Artist Linda Montano became the Chicken Woman in 1971. She made nine clandestine appearances around San Francisco wearing a blue and white prom dress with tulle and a feather headdress that resembled, at first glance, the close-cropped perm of an elderly lady. She also wore tap shoes and carried a tape recorder. At one point, the Chicken Woman danced on the Golden Gate Bridge, and the suicide-prevention squad came to take her away, not out of concern that she would harm herself but to keep her from causing, or being, a disturbance. In images of Montano performing, she appears completely lost in her eccentric role, as if she has entered some intoxicatingly out-there state.
I say she "became" the Chicken Woman, as later she would "become" an art/life counselor, because that is how it seems: She collapses her professional self into the vulnerable, private one. If you attend one of the "art/life counseling" sessions she's been conducting for more than 30 years, you won't feel like a participant in her art — instead, you'll feel as if someone who's really trying to understand you is asking you to let your guard down.
It's an experience that discourages self-consciousness. This made it an intriguing coincidence that, the day after I RSVP'd for the art/life counseling sessions Montano would be offering July 9 in L.A., I received an announcement saying that artist Julian Hoeber, whose work is very self-conscious of its own constraints, that same day would be offering at Blum & Poe gallery a series of performance sessions that resemble the one-on-one therapy dynamic. Experiencing both was like going from one art world into another.
In Hoeber's work, professional and personal do not collapse into each other. Instead they check each other, as do formal and informal, emotional and cerebral impulses. His recent, now-closed exhibition, his fifth at Blum & Poe, included a series of paired paintings called Execution Changes. They all have dense, textured surfaces, but one in the pair is a relatively orderly image, the other a skewed or muddled version of the first. For instance, Execution Change #73A is an op-art–meets–Josef Albers rendering of green and yellow rectangles, which recede into a dark blue center. In Execution Change #73B, the formerly straight sides of the rectangles warp as they would if you used Photoshop's distort function.
The show also featured an installation called Self-Consciousness Machine. It's a room with white exterior walls built inside a much larger, white-walled gallery. Once you've entered, you encounter two angled corridors dimly lit with green and red lights. There's a mirrored corridor inside that, with a square, closet-sized mirrored space at its center. There's a stool in that square, and if you sit in it, you see yourself reflected from above and from all sides. A chair placed just outside the square space's opening faces the stool.
Jen Collins, who has collaborated with Hoeber in the past, stationed herself on the chair for the July 9 performance. She has a professional practice as a therapist but was here as a performer. The press release made it clear, as did a waiver signed by all participants prior to their 25-minute sessions, that what was being administered was an art experience rather than a medical or therapeutic one.
My appointment in Hoeber's Machine was two hours before my appointment with Montano. I had been in the installation twice, once just after James Turrell's massive retrospective opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Turrell's pristinely made, colored, perception-skewing spaces make you feel that you're supposed to be in awe or present in some spiritual way. In his ganzfelds, rooms filled with colored lights that make it difficult to tell where the space ends, I am always on some level distracted — by imagining a flow yoga class meeting there or by the well-dressed man nearby who cannot get the booties we all have to wear to stay on his feet — which makes me skeptical of people who emerge saying they'd entered some transcendent headspace.
Hoeber's space seems made for the skeptic. There are smudges on the glass, and the fact that you see your image reflected back at you from mostly unflattering angles either encourages you to dwell on your own insecurities or forces you to sublimate them. There is something strangely freeing about a space that sanctions discomfort, which is what I tried to explain to Collins near the beginning of our session, when she asked me how I felt about Hoeber's exhibition.
My session with Collins was a tentative, polite conversation, in which we discussed the oddness of our surroundings and the discomfort of being a performer in what was ultimately Hoeber's work. When time was nearly up, I commented that I had been looking almost exclusively at Collins, and the three reflections of her head in the mirrors around her. Staring at myself would have been too obviously self-interested and certainly would have distracted me from the conversation. She noted that a therapy session was a space in which you theoretically could stare at yourself the whole time, but, I wondered, does that make doing so easier or better? This sort of polite second-guessing fit Machine, itself somewhat polite — not garish like a house of mirrors and warmer than a mirror-lined corporate waiting room.
Leaving was like leaving an appointment, but arriving for counseling with Montano felt like dropping in on friends. Her sessions, held from 1-3 p.m., were organized by Chinatown alternative-art space Human Resources, and specifically by Jennifer Doyle, a writer, scholar and Human Resources board member, who discusses Montano's art in her just-published book, Hold it Against Me.
While Blum & Poe is an established gallery with a formal, confident polish, Human Resources relies on volunteer effort and exists to do informal things more established spaces can't or don't do.
Montano's sessions were conducted via Skype, since the New York–based artist had canceled her planned California trip after breaking her hand. Montano had asked that every participant bring food for someone in addition to composing a three-minute account of their highs and lows. The plan was that we would lunch together while awaiting our turns.
Six of us took turns meeting with her in the privacy of a home office. Our audio connection was bad, so we muted the computer and switched to phone halfway through the session. It was more like speaking with a down-to-earth oracle than a therapist. She asked me to recount memories, all from childhood. On the spot, I remembered two girls at camp who stopped playing with me, I thought, because they learned I was younger than they, and the time a girl from church asked if my mom was crabby because she was pregnant and I couldn't decide whether yes or no was the safer answer.
These and other reflections prompted an assignment: Spend five to 10 minutes a day with your eyes closed, Montano told me, allowing yourself to trust that no one will pull the rug out. Then she sang me a song, which is how she ended each session that day.
"Artists tend to deny the relationship of their work to therapy and subsequently to psychology," Montano, who is not a licensed psychotherapist, writes in her 2005 book, Letters From Linda Montano, explaining her decision to offer art/life counseling. She adds that artists often explain what they do in art-historical terms instead. "This need for professional validation is somewhat arcane." But, she continues, artists are always diverting worry and anxiety into creative expression, which suggests their whole endeavor is therapeutic. So why pretend it's not?