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Madcap was the tenor of the times

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Special to The Times

Whenever anyone asks me what I look for as a critic I say, “Something I’ve never seen before.” If I feel expansive I’ll add, “Or even imagined.”

These experiences are available, in abundance, in a recently opened exhibition at the Santa Monica Museum of Art.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. June 17, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 17, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
“Cadillac Ranch” -- In the Saturday Calendar section, the photograph of “Cadillac Ranch” was wrongly credited to the Santa Monica Museum of Art. The photo credit should have said: Bud Lee, Copyright Ant Farm (Chip Lord, Hudson Marquez, Doug Michels) 1974.

I’ve never seen anything like “Ant Farm, 1968-1978,” a nationally traveling survey organized by co-curators Constance Lewallen and Steve Seid for the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. I never imagined that art -- especially the playfully irreverent type made by this ad hoc collective of fun-loving architects, anti-authoritarian designers and hippie pranksters -- would come to this.

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“Ant Farm, 1968-1978” is a wall label posing as an art exhibition.

As a wall label, it’s a doozy -- a mural-scale, multimedia extravaganza that wraps around three of the museum’s long walls, spills into an alcove and includes six flat-screen TVs, dozens of posters, scores of press clips, hundreds of prints and even more photocopies. It also fills seven table-size vitrines with materials too numerous, fragile or unwieldy to stick on the walls.

As an art exhibition, it’s a big joke. But unlike most art gags, “Ant Farm” doesn’t amuse some viewers at the expense of other, supposedly dumber, ones. Instead, the madcap collage of supporting documentation and peripheral info mocks museums by usurping the roles they have been performing with increasing frequency over the last couple of decades.

“Ant Farm” follows the format of a straightforward timeline.

Beginning with the beginning, it tells how its principal members -- Chip Lord, Doug Michels and Curtis Schreier -- joined up in San Francisco a year too late for the summer of love. Having earned architecture degrees from Tulane University, Yale University and the Rhode Island School of Design, respectively, they were smitten by architecture’s social component but turned off by the buttoned-down demeanor of most practitioners, not to mention the grind of office jobs that lasted a lot longer than 9 to 5.

Congenitally restless, with low thresholds for boredom and, most important, without a client in sight, they began practicing architecture as if it were rock ‘n’ roll. Multitasking long before it was fashionable, the trio played the part of the band, its roadies, groupies, managers and agents, as well as the press -- mainstream and underground.

They needed a name, which their friend Sharon Skolnick provided when they described what they did as underground architecture, like underground movies or underground newspapers. “Like an ant farm,” she said. It stuck because it captured their anonymous hyperactivity and nodded toward their fantasies of cooperative living and perfectly organized efficiency.

Ant Farm experimented with inflatable buildings. Its members staged environmental performances. They published a do-it-yourself catalog. And they took the whole show on the road with their customized “media van,” a studio, crash pad and escape module all rolled into one.

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They also designed futuristic convention centers, electronic malls, carless cities and fantasy homes, none of which made it off the drawing board. In 1971, however, they built an exceptionally pragmatic mixed-use structure that came in ahead of schedule and under budget, Antioch College’s art building in Yellow Springs, Ohio. In 1972, they cast the pneumatic shapes of their inflatable vinyl forms in ferroconcrete, constructing, with their own hands, “House of the Century,” an astonishingly impractical but beautifully futuristic home in Angleton, Texas. The size of their merry troupe expanded to meet the needs of whatever project they were working on, sometimes including as many as 20 members, who always orbited around the nucleus of Lord, Michels and Schreier.

The timeline goes on to document Ant Farm’s most famous projects. In 1974, they half-buried 10 Cadillacs nose down in the dirt along Route 66 near Amarillo, Texas. “Cadillac Ranch” presents the derrieres of 10 top-of-the-line models, 1949 to 1964. In terms of symbolism, it’s hard to say whether the cars are being humiliated or punished -- or whether the opposite is true and they’re mooning viewers. In either case, their magnificent, rocket-like tail fins aim toward the heavens as their front ends head straight to hell -- along a path that doesn’t seem to be paved with good intentions.

The next year, Ant Farm customized a 1959 Cadillac El Dorado Biarritz, transforming it into a vehicle you might see on Utah’s salt flats. In the parking lot of San Francisco’s Cow Palace, two Ant Farmers dressed like crash dummies drove the “Phantom Dream Car” through a pyramid of 40 TV sets, which had been doused with gasoline and set afire. Titled “Media Burn,” their documentary of the fleeting event captures the cathartic absurdity of staged pranks and anticipates much of today’s unscripted television.

Also in 1975, Ant Farm traveled to Dallas’ Dealey Plaza and restaged the assassination of President Kennedy. The stupendous bad taste of their mockumentary, titled “Eternal Frame,” ensures its lack of mass appeal. But even more preposterous is the way the curators defend the half-baked skit in the otherwise excellent catalog. Whatever “Eternal Frame” is, it is not a critique of mass media in favor of some clear truth behind the image glut of modern life.

As a whole, the exhibition takes similar tactics. Rather than oversimplifying history by condensing it into a string of greatest hits, “Ant Farm” overloads the timeline with enough sketches, photos and ephemera to keep you reading and looking and puzzling for a good three hours -- or more.

Sound bites give way to self-reflection. Information is transmitted in fits and starts. Connecting the dots among the anecdotal, episodic adventures is heady and heartening and a whole lot more fun than any wall label I’ve ever read.

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If you’re even a bit curious about the decade covered, when genius and charlatanry got on like rabbits, you won’t get bored. But that doesn’t mean that the show is all fun and games. Frustration plays an important role. As in life, patience is required. And it’s often rewarded handsomely -- just never as you expect. All of these attributes distinguish Ant Farm’s deluxe wall label from the vast majority of those produced by museum professionals.

Today, most labels make short work of the art they accompany, all the better to tell viewers what the works mean, as succinctly as possible, and primarily in terms of sociological context and historical referent. In contrast, Ant Farm’s impudent exhibit sends such a head-spinning melange of messages that it’s impossible to know what it’s supposed to mean, much less what you’re supposed to think. That’s liberating.

Their salon-style timeline is not art. And it doesn’t pretend to be. That’s truth in advertising.

But like art, it confounds and confuses. Your only recourse is to figure it out for yourself. That’s thrilling, especially if you bring your fair share of derring-do to the thought-provoking antics.

Ant Farm’s members are dyed-in-the-wool do-it-yourselfers who have invented interesting lives for themselves by making art that makes up the rules as it goes along. They’re fly-by-night storytellers attuned to the risks of diminished attention spans yet undeterred by the prevailing opinion that the public is too clueless to know a good thing when it sees it.

Playing dumb fun against serious intelligence, they embrace neither without including a good dose of its opposite. Imagine an architect trapped in the body of a stand-up comedian, and you’ll have an idea of the contradictory impulses that drive Ant Farm’s half-crazy attempts to change the world, one nutty project at a time.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

‘Ant Farm, 1968-1978’

Where: Santa Monica Museum of Art, 2525 Michigan Ave., Bergamot Station, Santa Monica

When: Tuesdays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; closed Sundays and Mondays.

Ends: Aug. 14

Admission: Free; $3 donation suggested.

Contact: (310) 586-6488

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