By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Heather Cassils built up 23 pounds of muscle in 23 weeks. She changed her diet weekly, ate four raw eggs and three kinds of meat a day, spent $1,000 per month on groceries and, from May 6 to July 27, took a small dose of steroids. At one point she leg-pressed 600 pounds, and by the end of the project her arms were so taut she needed help taking off her shirt.
Each week of this body-mass marathon, she stood in front of a white wall wearing a nude-colored thong and used a wireless clicker to photograph herself from the front, back and sides. "It was unsustainable," says the artist, whose body, chiseled to begin with, was by the end a surreally androgynous triumph in muscularity.
Cassils strung together her weekly photographs in a stop-motion video that shows her morphing physique as part of her project Cuts: A Traditional Sculpture, on view at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE) in "Los Angeles Goes Live." For the show, two years in the making, LACE commissioned artists to reimagine famous L.A. performance art from the '70s and early '80s, when the scene was small, renegade and not well documented. The show is funded through Pacific Standard Time, L.A. art's trek through its postwar history.
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Cassils, a personal trainer by day, took two 1970s performances as her inspiration, the first by heady conceptualist Eleanor Antin and the second by sculptor and sometimes-performer Lynda Benglis. Though the two artists had vastly different sensibilities — Antin's minimal and historical, Benglis' brash and oozing — neither had qualms about using her own body as material.
In 1972, when Antin performed Carved: A Traditional Sculpture, she treated her body like a Greek sculpture, chiseling away at it by crash-dieting for 37 days. Every day, she photographed herself in front of a bare studio wall, charting her progress toward an idealized, slim physique. She lost nine pounds and, while the change is clear, it's no longer that startling. Skinniness and the means of achieving it are widely publicized now; we've gotten used to seeing even more dramatic transformations in US Weekly.
That's partly why Cassils reversed the project, treating her body like an additive rather than subtractive sculpture, and aiming for an antifeminine extreme of brute muscle. While Antin subjected herself to the conventions of beauty, Cassils says, "I'm more into talking about what you can do with a supposed 'biological' female body."
In 1974, two years after Antin's experiment, Benglis altered her biologically female body, adding an appendage. Fed up with the machismo coursing through New York's art scene, she bought ad space in art-world bible ArtForum. A few months before, sculptor Robert Morris had appeared ripped and shirtless in an exhibition ad in the magazine. Benglis went for something ballsier. She hired a fashion photographer to shoot her nude, oiled, perfectly tan pro-file. Wearing sunglasses, she taunted the camera by holding a double-headed dildo up to her crotch. When the ad appeared, the mag got an onslaught of mail — some congratulatory, most outraged. Two female editors resigned. "It's a confusing image," Cassils says. "You can't tell if Benglis is screwing herself, screwing her audience, play-acting masculinity or just parodying it."
Cassils aimed for confusion, too, but a different kind. She'd build herself up until she was uncomfortably "cut," then, like Benglis, have a photographer shoot her, sans dildo. "I wanted my body to become the phallus."
LACE director Carol Stakenas says she wanted artists who could think critically about history without getting bogged down by it. Like Cassils, most have opted to remix rather than restage past performances.
Japanese-American playwright-performer Denise Uyehara discovered that artist James Luna, who has lived on the La Jolla Indian Reservation for decades, grew up near her in Orange County. She asked him to collaborate with her to revisit Luna's 1970s work Transitions, in which he entered a gallery in plain clothes, then "transformed" himself by donning "Indian" regalia. In their Nov. 10 LACE performance, Uyehara will wear a kimono with 20-foot arms, play disco music and project home videos, though plans aren't yet finalized.
Artist Dorian Wood uncovered lesser-known events on the fringes of the queer and performance-art communities that have influenced his own work, like the time visceral performer Ron Athey and musician Rozz Williams used knives to slash through a curtain made of porn magazines. "I became fascinated with paying proper respect to this history," says Wood, and to acknowledge all the figures his research turned up, his performance, set for October in Barnsdall Art Park, will "essentially be a tableau." Hundreds of volunteers, stand-ins for participants in the '70s scene, will lie face down in the grass, and viewers will wander through this sea of bodies until they end up in a tent, where a loud, irreverent concert will be in full swing. What started as homage has become something entirely its own.
Cassils' project quickly became its own thing, too. When she approached trainer Charles Glass, former Mr. Universe and a bodybuilding celebrity, to help her put on as much mass as possible, she wanted a project that, like Antin's, would last days. Glass said she needed six months if she wanted significant change. "I don't want you to train me like a woman," she told him. "Have you ever seen female bodybuilders?" he retorted. "They don't look like women."