Let’s Get Small

(top): Photo by Kevin Kennefick (bottom): Photo by Paul Ruscha

Is the ’80s revival over yet? I hope so. The worst thing about that particular outburst of necrophilia was how wrong they got it. I was there, man, and the ’80s I remember were more than just trickle-down economics, padded shoulders and A Flock of Seagulls. Some of the weirdest and most ambitious music ever to be considered mainstream surfaced in the ’80s — Talking Heads’ Remain in Light, Kate Bush’s The Dreaming, Peter Gabriel’s Security: deep, dark, sexy, literate, hook-filled rock like no music on radio (or TV) these days (except maybe TV on the Radio). Weirdest and most ambitious of all was Laurie Anderson’s spooky electronic standup and warped fiddling on Big Science, whose single "O Superman" was plucked from obscurity and improbably launched to the Top of the Pops in 1981 by the recently late BBC DJ John Peel.

Anderson’s subsequent career has been anomalous, to say the least. Alternately dismissed as a sellout by art-world protectionists and as a quirky niche geek-rock songwriter by the music world, she has nevertheless managed to forge her own path outside these narrow borders, amassing an innovative and idiosyncratic body of work that defies category. Though hailed for her pioneering music videos and TV broadcasts, the enormously influential theatrical production United States I — IV (from which Big Science derived), her consistently compelling recording career, pioneering digital media like the award-winning CD-ROM Puppet Motel (not to mention being saddled with the unenviable and ill-fitting pop-cultural mantle of the archetypal Performance Artist), Anderson hasn’t really gotten her due, because her art is rarely considered as the genre-devouring Gesamtkunstwerk (how’s that for an ’80s word?) that it is.

Taken as a whole, Anderson’s oeuvre constitutes one of the most significant creative projects of the last quarter-century, and while her cultural currency may have diminished as the ’80s waned, the ominous global dread and McLuhanesque slapstick of her early work have suddenly taken on a profound new potency since 9/11. Her latest solo show, The End of the Moon, which recently played at UCLALive and returns to Santa Barbara, Davis and San Diego in January, feels more like "O Superman" than most of the work that came in between. This is due in part to the validation of some of Anderson’s more claustrophobic political allegories — "Here come the planes" indeed. The middle portion of a proposed trilogy whose first installment, "Happiness," recounted Anderson’s adventures on an Amish farm and behind the counter at McDonald’s, The End of the Moon seems to be equally engaged with the spiritual and political realms to a degree not evident since the Big Science era, contemplating such lofty concepts as the nature of time and beauty, while grounded in the day-to-day surreality of living 10 blocks from Ground Zero.

One story that perfectly captures the portentous humor of her early work recounts Anderson’s recent retreat to a mountaintop cabin in Northern California with her dog Lolabelle: Everything is idyllic until one day when Lolabelle is nearly snatched by an enormous bird of prey. Afterward, the dog’s entire way of relating to the world is altered as she constantly checks over her shoulder for death from above. Which somehow strikes Anderson as strangely familiar.

The End of the Moon, occasioned by her gig as the first artist in residence for NASA, has strong formal links to Anderson’s early work as well, in spite of the absence of the multimedia whistles and bells that many expect from her.

Over the years, she has, in fact, pretty much oscillated between extending and reducing the theatrical components of her storytelling — from the state-of-the-art information overload of her 1995 Nerve Bible tour to the sparse, hypnotic spoken-word CD The Ugly One With the Jewels. The End of the Moon falls somewhere in between, with a minimal set and only occasional AV components, but a powerful array of music software backing up her electric violin and vocals. It’s the language — fragmentary, anecdotal, cyclic, tragicomic — that most harks back to the halcyon days of Reaganomics. As recent election results indicate, the future is in the hands of the best storytellers. Thank God one of them’s on our side. If only Karl Rove had stuck a yam up his ass instead of that Big Stick!

Anderson’s love/hate relationships with words and narrative were reflective of a major strain of ’80s art-making, meshing more or less smoothly with artists like Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Robert Ashley and Spaulding Gray. Closest to Anderson’s ear for vernacular epigrams was, and remains, Ed Ruscha — the quintessential L.A. artist whose 1982 retrospective at the Whitney finally alerted Manhattan to his peculiar form of literacy. Ruscha (whose performative work is pretty much limited to throwing a typewriter out of a speeding car and posing for Gap ads) is one of the funniest writers in the art world, in spite of hardly ever exceeding a half-dozen words per work. Some of his pieces — his seminal photo book Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations, for example — are droll and masterful narratives composed entirely of images. Others, like many of the drawings included in "Cotton Puffs, Q-Tips®, Smoke and Mirrors," are as enigmatic and arresting as a Zen koan.

The retrospective of works on paper, organized by the Whitney and on view at MOCA through mid-January, spans 40-plus years of engagement with language and representation, from 1959’s letterpress-and-inkstain Sweetwater — a game attempt to reconcile his graphic-design tendencies with the prevailing abstract expressionism of the time — to the contemporary cluster of small The End paintings reproducing end titles from various eras of movie history. All of Ruscha’s signature motifs are present: the Hollywood sign, the blurry silhouettes, the play of shadows and light, and the words — rendered as flat signage, or to look like folded paper, curled ribbon or spilled fluid. The humor is sometimes totally dumb, like the twin paintings each displaying half a word in hovering gothic script: Pud and ding (apparently reunited here for the first time since 1971). Most of the humor is less definable, though, and seems to arise from the artist’s insistence on examining the smallest atoms of vernacular culture. It is this ability to find puzzling absurdity — and therefore mystery — in the most taken-for-granted details of language and picture-making that Ruscha’s work most resembles Anderson’s.

I’m reminded of this awesome movie I happened to watch the afternoon before attending The End of the Moon: a low-budget digital-camera documentary by French New Wave doyenne Agnès Varda called The Gleaners & I. The 70-something Varda rambles across France finding people who still follow the harvest, stooping to gather the tons of produce missed by the machines of agribusiness. She follows this line of inquiry to urban dumpster divers, assemblage artists, and her own filmmaking practice, down to the construction of The Gleaners & I. In extending the alchemical salvage of the vernacular to basic tropes of language and communication, she lays out the mechanism that makes Anderson’s and Ruscha’s work function, and makes the irreducible underlying political power of their art-making clear. When you look at the discarded, overlooked detritus of the world, eschewing fetishistic consumerism to bend and engage with what is beneath you — literally and figuratively — you are rewarded with a tremendous, endlessly surprising outpouring of creative energy. And nobody in Houston gets a cut.

LAURIE ANDERSON: The End of the Moon | Royce Hall, UCLALive, November 5-6 | Campbell Hall, Santa Barbara, January 24-25 | Mondavi Center for the Arts, Davis, January 27 | Mandeville Hall, San Diego, January 29

COTTON PUFFS, Q-TIPS®, SMOKE AND MIRRORS: The Drawings of Ed Ruscha | MOCA, 250 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles | Through January 17


Ed Ruscha is among 400 artists to donate works to "INCOGNITO," an exhibition and art sale benefiting the Santa Monica Museum of Art this Friday, November 19. All art is $250, and the identity of artists will be revealed only after purchase. For more info, see Calendar listings or call (310) 586-6488.


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