same time, because the traditional walls between student and teacher were rendered non-existent, the most ground-breaking, game-changing, and systems-busting pieces were often derived from the students (those who could confront the freedom).

With a focus on how to think like an artist rather how to paint or sculpt like so-and-so, the students who held on for the ride—with no choice but to find their own studios and purchase their own equipment—fast displayed a level of professionalism typically reserved for industry veterans, proving themselves brilliantly resourceful, adaptable and motivated.

To solve the lack of campus community, for instance, there were freeways (minus today’s traffic) that led to art scenes in Los Angeles, where many of their professors lived. A lack of materials provided by UCI led to the use of glass, cans, and other found materials. And a lack of studio space led to all kinds of off-campus performance pieces, along with the founding of galleries in Santa Ana and Laguna Beach.

One of those students was Marsha Red Adams, who began her time at Irvine (what she calls “the seed years”) working with ceramics. She remembers UCI as “a concept/idea place; it was not a how-to place.” One of her professors, ceramicist John Mason, a man who both “transcended the patriarchy” and possessed zero tolerance for traditional uses of clay, became her mentor. She recalls Mason taking a bat and smashing ordinary clay pots that had been brought in by students, just to get his point across. Ultimately, Adams switched her focus to photography, which she views as documentation of her thinking “from the political through the ecological, and into the spiritual.”

Woman Bound/Woman Withdrawn was one of her first works as a graduate student, in which she photographed herself in the nude struggling and ultimately unable to break free from invisible bondage, which she later hand-painted and stitched into/onto the prints. Catharsis (1973) is even more to the point, which involved Adams making a life-sized, stuffed canvas “doll,” with a mold of her own face and a long red wig, marking the doll as a kind of ritualistic mirror of her own identity. She then painted a target on the doll’s crotch and took the work to in Laguna Beach, where she set it on fire with a torch—crotch-first. The end product is a black and white photograph of the doll enveloped in flames.

“I did performance and ritual when I couldn’t work things out in the medium I was working in, and I needed to go further with it,” explains Adams, who went on to start a cooperative gallery in Laguna Beach, The Floating Wall, which became the site of performances by fellow students Nancy Buchanan and Barbara T. Smith.

Smith was a typical 1950s housewife before undergoing a radical transformation into a feminist and performance artist. Although she had no formal training in performance art, she called upon her fascination with religious symbols and rituals, along with her ability to plan a successful dinner party, to create pieces like Ritual Meal (1969).

Ritual consists of five pictures: two of galactic structures, one of the ocean, one diagram of human biology, and one of an open heart surgery. In the middle of the pictures is a film projection showing footage of nature scenes and a beating heart. In the original setting, guests wore surgical garb and ate a meal with surgical tools beneath the projections, simultaneously evoking a deeper connection with the cosmos while giving the illusion of consuming a human body. (For better or worse, no surgical garbs, food, or scalpels are included with Best Kept Secret.)

For Buchanan, “the wonderful thing about Irvine is that it didn’t matter how different everyone’s work was; there was this solidarity” among the students. Like Smith and Adams, Buchanan was searching for an art school removed from sexist norms, and all three of them found what they were looking for at UCI.

Adams, Buchanan, and Smith have all cited Robert Irwin as a guiding force of harmony during those years at UCI, whose “encouragement to work together probably overcame much of the native paranoia and distrust that artists often have towards each other,” Smith recalls. Not only did such a support group alleviate “the isolation we felt down there and the oppressive apathy which I felt came mainly from the [campus] environment, e.g. the design of the buildings and the layout,” but also led to some powerfully collaborative performance pieces.

One notable illustration transpired in Buchanan’s postgraduate project, Please Sing Along, in which traditional male-female societal roles were reversed. Two nude men performed a graceful dance at the Grand View Gallery in the Woman’s Building in Los Angeles. Then in the middle of the dance, Buchanan and Barbara Smith appeared dressed in karate outfits and staged a 20-minute-long fight.

Driven by her conviction in dramatic social change, Buchanan believed that “we were going to end war, sexism, racism, inequality, poverty, hunger, homelessness. All those things would disappear in my lifetime.”

Fellow UCI alumni Richard Newton, one of those nude men in Please Sing Along, could empathize with Buchanan’s desire to transform the world through collaborative art after undergoing a “holistic awakening” during the '60s. As a UCI undergraduate student, Newton went from being an engineering major with the aim of becoming a rocket scientist, to a philosophy major, then returned as a studio art graduate student.

Reproduced for Best Kept Secret is Newton’s Cantina (1972), a standout in the exhibition (just be careful where you step) consisting of thousands of crushed cans laid out on the gallery floor. Newton wanted to address the consumption and waste of the modern world. In the original show at UCI’s Graduate Art Gallery, visitors were encouraged to walk on the cans, spread them around, and involve themselves in the crushing sounds. After the show, in a move reminiscent of Buddhist sand art, all the cans were recycled.

Unfortunately, the reproduction is just for viewing. No walking on cans is permitted, thereby restricting the work’s intended effect.

Collaboration between students manifested further in the form of F-Space, an experimental exhibition space in Santa Ana founded by Buchanan, Smith, and fellow student Chris Burden. It was at F Space that Buchanan performed early carnivalesque pieces like At Home and Hair Transplant.

