PST, A to Z: ‘Perpetual Conceptual’ at Los Angeles Nomadic Division
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Pacific Standard Time will explore the origins of the Los Angeles art world through museum exhibitions throughout Southern California over the next six months. Times art reviewer Sharon Mizota has set the goal of seeing all of them. This is her latest report.
Setting out to see “Perpetual Conceptual: Echoes of Eugenia Butler,” I almost drove right past it. The exhibition is organized by Los Angeles Nomadic Division, a non-profit arts organization whose name reflects their lack of a permanent gallery space, and the show takes place in three storefronts in a nondescript strip mall in West Hollywood.
Having never set foot in Eugenia Butler Gallery, the late 60s-era space to which “Perpetual Conceptual” pays homage, I’m not sure whether these cold, roughly finished retail spots do it justice. However, they do seem a fitting place to show work that for many still stretches the boundaries of art.
Although it only operated from 1968 to 1971, the Eugenia Butler Gallery exhibited the work of a number of influential artists, including John Baldessari, Ed Kienholz, and Joseph Kosuth. Yet, like other women gallerists, Butler’s legacy has often been overshadowed by the attention paid to her male contemporaries over at the Ferus Gallery. The larger context female gallerists operated within was explored in the PST exhibition, “She Accepts the Proposition,” on view last fall at Crossroads School. It looked at the impact of five women gallery owners, including Butler.
The main part of “Perpetual Conceptual” is a group show of works by artists whom Butler championed. It’s up until April 21, but the works in the two adjoining spaces will change over the course of the exhibition, each one given over to a particular artist. When I visited, there were installations by Adam II, The Late Paul Cotton, and Butler’s daughter, Eugenia P. Butler.
While these installations give the effort a dynamic feel, the main exhibition reveals Butler’s adventurous spirit and her important role in the development and nurturance of conceptual art in Los Angeles. It covers much of the same ground as other PST shows that have focused on conceptual art, but percolating throughout is some sense of Butler’s personal taste, which, for all of conceptual art’s cool detachment, ran a bit to the playful, irreverent, and sometimes risqué. Upon entering the space, one is greeted by George Miller’s “One Cubic Foot of Water,” circa 1969. It’s a stack of paper, one foot square, printed with a black and white image of waves. In form, it seems to foreshadow the stacks of posters that Félix González-Torres (and many others following his example) created for viewers to take away in the 1990s. Although Miller certainly couldn’t have anticipated that trend, the piece reminds us of a turning point in conceptual art. When did the work turn from simply instilling an idea in a viewer’s mind to inviting participation? Miller’s sheets of paper follow the former model, asking us to contemplate the impossibility of a cube of water, quietly, on our own.
In a similar vein is Robert Barry’s “Expanding Electromagnetic Energy Field (97 Mhz),” also from 1969. It’s a metal box with a single switch attached to long strands of copper wire that run along the baseboards. The artwork is presumably the “energy field” that this mechanism generates, but does it actually exist? I’m not sure how one would go about detecting such a field, but it’s fun to think of art as pure energy.
Further expanding the bounds of art practice, Butler became part of an artwork herself, participating in a performance by Adam II, The Late Paul Cotton. A clipping from the L.A. Free Press relates how the two attended the opening of the famed “Art and Technology” exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1971. Dressed in a bunny suit that exposed certain unmentionable parts of his anatomy, Cotton wore a cigarette vendor’s box around his neck filled with an “illegal vegetable,” as the newspaper put it. Cotton and Butler were unceremoniously thrown out of the opening, inspiring the headline, “Art Museum Throws Art Out.”
While such actions are ultimately ephemeral, Dieter Roth’s “Staple Cheese: A Race,” from 1970, might be accused of an excess of physicality. Roth filled the gallery with 37 suitcases stuffed with various types of cheese. He intended one suitcase to be opened each day for the duration of the show, but the exhibition was shut down shortly after it opened by the Los Angeles Health Department because of the stench and, as per the official citation, “fly breeding.” Afterwards, the suitcases remained in Butler’s garage for many years, packed in a custom container made by Roth, until her husband James finally disposed of them in the desert.
James Butler was a prominent attorney, and Butler’s financial independence was certainly a factor in her support of such adventurous work. Similarly minded gallerists Claire S. Copley, Morgan Thomas, and Constance Lewallen eventually channeled their efforts into Foundation for Art Resources, realizing that the type of work they wanted to support—fleeting, site-specific, experimental and often public—was better suited to the non-profit world. With this quirky, freewheeling tribute, LAND seems perfectly poised to carry on this spirited tradition.
Los Angeles Nomadic Division, 8126 – 8132 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood, (646) 620-8289, through April 21. Closed Sunday through Tuesday. www.nomadicdivision.org
Photos (top and bottom): Installation view, A LAND Exhibition: Perpetual Conceptual: Echoes of Eugenia Butler. Credit: Robert Wedemeyer.