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Without a Map

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A chat with John White can be like a piece of his performance art--eccentric and elliptical, not spelling things out, yet somehow making its meaning clear. A fast, freewheeling outburst.

White, now semiretired, began doing performance art in the ‘60s and recently talked about the new work he’ll present tonight in a Santa Ana gallery.

“I’m going to come down there,” he said, gathering speed, “look things over and make a piece on the spot and do it that night.”

White, performing with two other artists at the new Marie Elias Center for the Arts (MECA), plans to play off the landscapes on exhibit there. But without a lot of preparation or rehearsal. Why?

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“One, it’s convenient,” he said, “because I live way up here [in Brentwood], and two--and it’s really No. 1--because it’s the way I like to work. The piece is only 15 minutes anyway, and I want to be able to get some fast information.”

The 60-year-old painter and longtime UC Irvine art instructor added that what he does now is part performance, part lecture-demo.

“It’s hard to separate them now for me; I like to do a lot of chalkboard drawing while I’m doing the performance.

“Al [Preciado, co-owner of MECA] said he has some big windows. I said, ‘Fine, give me the windows, and I’ll use them; we’ll light them from behind. . . . And give me a felt-tip pen and I’ll draw on them.’ ”

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On the bill with White are Squelch, a student at CalArts in Santa Clarita who lives in Santa Ana, and Matt Driggs, a Cal State Fullerton student living in that city. They too plan to relate in some way to MECA’s group exhibition, “Groundsight: Landscapes from the Earth.”

MECA occupies an old Santa Ana home where Preciado lives with gallery co-owner Kelly Griffin. They also present poetry readings. Seats are set up in the intimate galleries or on a back porch, where Preciado’s sociable, domestic shorthair dogs roam.

White did prepare a little something for today, he said. It’s a vignette alluding to the environment and his maternal grandmother’s family. Every girl in the family was given a plant-like name, he said: Pansy, Rose, Gladdis (for gladiolus), Lily and Flora (his mother, nicknamed Betty, “which no one understands why”).

“It’s a very intimate little piece with some props,” White said, “and I’ll bounce that off of some [art] that’s there. I work that way now--so I’ll do free association from the work that’s there--and then it’ll all be diagramed and make sense--ha, ha--on the window, and that’s it.”

White’s performance art, influenced by experimentalist Steve Paxton, is rooted in earthy things. His first piece, in the late-'60s, was an anti-Vietnam War “dirt event,” for which he tilled soil and sloshed through a muddy pond.

In the ‘80s and early ‘90s, he taught performance art at UCI, which had been a hotbed for the form around the early ‘70s, when then-student Chris Burden famously shot himself in the arm for a piece called “Shoot.”

White now teaches only painting, which he attributes to students’ lack of interest in performance art.

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The hybrid aesthetic has not found substantial support in Orange County as a whole in recent years but always has managed to attract some acolytes.

The MECA event “reminds me of the ‘60s,” White said. “You start doing [performance art] in a little doorway or a little opening somewhere, and whoever [the artists] get a hold of [to watch them], coupled with their own will to get out and do something,” keeps the art alive.

* John White, Squelch and Matt Driggs perform tonight at the Marie Elias Center for the Arts, 120 W. 20th St., Santa Ana. 8 p.m. Free. (714) 568-9901.


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