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ART : Art Carny : Like a barker outside a fun house, Bruce Nauman lures viewers into his challenging and disconcerting art

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Artist Bruce Nauman lets out a hearty laugh when he hears that Adam Gopnik, art critic for the New Yorker, has described him as “the puritan conscience of the American avant-garde.”

“That’s pretty funny,” says a clearly amused Nauman, adding, “but it’s true that I do think art has a moral responsibility--and maybe that’s the puritan in me talking. Whatever the reason, it’s very hard for me to take the easy way--I don’t trust the easy way.”

Nauman’s rigorous approach has led to one of the most intelligent bodies of work of the modern era. Beginning in the late ‘60s with conceptual works that found him employing his own body as the raw material for puzzles in deductive logic and perception, Nauman has defied conventional approaches to art-making in endlessly inventive ways. He has no signature style or trademark material--Nauman’s done film, video, photographs, sculpture, neon works, drawings, prints, performance and installation--yet his aesthetic is unique and immediately recognizable.

The master of the no-exit situation, Nauman says, “I want to make art that’s like going up the stairs in the dark, when you think there’s one more step, and there isn’t.”

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In other words, his art operates like an unsettling surprise. Philosophical inquiries often geared toward investigating the effects of physical situations on human beings, his work is conceptually aggressive and diabolically smart. He presents mismatched fragments of information, for instance, that thwart the human compulsion to organize data into coherent systems, and creates sinister installations that reveal behavioral patterns--a corridor with converging walls, a tunnel leading to a dead end. Combining the meticulousness of elegant mathematical equations with the queasy thrill of a carnival fun house, Nauman refocuses one’s attention in a way that is entirely new, then leaves you on your own in uncharted regions of the psyche.

“I’m not particularly fond of things that make me nervous--I don’t like horror movies, for instance--and there’s a part of my work that makes me uncomfortable,” Nauman says. “But I’m interested in that tension.”

And, as can be seen in an exhibition on view at the Daniel Weinberg Gallery through Feb. 27, Nauman shows no sign of letting up. Now 49, he has spent the past few years developing video pieces that feature circus clowns acting out absurd scenarios that explore the theme of cruelty, large sculptures made of taxidermist animal forms cast in polyurethane foam, a series of cast wax heads, and sexually explicit neon works investigating the dichotomy of sex and power. All this work pulsates with a quality of barely contained violence and dread. The Weinberg show features three curiously unnerving video installations that depict Nauman’s head spinning in endless circles, repeating monosyllabic chants--these oddly poignant pieces evoke feelings of frustration and futility.

Part of the power of Nauman’s work is no doubt derived from the mystique that’s come to surround the artist himself. A maverick who’s always maintained a healthy distance from the art world, Nauman has managed to navigate the upper echelons of the avant-garde for 25 years and come away with a spotless reputation. It’s rare that he meets with the press, even rarer for him to get a bad review, and art scholars scrutinize his every gesture with the solemn respect one might bring to the Rosetta stone. Though born and raised in the Midwest, Nauman has lived in Pecos, N.M., for the last 11 years and has taken on the rugged, burnished wholesomeness of a cowboy. He is, in short, a classic American iconoclast--an outsider who marches to the beat of his own drum.

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“I’m not interested in the cult of personality that’s taken hold in the art world and I don’t think knowledge of my personal life enhances my work in any way,” Nauman says of the low profile he maintains. “I’ve always stayed away from the art-world centers because that helps me focus on the work rather than the career part of being an artist,” he adds in a conversation during a break from installing his show.

A soft-spoken man, Nauman is remarkably unassuming in light of his formidable stature in the art world. He laughs easily and often and is quite gracious while managing to smoothly deflect the interviewer’s questions--Nauman is clearly a private man. He did, however, reveal that his sense of himself as an outsider began long before he began to make art.

