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Close Encounters


by Linda Yablonsky
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The chickens come home to roost in “Anthology,” a vital solo show by Clifford Owens at MoMA PS1. Owens puts a fascinating spin on a catalogue of new or neglected performance works by African American artists that deserves the lift he is giving it. He also gives issues of race a good going-over.

On the gallery walls are 26, Fluxus-style “scores,” or instructions, for tasks either previously done by others, or created by others especially for Owens, who carried them out during a residency at PS 1 last summer. Imagination and the insidious subtleties of racial politics play a big part throughout.

Lorraine O’Grady’s text for Xenosphere first defines the title word as a combination of “foreign” and “globe,” then directs Owens to choose an “Other” (animal, vegetable, or mineral), to create a record of his interactions with that Other, and finally to send her a low-tech copy of whatever transpires.

Owens met the challenge with a lasciviousness that is initially hilarious -- until his actions, displayed on three flat-screen monitors, turn so sadistic and dark it made me glad I was watching from a remove. His Others include a live chicken that he presses to his groin and treats as an autoerotic tool; a naked white woman who moves around an empty room in a series of submissive (and ultimately humiliating) poses; and a spread of fruit, berries and vegetables that Owens eroticizes by repeatedly gutting, rimming, fingering and smashing them, splattering the walls with their flying flesh and “blood.”

As a metaphor for the abuse of power, it’s literally ripping. The tension only mounts with Maren Hassinger’s Repose, which that senior, Los Angeles-based artist describes as a relaxation -- “a reprieve from action.”

Owens was relaxed, all right. For the performance, seen in a discomfiting, and silent, single-channel video, he lies on the floor naked, utterly passive and nonresistant, while small groups of mostly white people in street clothes lift him into five different positions, forcing open his legs, making him sit, or turning him over as if to examine the merchandise before purchase.

Kara Walker’s untitled score begins with these instructions: “French-kiss an audience member. Force them against a wall and demand Sex.” If anyone is willing, she goes on, Owens is suddenly to play the victim and accuse his “attacker” of sex abuse. Says the text: “Seek help from others, describe your ordeal. Repeat.” Unfortunately, the silent videos of what transpired aren’t quite as provocative as the written score, mainly because we only see the kissing and do not hear anything of the “ordeal.”

It appears that the men and women lined up against the wall -- the same wall where the video monitors now hang -- didn’t much mind Owens coming on to them. (He’s quite good-looking and powerfully built, his hair cut in a mohawk for this work.) If he did complain, it only seemed to make them giggle. Still, it leaves you thinking.

William Pope.L’s score is one of the simplest -- and most consternating. It says, “Be African American. Be very African American.” Owens wasn’t fazed. He did it several different ways, with different collaborators, instructing one to run along a line of white tape that he had installed through the building and repeat the title phrase or ask visitors to name their favorite black artist.

In other actions, seen in photographs, he posed on a white bed as a skeptical odalisque for Jacolby Satterwhite’s Look at Me, intended as an inversion of the so-called (white) male gaze. It’s punchy, and funny too. Owens also restaged a 1981 David Hammons piece, via Glenn Ligon’s instructions, by urinating into the lead gutter that Richard Serra created years ago at the top of PS1, and poured beautiful, primary-colored sand onto a floor, after Senga Nengudi’s score, and invited partygoers seeking respite from PS1’s "Warm-Up" to lather their faces for soapy mug shots in whiteface. This score, by Derrick Adams, refers to a 1964 Fluxus piece by Benjamin Patterson.

Two more pieces, by Charles Gaines and Terry Adkins, are sound works -- one constant and electronic, the other intermittent and vocal -- that punctuate one’s progress through the show.

As social commentary, Owens’ performances are sometimes a bit obvious, or slapstick, but they still carry a charge that gathers force as they accumulate. It’s almost a relief to see an artist take on race this boldly in an institution bearing the MoMA name. If “Anthology”  tweaks stereotypes to convey the impact of bigotry, sexism and other indignities suffered -- or generated -- by the art world, it also creates a history for several worthy artists who have not had much mainstream play in American museums -- until recently, that is.

I wouldn’t have known the names Hassinger and Nengudi, for instance, if I had not already seen the Hammer Museum’s “Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960 to 1980.” It’s one of the more educational and sophisticated shows of Pacific Standard Time, the umbrella term for some 60 historical shows of post-war, Southern California art. (This month, PST shifts into performance gear in exhibitions that continue till April.)

“Now Dig This!” features 140 works by 35 artists deeply affected by racial tensions that led up to, and followed, the Watts Riot in 1965, a watershed moment for many. Its debris became materials for some, like Melvin Edwards with his Neo-Cubist, constructions of black steel hooks, chains and bars; and the semifigural, found-object collages of John Outterbridge and Noah Purifoy. All striking.

Curated by Kellie Jones, an art historian at Columbia University, and thematically installed in four sections, it counters the well-known Ferus Gallery narrative of the L.A. art scene with a parallel story centered around the artist-run Brockman Gallery, a hotbed of activity for many of those in the show.

It’s heavy on California assemblage, which could have used some editing, gives a nod to post-minimalist Finish Fetish, and includes early performances on video by Ulysses Jenkins, another artist new to me. But the big star here is Hammons, who was in L.A. until the mid-1970s and whose conceptualist bent puts his work on a different, or less literal, plane than the rest. The show closes this weekend, but the catalogue makes a significant contribution of its own and is definitely worth reading.

The same history gets an even fuller treatment in L.A. Object and David Hammons Body Prints, a heavily illustrated tome recently published by the Tilton Gallery. It’s actually the catalogue for a 2006 exhibition of the same title, one of the New York gallery’s most significant recent shows. One hopes that the artists in these books and shows will now become better integrated into the larger history of contemporary art. They make a big difference to it.


“Clifford Owens, "Anthology,” Nov. 13, 2011-Mar. 12, 2012, at MoMA PS1, 22-25 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City, N.Y. 11101

“Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980,” Oct. 2, 2011-Jan. 8, 2012, at the Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, Ca. 90024

L.A. Object and David Hammons Body Prints, Tilton Gallery, 2011, 424 pp., $65

LINDA YABLONSKY is an art critic who writes for, the Art Newspaper, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, W and other publications.