You Can't Draw a Tree If You Are Not a Tree : Art: Jochen Gerz paraphrases Durer in explaining that viewers must be allowed to get involved in the creative process.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the early '70s, Jochen Gerz was one of many "mail artists" sending cheaply reproduced work to colleagues and kindred spirits. Although driven by economic necessity, mail art emphasized the way artists were not only "producers" but also "consumers" of the work.

Gerz spent Saturday afternoon at the Newport Harbor Art Museum, where his retrospective "People Speak" (review, F1) continues through March 19. He remarked that the idea of "incorporating the consumer-viewer into the production process" of making art has remained a constant in his work.

Interviewed by Gary Dufour, senior curator of the Vancouver Art Gallery in Canada and organizer of "People Speak," the artist discussed some of the ideas behind his open-ended text-and-image work, which reflects the variable, uncertain way people process information through memory and sense impressions.

"You cannot represent something if you are not close to it," he said. "(16th-Century German artist Albrecht) Durer said you can't draw a tree if you are not a tree. In the same way, the viewer has to have a possibility of being close (to the subject).

"It's less about the viewer seeing art when he or she is in front of the work; rather, it's about seeing himself or herself when looking at art.

"The use of images in the form of photographs and written texts is something pretty common. Most people in our society know how to read, write and make photographs. . . . That was the aim: to do with the means of expression what people do anyhow, if they don't do art."

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Anyone who reads a newspaper has experience putting texts and photographic images together, Gerz said. But newspapers "erase" one another as the days go by, replacing one set of clearly stated facts with another. Art can offer something different, an acceptance of confusion.

"If you come from Europe and from a certain time, it's more essential that people be able to cope with confusion without crying for solutions too quickly or too radically," he said. "Such solutions (often are) racism, fascism or communism.

"Art is something you cannot take under your arm and go home with. It has a certain resistance to your habits of consuming and to the way you understand language. It introduces a new, unexplained, not understood sensibility--fruits you can't eat now but you can see and experience."

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