Born in Ft. Wayne, Ind., in 1941, Nauman had a nomadic childhood that he says “definitely affected me in terms of how I relate to people. My dad was a salesman for General Electric, so we moved every three or four years and I think that was an important thing in my growing up, all that moving. Whereas some kids come in and take over, I always felt a sense of reserve coming into a new place. I’d stay on the sidelines and observe, trying to figure out how I was going to fit into this new situation. The role of the observing outsider came to be very much a part of my nature.”

A teen-ager during the ‘50s, which saw the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, Nauman says, “I remember all that stuff now, but rock ‘n’ roll didn’t mean too much to me during the ‘50s--at that time I was too shy to get involved.”

Nauman did, however, have a strong affinity for music, and he studied piano and classical guitar as a child and performed briefly as a bass player. After graduating from high school, he attended the University of Wisconsin, where he studied mathematics, physics and music theory before finally making his way into an art class. Several of his art teachers in Wisconsin had been involved with the Roosevelt New Deal art programs, and he feels that influence probably contributed to his belief that art should relate to real-life issues.

His first art epiphany, however, was with pure painting rather than political art. “The first piece of art that made a big impression on me was De Kooning’s painting called ‘Excavation,’ ” he recalls. “I’d looked at a lot of painting prior to that--I was in college at the time and was already seriously committed to art--but that was the first painting that somehow unfolded itself to me.”

In the fall of 1964, Nauman transferred to the University of California Davis, where he remained through the spring of 1966 working toward his masters degree. At the time he was studying with William T. Wiley and doing abstract landscapes in the manner of the Bay Area Figuration School, while growing increasingly aware that painting wasn’t the proper vehicle for him. He began attaching fiberglass shapes to his canvases and shortly thereafter abandoned painting altogether.

Literature has always been an important source of ideas and inspiration for Nauman, and during this period he was heavily influenced by British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “Philosophical Investigations.”

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“I really admired the way he questioned things and how he followed an argument,” Nauman says of Wittgenstein. “He always brought his arguments back to the point of asking, ‘Does the world really work like this?’ You can construct a beautiful theory but if it doesn’t connect with how people operate in their daily lives then it’s useless. He wanted philosophy to be very practical and thought it should connect with how we really function in the world, and that idea is central to my work as well. I’ve always been attracted to art that functions as a tool to investigate the world--work by people like Da Vinci and Durer.”

During the mid-'60s, Nauman experimented with minimalist sculpture, filmmaking and live performances, then in the summer of ’66 he moved to San Francisco where the hippie movement was in full swing.

“I stayed pretty much on the sidelines of the hippie thing, but I had a lot of friends who were very involved with it,” he recalls. “Many of my friends were musicians and they were the focus of that scene. It always seemed to me as if they were the court jesters--they were responsible for providing something interesting for everybody else to get stoned and pay attention to. I always thought that was wrong and that everybody ought to be putting in a little more effort instead of making a few people provide the entertainment--but maybe that’s the puritan in me talking again,” he laughs.

While living in San Francisco, Nauman began to do works that incorporated his body. “I was exploring the idea of how to make art without the usual tools--paints and brushes and so forth--and I needed a way to proceed, so I decided to operate out of the idea that art is what the artist does,” he says in explaining how he arrived at the point of viewing his body as legitimate material for his work. Nauman’s coalescing style was rooted in a belief in art as a revelatory event rather than a precious object, and shortly thereafter he began doing installation pieces--the corridor and tunnel works.

At the time he was reading Beckett, whom he admired for “the beautiful formal quality of his writing, as well as the fact that though his vision was a bleak one, it was a vision that went on.” Among the artists who were important to him during those formative years were Jasper Johns, Richard Tuttle, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, Willem de Kooning, Henry Moore and Auguste Rodin.

In 1969, Nauman moved to Pasadena, where he lived for the next 10 years, and in 1970 he taught sculpture at UC Irvine. By that point, his career had taken on considerable heat, and in 1972--when he was just 31--he was the subject of a major retrospective that originated at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, then traveled the United States and Europe for three years.

