Off the walls

Strategies of performance animate art — and site — in SFMOMA's 'Stage Presence'

Clubkid progeneration: From Charles Atlas' Hail the New Puritan (1985-86)

VISUAL ART As the Cindy Sherman retrospective draws huge crowds to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's fourth floor, visitors will find it the gateway drug par excellence for a neighboring show just a few steps away. Taking in Sherman's frozen drag — in which visual art harnesses performance as both subject and tactic — is already to broach the invigorating dialogue underway in "Stage Presence: Theatricality in Art and Media."

>>Drag artists re-enact Cindy Sherman portraits: view our "Tastes of Cindy" photo essay

The eclectic group show, curated by SFMOMA's Rudolf Frieling, gathers choice pieces from the museum's collection, plus some vital loans, to consider the increasing role of theatricality as theme and strategy in contemporary art since the 1980s.

It further includes a "live art" component courtesy of the museum's curator of public programs, Frank Smigiel — a weekly performance series that continues through Labor Day weekend in a commissioned space adjacent to the gallery, a lush little jewel box of a theater-cinema designed by Bay Area artist Tucker Nichols. This week's performance piece is a highly anticipated appearance by Los Angeles-based troupe My Barbarian: Broke People's Baroque Peoples' Theater, a raucous, multi-layered work that figures the American financial system as a garishly absurd spectacle of waste. (In addition to this site-specific series, a performance finale takes place October 4 in the museum's atrium: Rashaad Newsome's Shade Compositions, a choreographed choral work for 20 women of color.)

Whether live or otherwise, the bridging of the visual and performing arts in "Stage Presence" encompasses a truly wide range of work. Highlights include some fascinating projected pieces on view in one or another of the floor's darkened recesses — each one furnished with a glass window allowing visual access from the gallery proper, whether or not one wants to venture into the screening room.

One of these is Charles Atlas's Hail the New Puritan (1986), which collapses the visual and performing arts by way of a made-for-BBC faux-documentary portrait of Scottish dancer-choreographer Michael Clark, supposedly captured over the course of one monumental but half-desultory day as he and his company rehearse his New Puritan (1984). With endless interruptions and segues — and a soundtrack sharpened by ample doses of post punk's jolly downers, the Fall (whose Mark E. Smith and Brix Smith even appear in a staged TV "interview" with Clark) — Hail the New Puritan remains a gorgeous work whose '80s-era aesthetic (a little like Godard meets Culture Club) retains a questioning and mocking insouciance.

It's such jubilant indifference, including toward previous standards of seriousness or taste, that has contributed to a significant turn in much new work in the 1980s. Frieling, in an email correspondence from Europe, describes it as "a moment where the historic era of performance art and conceptualism had been challenged by a more exuberant, playful, and hybrid way of working — Charles Atlas, Peter Fischli and David Weiss, or Robert Wilson [all represented in the show] being three examples from that time despite their huge differences."

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