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"Now and Then"
at Cirrus Gallery, Los Angeles, California
Preview by Michael Shaw

Barbara T. Smith, 'Field Piece,' 1968-71, sculptural installation for performance

Opening September 24, 2011

When Jean Milant set up shop on North Manhattan Place in Hollywood in 1971, L.A. was a gallery desert. The Ferus Gallery, which had provided the fledgling L.A. art scene an intense jolt of activity featuring flourishing local heroes and rising stars from New York from 1959 to ’66, was long gone. Other dealers would gradually set up shop throughout town, but few would survive the era. Milant moved Cirrus to Alameda Street in ’79, and it’s stayed at that location ever since.  Now that the Getty-granted retrospective of SoCal artistic self-love that is Pacific Standard Time (PST) is upon us, it seems only fitting that Cirrus should share in the revelry. The gallery’s history – which falls into the last decade of PST’s timeline of 1945-80 – anchors a confluence of artistic direction and innovation that will be traceable throughout the vast network of exhibitions taking place this fall, at seemingly every Southern California art institution from Santa Barbara to San Diego.

“Now and Then” is just the first of four shows at the gallery stretching all the way into May, as part of “Once Emerging Now Emerging,” a PST-inspired curatorial event. Milant has bequeathed the curatorial reins to Aaron Wrinkle, the artist/curator behind the recent Chinatown gallery/conceptual project, the Dan Graham gallery. Wrinkle, who studied with Michael Asher, the CalArts conceptualist who has influenced generations of young artists – and whose own “Southern California Collection,” a piece that funneled donations to art non-profits, was at Cirrus in ’86 – is framing “Once Emerging Now Emerging” as an art project in itself, not merely as a curatorial one. In addition to the multi-media smorgasbord that will comprise much of the show, Wrinkle and Milant are inviting additional submissions, possibly even including proposed alterations to the show, through the OnceNowExhibition.com site; candidates will be vetted, but the openness illustrates the fluid intent of the overall enterprise.

Though there’s no true center to the show, the spirit proper may lie in the slide shows (or, to be more current, the ‘projections’) - one showcasing moments from throughout Cirrus’ history, encompassing artists from the canonized to the obscure; another featuring interior shots from the original Manhattan Place and current gallery spaces; and a third, the black-and-white projection of scenes from Barbara T. Smith’s “Field Piece,” a four-year (1968-71) sculptural project/be-in.  In performances from the time, Smith and her collaborators sit and slither, nakedly, amidst a forest of 9 ½-feet tall, phallic-shaped resin protrusions. Smith’s formative years included grad school with Chris Burden at UC Irvine. Burden’s notorious “Shoot” was performed at F Space in Santa Ana, an alternative space Smith co-founded. “Field Piece” was shown in its original incarnation at UC Irvine, F Space, and Cirrus, and was recently re-exhibited in remnant forms in ’07 and ’08, in L.A. and N.Y., respectively (Smith is also included in the 18th Street Art Center’s performance-based PST show, “Collaboration Labs: Southern California Artists and the Artists Space Movement”).  

But all this is a recent renaissance:  Smith personifies what one hopes will be an oft-recurring phenomenon throughout PST:  the reconsideration of an artist who took challenging, pioneering strides at one point in the history of L.A. art, but fell out of popular consciousness, and/or consumption, whether due to a commercializing market or a host of predictable but still unsettled reasons. Whether “Field Piece” swims in early ‘70s nostalgia, summons a spark of a still-lit artistic revolution, or both – the two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive – rests in the hands of each viewer and his or her own baggage.

There is of course, meanwhile, some substantial ‘Now’ represented here. Vincent Ramos will be investigating the work of the late Guy De Cointet, one of the early Cirrus artists who did performances and exhibitions there throughout the ‘70s. Most notable among these was a performance that featured the Warhol superstar Viva. Fiona Connor and Melodie Mousset, just out of CalArts’ MFA program, will be plastering posters around town that reference the feel of the immense Cirrus archive. And Jonah Wood, who had one of his earlier shows at Cirrus (2006), is creating a billboard painting that will both announce and advertise the show from the exterior façade of the building, and simultaneously cover up the windows, darkening the entrance space’s interior. Perhaps, too, Wood’s billboard will provide an added pull for the gallery via this rapidly ascendant star’s estimable muscle.

Additionally, there will be prints from the archive selected by Wrinkle; possibly an Ed Ruscha original piece of some kind (which couldn’t be more appropriate, since it was Ruscha who recommended the N. Manhattan rental space to Milant back in the day). There will also be work from beyond California - likely videos - that somehow interacts with the gallery’s history and/or archive. The space will provide furniture for viewers to sit in as they peruse vintage artifacts - postcards, gallery P.R., and assorted ephemera. And there will be furniture by Frank Gehry, an early Cirrus supporter, including the cardboard-based Wiggle chairs, which will be displayed on pedestals, quite definitively not for sitting. This almost kitchen-sink, multi-media approach is all well within reason (if seemingly chaotic) - there’s a ton of ground to cover, and a lot of debt to be paid back (even if by itself) to an institution that has paid significant dues. It’s also a perfect opportunity to partake in a self-imposed version of Asher’s Situation Aesthetics. On some subconscious level, it may very well seem as if bits of Cirrus’ history will be playing out in PST shows all over town … an appropriate element of payoff for over 40 years worth of roots.

Published courtesy of ArtSceneCal ©2011

Cirrus Gallery

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