“That retrospective was hard,” Nauman recalls. “It made it really difficult to go back to work and led to the longest dry spell I’ve ever had. That was pretty frightening. I guess I was inhibited by the fact that I felt expectations around my work were so high; plus I think that show made me examine my work in a way that probably wasn’t good for me.”

Over the course of the next 10 years, various thinkers and theoreticians influenced Nauman; among them were Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, V.S. Naipaul and Jacobo Timerman (whose accounts of torture in South America were central to a series of sculptures involving upended chairs). The political content of Nauman’s work has become a bit more pointed in recent years; however, he still expresses his views with remarkable subtlety. Nauman’s work rarely tells you anything specific--rather, it speaks to the subconscious mind in a disembodied voice.

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“Anything that disturbs people’s sense of complacency is political, and sometimes that disturbing element can be pretty minor and peripheral,” he says. “Personally, I’m not interested in art that’s overtly propagandistic--I don’t think anyone’s done that well. Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ is often cited as a great work of political art, but I don’t like it--I don’t think it’s a good painting. This isn’t to disparage Picasso--I think he’s very important. The entire generation that came after him had to struggle with how to deal with his achievement.”

Asked if the ideas central to his early work still hold any allure for him, Nauman says, “It takes me a pretty long time to work an idea through to a conclusion. I like the early and the late period of an idea--the early period because there are so many possibilities, and the last part because there’s a sense of things coming together. Ultimately, there’s got to be some sense of closure with an idea, and that can happen by finishing something so you can present it, or by completely ruining something and running it into the ground. There’s a funny satisfaction in discovering at what point something comes apart.

“And yet, even as I struggle to bring an idea to a conclusion, when everything’s figured out I feel trapped,” he adds. “I’m always reluctant to finish a work or make a conclusive statement about anything because even if it feels right and appears to be true at the time, anything final eliminates other possibilities and courses of action. This isn’t to say we should exist in the existential dilemma of not being able to get out of bed because you can’t decide what to do, but I must admit I think a lot about the fact that every time I make a choice I eliminate entire worlds.”

Though philosophic conundrums such as this fascinate Nauman, he says that his work is primarily rooted in humanist concerns. “My work is basically an outgrowth of the anger I feel about the human condition,” he says. “The aspects of it that make me angry are our capacity for cruelty and the ability people have to ignore situations they don’t like. I’m also fascinated by the question of how does normal anger--or even hating someone--evolve into cultural hatred? At what point does one decide it’s OK to wipe out an entire race? How do you become Hitler? Where does it stop being something personal and turn into the abstract hatred that leads to war?”

These loaded questions lead Nauman to make art that he admits “aggresses against the viewer. This work is pretty noisy--I wouldn’t want to have to work at this gallery this month,” he says with a laugh. “But I want it to be loud and aggressive because that way people are forced to pay attention.”

Nauman’s work seems to be in marked contrast to his life in Pecos, which sounds uncommonly serene. “Basically, I lead a fairly rural life,” he says. “We have lots of animals--it takes an hour just to feed them all--and I ride everyday. I have horses I’m training and I like that a lot. I was really worn out for a few years there and the way I regenerated myself was by spending time with the horses and allowing myself to stay out of the studio. That was a discipline, learning how to not work, because I feel an enormous pressure to go to work.

“My work habits are less structured than they used to be,” he continues. “I got married a couple of years ago (to painter Susan Rothenberg) and we moved, and it’s been hard readjusting and figuring out what my habits are supposed to be. I do try and go in the studio everyday though because I get nervous if I’m away from my work for too long.”

Asked what he feels is his chief strength as an artist, he replies, “Having the ability to focus on whatever the problem is, and knowing when the problem is stated clearly.”

And exactly what is “the problem” he’s referring to?

“There’s a conflict between our animal instincts and how we’re socialized to behave, and a lot of my work has played on the tension between those two drives,” he concludes. “Obviously, our animal instincts can’t be socialized out of us to a great degree, and we shouldn’t pretend that they can be because from what we can see the human race doesn’t seem to be evolving at all. When you look in the history books the same things come up over and over--there’s art and there’s war.”


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