HAIRY EYEBALL In 1976 artist Clive Robertson reflected on a performance he gave that same year, in which he dressed up as and restaged pieces by the famous postwar German performance artist Joseph Beuys. "We have to adapt legends so that they become portable and can fit into our pockets," he wrote. "Unfortunately for the artist, that is the fight we label history."
Robertson was addressing his own anxiety of influence in the face of Beuys' then-ascendant status within the art world, but his comments also provide a gloss on the struggle that curators and art historians face in their own practice. In the case of "God Only Knows Who the Audience Is," a parting gift from the graduating students of California College of the Arts' Graduate Program in Curatorial Practice, currently on view in the galleries of the school's Wattis Institute, it is a struggle undertaken with great intelligence and economy.
Smartly conceived and staged, "God Only Knows" is a dialogic tale of two histories. One is a survey of the nonprofit artist-run organization and gallery space La Mamelle (which became ART COM in the 1980s) that existed in various incarnations from 1975 through 1995 and forms an important, if under-recognized, chapter of Bay Area art history. The other traces a concurrent shift in performance art, largely made possible by the advent of video technology, away from the artist's body and toward the disembodied artist.
La Mamelle was, appropriate to its name, a nurturing organ for the local art scene. In addition to hosting events and organizing exhibits, the organization released videos, audio-zines, and microfiches, and published anthologies as well as the regular magazine in which pieces such as Robertson's "The Sculptured Politics of Joseph Beuys," quoted above, first appeared.
The constant proliferation of publications and media put local artists such as Chip Lord, the video collective Ant Farm, Lynn Hershman, and Bonnie Sherk — who all have pieces or documentation of early performances on display here — in touch with other artists around the world and vice versa. The aforementioned artists had wandered to the end of the conceptual inroads that had been laid down by the likes of Andy Warhol and Beuys, and were now operating in a new media wilderness, with only their VHS cameras to guide them.
"God Only Knows" successfully locates these artists and their work within a continuum of practices that stretches into the present. Others have followed Robertson in treating Beuys and his practice as source material ("identity transfer" in his words), as evinced by nearby pieces in the first floor's survey of performance art that de-centers the artist's body as both a performance's agent and its living trace, such as Whitney Lynn's 2010 re-do of another Beuys performance, or Luis Felipe Ortega and Daniel Guzmán's 1994 video Remake, in which the duo stages "improved upon" versions of canonical performance art pieces.
The exhibit's second floor takes us into the '80s and '90s, where the message is clear: television opened up the potential for art to reach new audiences. Greeted by the ponderous, mustachioed visage of Douglas Davis in his The Last Nine Minutes, a live-to-video performance realized in 1977 for Documenta 6, we immediately see how video dissolved the time lag between action and its documentation. Bill Viola's 44 portraits of television viewers (1983-84) staring silently into their TV sets, made for WGBH in Boston, screens on the other side of the entrance.
In the middle of the gallery, playing across what the accompanying brochure calls an "archipelago" of viewing stations, are various video pieces by La Mamelle and ART COM artists, as well as those by artists such as the Borat-like Olaf Breuning, whose work plays off of the spectacle of TV shows. Meanwhile, at the back of the room, Mario Garcia Torres' jarring 2008 nine-channel compilation of artists' TV cameos from the past four decades (Dali doing a car commercial; Warhol appearing as himself on The Love Boat) tabulates the increasing banality of art's intersection with television.
Yet despite the histories laid out in "God Only Knows Who the Audience Is," Bravo's Work of Art, YouTube, and the continual meddling presence of James Franco, video has yet to kill the performance art star — or at least the demand for the star's body, as demonstrated by Marina Abramovic's recent MOMA retrospective, in which the real attraction was not the controversial restagings of her greatest hits, but her daily physical presence.
The irony, of course, is that exhibit's online half-life, which continues today. The Flickr and Tumblr are still there. The artist is still present to those who navigate to those pages, even though Abramovic left the building long ago. God only knows who's still watching.
The title of German painter Christoph Roßner's current solo show at Romer Young, "The Hat, That Never Existed," is a tip-off. Roßner's smudged, over-painted, and half-erased depictions of things and people — trees, candles, top hats, houses, old men — scan as disappearing acts rather than fixed portraits (the way the canvases have been hung even suggests that a few have gone missing from the gallery). "Ghoulish" is the operative word here. Not much separates the faceless specter of Ghost from the skeletal visage in Grinser; and Roßner can make even a rock look like an Expressionist coffin. That's not lazy journalistic shorthand, either: Roßner's rough-hewn bleakness is of a piece with the Old World aesthetics of, say, George Grosz. The séance lasts only one more week, though, so act fast.
GOD ONLY KNOWS WHO THE AUDIENCE IS
Through July 2
CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art
1111 Eighth St.
THE HAT, THAT NEVER EXISTED
Through May 14
Romer Young Gallery
1240 22nd St., SF