In the former, Nancy and student Robert Walker sat nude in opposite corners of the gallery, although their appearance remained obscured due to the space being covered from floor to ceiling with shredded material. In the latter, Nancy removed all of Robert’s body hair. Then with the help of spirit gum, replaced his hair with hers.

F Space is perhaps best known for Chris Burden’s radical performance pieces, often applying an element of personal danger serious enough to make the Jackass crew have second thoughts. In his 1971 piece 220, Burden flooded the gallery with water, then raised three aluminum ladders on top of which three participants stood from midnight to dawn. There was no audience, only a live 220-volt electrical line on the floor. The end of the performance was marked when Barbara Burden arrived in the morning and turned off the electricity.

In Shoot (1971), also performed at F Space, Burden famously had a friend shoot him in the arm. This was particularly poignant given the Kent State shootings the year before, the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia, and an ongoing draft. Extreme violence was being broadcast on TV every day. Shoot forced those in attendance to live with the fact that they did not intervene and instead fell in line with the taboo that pieces of art are not to be touched. (Click here to watch a clip of the 1971 performance of Shoot at F Space.)

Bicycle Piece (1971) shows a more playful side of Burden’s work, in which he connected the front and rear entrances of a galley with a one-foot-wide black serpentine path. During gallery hours, he continuously rode a bicycle along the path, through the front, out the back, around the building and back through the front.

Burden, who began his time at UCI with sculpture, was driven by a minimalist desire to absolve the need for any apparatus in order for a piece to be experienced.

“The problem with [my early work] was that the apparatus was often mistaken for traditional objects of sculpture,” says Burden. “I realized I could dispose of the apparatus and simply have the actual physical activity as the sculpture.” This he achieved in Locker Piece (1972), in which he folded himself into his two-foot-by-two-foot locker for five days. Every element of the piece existed before and continued to exist for other purposes afterward, Burden included.

Such minimalism was encouraged by professors, particular Tony Delap, who performed A Spatial Occurrence, the Levitation of a Human Being (1971) at UCI's Duchamp Festival, presented in Best Kept Secret in a photograph staged prior to the actual performance. During the festival, DeLap, who has practiced magic since childhood, performed two or three levitations, destabilizing perceptual beliefs through an anti-gravity optical illusion, a clear nod to Duchamp’s dada-surrealist DNA.

Although the explosion of an avant-garde renaissance didn’t merely dematerialize, for Best Kept Secret is packed with actual objects/artwork indicative that the new generation did indeed carry things forward.

In the minimalist Pop Art of Craig Kauffman’s Untitled (1968), a bubble-like wall relief suggestive of a portal to who-knows-where. In the material contrast between Paula Sweet’s Porcelain Tower (1971) and Three Paper Towers (1972). In the meshing of art history with a kind of geometric history from the triangle to the circle in Alexis Smith’s Flatlands (1972). In the found, buried, and stitched beauty of Charles Christopher Hill’s He Needs a Nice Title (1972). In the stark absurdity of Donald Karwelis’ proposed Earthquake Chair (1972). In the identity (de)construction of Walter Wittel in Before - After (1974). In the spirallic illusion of motion in Robert Wilhite’s Hypno Disc (1976). In the otherworldliness of John McCracken’s high-gloss monolith Untitled (1979).

And of course, in the photographs of the artists’ many performances pieces, looking back upon those moments when the pieces were alive and working in their intended, temporal context. Emphasis falls on the present, the act of accepting the present; participating with art without exertion; just to exist in a flow of energy.

While it would have been fascinating to see these performance pieces come alive once more in the 21st century, some magic simply belongs/remains in its original context. And to this extent, some of the most powerful aspects of the exhibition are these faded photographs documenting the temporal life force of these pieces, frozen in moments of transformation. They compel you to experience such performances through your own activated imagination.

What remains is a kind of love letter to a vastly unacknowledged avant-garde renaissance during those fervent early years at UCI, when anything exciting, ingenious, and inventive was legitimate, because experience was legitimate, and beyond traditional methodology art is an experience.

Best Kept Secret should not only inform the art world of its geographical context and historical standing—a laboratory for conceptual art that paved the way for UC San Diego and Cal Arts—but more crucially, remind art schools the world over that the teacher-student dichotomy is ultimately a fabrication within a grand scheme of artistic evolution, and that the seed of a masterpiece starts not with a course in how-to repetition (although this has its place), but rather with the sharing of ideas, and the trusting freedom to inquire about materials, space, time, human nature, sexuality, consciousness and identity, in ways unlimited by ideological correctness.

And with a bit of luck, in ways never before explored.

Click here to watch Ryan Wirick's video of the Best Kept Secret show.

Best Kept Secret: UCI and the Development of Contemporary Art in Southern California, 1964-1971 runs through January 22 at the , 307 Cliff Drive, 949-494-8971; lagunaartmuseum.org. Open daily 11 a.m.-5 p.m. and First Thursdays Art Walks. Admission: $12 general; $10 students, seniors, active military; free for children under 12 and museum members. Free admission during First Thursdays Art Walks.

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