"California Video," Mar. 15-June 8, 2008, at the J. Paul Getty Museum, 17985 Pacific Coast Highway, Pacific Palisades, Ca. 90272
As a fledgling art critic in the late 1970s, I used to make regular pilgrimages to a spacious beachside bungalow that had been transformed into the Long Beach Museum of Art, all for the purpose of viewing and reviewing the then-still-novel medium of video art. The modest facility had earned an international reputation for presenting exhibitions by video pioneers like Nam June Paik, but it also showed videotapes by the countless young artists coming to terms with the potential of the newly marketed Sony Portapak.
"California Video" at the Getty Center is the first exhibition to try and make sense of that rough-and-tumble era, and as a matter of fact, the preview had the ambience of a school reunion. It brought together pioneering curators David Ross and Kathy Huffman, both of whom worked at Long Beach Museum, and Barbara London from New York, as well as artists Bill Viola and Kira Perov, Bruce and Norman Yonemoto, John Sturgeon, Chip Lord, Peter d’Agostino, Branda Miller, Suzanne Lacy and many others.
The show evolved after the Getty Research Institute acquired a group of some 5,000 videotapes that had been collected by the Long Beach Museum but were neglected due to the changing priorities of the institution. The GRI also hired a conservator specializing in videotape and, via eBay, purchased numerous pieces of vintage equipment, including the dozens of old monitors that show single channel video from the 1970s and ‘80s with its original aspect ratios.
Glenn Phillips, a curator at the Getty since 2002, was intrigued by the irreverence that he witnessed in much of the work produced in California. He chose 58 artists for the show and successfully presents their work in a manner that clarifies, among many things, the technical evolution of the medium. He also recognized the ways that California video historically has recognized the impact of television and entertainment.
Faced with the inevitable task of showing dozens of grainy black-and-white videos, Phillips sensibly added dramatic installations by artists who are not uniquely identified with the medium. A segment of Mike Kelley’s triumphant 2005 installation Day Is Done includes a twisted video of candy cane motifs relating to themes of high school trauma. Volcano, Trash, and Ice Cream (2005), Meg Cranston’s wall-size projection of a dripping cone of pistachio gelato on the wall of a room with a hassock decorated with ‘60s style designs and a floor collaged with an assortment of printed matter, is her homage to the ambience of menace and joy in Naples, Italy.
In her site-specific Oculus Sinister, Jennifer Steinkamp, inspired by the Pantheon in Rome, projects multi-colored clouds across a domed alcove with her usual mind-blowing finesse. It is doubtful any of these people would identify themselves exclusively as a "video artist" yet their inclusion highlights the ways in which video has lived up to John Baldessari’s early prediction that one day video would be as common a tool as a pencil.
In fact, Baldessari’s own renowned video is placed at the entrance to the show, his hand endlessly scrawling, "I will not make any more boring art." Galleries of vintage monitors show classic black-and-white tapes, including ones of Bruce Nauman imitating the Renaissance pose of contrapposto, Jay McCafferty shaving himself (an annual video project that continues to this day), Martin von Haselberg of the Kipper Kids straining his long neck and making funny faces, Eleanor Antin as a ballerina, and Patti Podesta’s feet in purple high heels gingerly stepping along a series of transoms. The seeds of current, high-tech work can be seen in low-budget early vids by Tony Oursler, William Wegman, Paul McCarthy, Chris Burden and many others.
One truly genius moment is the recreation of a 1960s-style living room decorated with JFK memorabilia in which the Bay Area collectives Ant Farm and T.R. Uthco originally presented The Eternal Frame, their bizarre restaging of John Kennedy’s assassination as shown in the Abraham Zapruder film of the events in Dealy Plaza. On a more sublime note, for Chartres Bleu (1983-86), Paul Kos stacks 27 monitors to represent 27 Gothic windows of the French cathedral with the famous light fading from day to night every 12 minutes. Diana Thater’s Continuous One (2006) addresses the issue of landscape with an assortment of flat screen monitors with close-up details of green foliage.
Bruce and Norman Yonemoto’s 1989 installation Framed shows World War II-era U.S. government propaganda whitewashing the internment of Japanese citizens, edited to suggest a more sinister interpretation. Euan Macdonald’s 2000 video of ice cream trucks convening on a street, their musical themes blaring, made me laugh when I first saw it and I was equally taken by his more recent documentation of a flatbed truck with the license plates SCLPTR 1 transporting a giant sculpture of Buddha down the highway.
Bill Viola’s installation Sleepers (1992) is a gallery of 55 gallon drums full of water, each with a video monitor at the bottom showing the artist’s mother and father and others blissfully asleep. Meanwhile, in the Getty’s north pavilion, Emergence is Viola’s filmic recreation of a 14th-century Pieta by Masolino. While not part of the "California Video" exhibition, it is startling to see that his motif of a nude figure rising from a still pool of water, and suspended in time, can be seen in his work as early as 1977 in The Reflecting Pool, which is on view in the exhibition.
So kudos is due the Getty Museum and the GRI for not only saving this collection of important tapes but presenting them in a context that allows viewers to come away with a more complete perspective on the new medium of video art, now in its fourth decade. They have produced a handsome and informative catalogue as well as a slew of related talks, presentations and events. A special online presentation of some of the tapes can be found here.
HUNTER DROHOJOWSA-PHILP is author of Full Bloom: The Art and Life of Georgia O’Keeffe, published by W.W. Norton.