(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
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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