The first video piece that Getty Research Institute curator Glenn Phillips remembers encountering was Paul McCarthy’s Pinocchio Pipenose Household Dilemma at Luhring Augustine Gallery in New York in the mid-1990s. Phillips was an undergraduate at Yale at the time, pursuing an independent study course in contemporary art, and so green to the ways of Manhattan gallery-going that he wore a suit on the occasion of his first excursion — because, he recalls, “I thought that’s what you do; you’re supposed to wear a suit.” When he stumbled into the McCarthy installation, which required viewers to don red-and-yellow coveralls, big plastic shoes, and a rubber Pinocchio mask with a footlong nose before watching the video, he was duly intrigued. Asked what it was about the piece that appealed to him, he pointed to a crucial and popularly misunderstood facet of the contemporary art experience generally: “It sort of made you feel funny.”
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Brian Bress, Under cover (2007)
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Kipper Kids, Up Yer Bum With a Bengal Lancer (1976)
It is the kind of revelation that Phillips hopes to inspire in others with “California Video,” the first major survey of California’s momentous contribution to the development of the medium. A joint production of the GRI and the Getty Museum, the show assembles 15 installations and more than 50 single-channel works About half are drawn from the historic Long Beach Museum of Art Video Archive, which the GRI acquired in 2005, the rest from other institutions and artists’ personal collections. The show spans 40 years and multiple generations, including early luminaries like Allan Kaprow, John Baldessari and Eleanor Antin, as well as relative newcomers Enid Baxter Blader, Cathy Begien and Brian Bress. All the usual suspects are there — Bruce Nauman, Bill Viola, Tony Oursler, William Wegman, Paul McCarthy (though not the Pinocchio piece), Mike Kelley, Chris Burden, Diana Thater — as well as many less often seen — the Kipper Kids, Skip Arnold, Suzanne Lacy — and quite a few you’ve probably never heard of. “At heart,” Phillips says, “this is a single-channel video show,” with works presented on relatively small (20-inch) monitors, one per artist. But several large-scale installations are among the likely highlights, including a re-creation of the original 1975-76 installation of The Eternal Flame (a re-enactment of John F. Kennedy’s assassination) by the San Francisco Bay Area collectives Ant Farm and T. R. Uthco; a 27-monitor tower by Paul Kos that replicates a stained-glass window in Chartres Cathedral; and a new, site-specific projection by Jennifer Steinkamp.
Phillips, the curator of the show and a key player in the development of the GRI’s contemporary program since his arrival in 2002 (he was at the Whitney Museum for several years before that), is an affable, well-trimmed, scholarly-looking man in his mid-30s who, one week into a three-week installation, appears perfectly at ease with both the pressures and the spotlight of such a high-profile exhibition. I ask him about his selection process.
“It’s been very personal, which I then try to temper by looking at the overall history,” he says. “I don’t like an exhibition unless it’s quirky. There has to be tension, there have to be things to argue about and disagree over. Its amazing to me to see that in every case, in every exhibition, one person’s favorite piece is someone else’s least favorite and vice versa. The idea is not to show masterpieces, have everyone accept them, and move on to the next chapter. The idea is to get everyone discussing the work and thinking about it. The stuff is supposed to come to life, and that happens more readily when there’s something akin to individual personality quirks.”
L.A. WEEKLY:What traits do you see distinguishing the work in this show from that of other regions?
PHILLIPS: I think that it was really easy to be experimental on the West Coast. The happy accident — especially in Southern California but in the Bay Area too — of the public university system as well as some private universities getting cash, investing in arts programs, and recruiting faculty from the East Coast and Europe — that was a jolt, I think. Then these people get here and realize there’s no market, there’s no audience, there’s no anything. There’s no history, there’s no pressure, so you can do whatever you want. You pick the best of what you do, send that to New York, and your dealer’s never going to fret, they’re never going to worry, and the rest of the stuff you’re really just showing to each other. So a lot more happens than might have happened if your dealer was stopping by a lot or if you’re in that really competitive sort of environment that was starting to build in New York at that time. A lot of the things in this show — probably about a third of the videos from the ’70s and early ’80s — are being shown for the first time since then, or are getting their debut. Because these were experiments: people screwing around. They showed them to other artists, they never exhibited them. Then you pull them out 30 years later and realize that they’re actually quite good.
So, you know, how provisional things were out here, how new the community was, together with this new approach to the body that was being utilized both in feminist art and more generally in performance art — those sorts of things distinguish California video. The humor. The works are so funny — really easy to watch. Video has a reputation for being boring, but it’s not, at least these works are not.
Has it been difficult to narrow the selection down?
It was really hard. There are quite a few artists, and it is jam-packed in there. I mean, this show is full — kind of bursting at the seams, which is good because part of the idea is to convey this explosion, not to make it rarefied, not filter it out, but to show the jumble that video was then. So it’s really packed in there. If I’d had twice as much space, I would have had twice as many artists and I still would have loved every piece. There was so much happening here. I’m still finding artists I didn’t know about, and I looked really hard. They’re still coming out of the woodwork.
This is the first show of its kind — to look at video in California specifically — but what is your sense of the state of the field generally, in terms of scholarship and exhibition?
Well, in the ’90s, when funding started drying up, the video and media-art programs that had been developed at museums started dropping like flies. In recent years, video has become more popular again because it’s now quite collectible, so you’re seeing a lot more.
The weird thing for me is that I think people will receive this show better now than if I’d done the exact same show 10 years ago. It’s kind of silly, but I honestly think YouTube has something to do with it. We all watch YouTube now and it’s prepared us: People are now comfortable with the idea of someone alone with a camera, turning it on and doing whatever they want to in front of it. That’s really what ’70s video art is. You can theorize about it all you want, you can make as many high-minded claims as you want — and most of the artists that would be applicable to — but they’re really just playing with the camera, and your average museum visitor is now a little more comfortable with that.
CALIFORNIA VIDEO | Getty Center, 1200 Getty Center Dr., Brentwood | March 15 through June 8 | (310) 440-7300