Feminism and risk as her media

Times Staff Writer

Last summer, New York artist Andrea Fraser caused a bit of a stir with a gallery show featuring a videotaped performance for which she was "commissioned" to have sex with an art collector. The usual right-wing filth brigade tried but failed to whip up a national frenzy of righteous indignation over this supposed symptom of general cultural collapse. Meanwhile the tolerant left murmured about dark parallels between works of art and women's bodies as commodities, while simultaneously questioning the artist's sensationalist motives.

"Outside the art world she will be labeled a slut and a nut," wrote art critic Jerry Saltz in the Village Voice, deftly alluding to the conservative media machine that flattened Anita Hill by labeling her similarly in the early 1990s. "The art world will likely call her a narcissistic showoff." He was pretty much right on both counts.

I haven't seen the untitled video, but on paper it sounds rather old-fashioned. Yes, the whole world knows that when John Lennon married conceptual artist Yoko Ono in 1969, they spent a week in bed and invited the press into their honeymoon suite. But consider another performance piece, much more obscure and way less chaste.

Titled "Feed Me," it was performed in San Francisco in 1973 by Los Angeles artist Barbara T. Smith as part of a festival at Tom Marioni's avant-garde Museum of Conceptual Art. While a tape-recorded chant of Smith intoning the command, "Feed me; feed me" played in the background, visitors to the show were invited to line up outside the ladies' room.

One by one they entered. Encountering the naked Smith inside, they negotiated with her a method for her nourishment. Wine, food, music, poetry, oil massage and -- for three male visitors during the all-night event -- sex became the ritualized medium of artistic intercourse.

Documentation of Smith's performance is included in "The 21st Century Odyssey Part II: The Performances of Barbara T. Smith," a selective and informative survey at the Pomona College Museum of Art of her performance work since 1969. (She studied painting, art history and religion at Pomona College, graduating in 1953.) Smith, a pioneering performance artist, is also a feminist who has looked at artistic traditions from previously unexamined perspectives.

Feminism was the likely motivation for her choice to set painting aside. Smith instead participated in the invention of the new performance genre; unlike paint on canvas, it had no long and compromised history in the late 1960s. Performance was also a means to put more than just a woman's body in the artistic foreground, as had been common from Leonardo da Vinci to Willem de Kooning. A woman could put her soul and mind on view as well.

"Feed Me," like the seven other performances documented in the show, has a distinctly ceremonial quality, with its body oils, burning incense and sacramental foods. Its enactment within a museum, rather than a gallery or private space, enhances that aura. Not by accident do the job titles of parish "curate" and museum "curator" share a common root. Smith assumed the ritual role of priestess, while the art museum audience was understood as a congregation.

The work also centered on one of the most common secular subjects in the history of painting -- the female nude, as luxurious odalisque or sensual courtesan. The difference is that this particular odalisque was no abject slave or cosseted young harem girl. She was an independent 42-year-old woman who was calling the shots.

The documents from "Feed Me" on view in the gallery include three photographs taken that night, when the artist set up her performance space inside the intimate precinct of the San Francisco museum's ladies' room. Her personal journal of the event is in a display case, and framed on the wall is a list of the food she brought into the room, along with pillows, blankets and a variety of paperback books.

Unlike what I imagine the actual performance of "Feed Me" was like nearly 32 years ago, the current documentary museum display is rather clinical and dry. Pomona Museum curator Rebecca McGrew and guest curator Jennie Klein have done an admirable job of sorting through 106 performances Smith has made since 1968, and "Feed Me" is rightly acknowledged as pivotal among the eight they've selected to represent her artistic development.

But the residue of performance art is by definition anthropological, not artistic. The sensuality, wit, audacity and even the occasional danger involved in experiencing these performances are inevitably lost.

Chris Burden, a peer and friend of Smith's with whom she (and a few others) founded the legendary 1970s experimental Santa Ana art gallery, F Space, understood the dilemma. He took leftover bits from his performances -- the locks from the school locker in which he imprisoned himself for five days, the nails pounded through the palms of his hands when he was "crucified" on the roof of a Volkswagen, etc. -- and put them on velvet stands inside sleek display cases. Burden's secular reliquaries are wry yet surprisingly moving, like bits of modern art's true cross encountered in a post-medieval shrine.

Perhaps he got the idea from Smith. The closest the Pomona show comes to such a moment is the rendezvous with a sacramental vegetable, together with its own peculiar reliquary. "Celebration of the Holy Squash" (1971) was a performance that took place when Smith -- then 40, divorced and the mother of three -- was a graduate student with Burden at UC Irvine. It involved a communal banquet featuring an enormous Hubbard squash, whose bulbous rind Smith later cast in a dense, purplish resin.

The performance was a seriocomic riff on art and women's socially constructed roles. (Lost to the sands of time is whoever cooked the "Last Supper" that Jesus and his disciples ate and Leonardo and other Renaissance artists painted.) The mysterious resin blob and its goofy reliquary, decorated with glitter and Botticelli-style seashells, look like movie props from a bad science-fiction epic. But the labor-intensive sculpture wittily exploits the voluptuous form, unisexual flowers and double-meaning of squash as "crush" or "suppress."

Unlike "The Dinner Party," the banal banquet-sculpture that Judy Chicago famously began to produce in L.A. three years later, Smith did not just reverse male and female characters in this charming performance. Instead she created a funky new narrative -- incisive, eccentric and inventive.

Her work may also have been influential in other ways yet to be sorted out. In 1972, for example, Smith produced "Nude Frieze," in which six naked people were hung on a gallery wall using heavy-duty gaffer's tape. (This imitation of a classical sculptural relief is not documented in the show but is in the often helpful, sometimes turgid catalog.) The performance resonates with one done in public by the Chicano artists' collective ASCO, formed the same year; they notoriously taped painter Patssi Valdez to a freeway underpass as an "instant Mexican mural."

The final gallery documents "The 21st Century Odyssey" (1991-1993), a performance in which the artist traveled to India, Nepal, Norway, Australia and elsewhere, all while keeping in contact with Dr. Roy Walford, one of eight scientists locked inside the self-contained environment of Biosphere 2 in the Arizona desert. As the catalog aptly describes the long-term project, "Smith played Odysseus to Walford's Penelope, traversing the world while [he] remained confined."

The radical edge of performance art had long-since dissipated, however, and "The 21st Century Odyssey" seems rather wan and abstruse -- not in a profound way, but in the purely private nature of its limited, Judy Chicago-style role reversal. "Feed Me" took place behind closed doors, but its open execution in a public museum made it different in kind.

The Pomona curators have attempted to suggest the intersection between Smith's cultural rituals and art museum artifacts by laying out on pedestals all the supplies and souvenirs the artist used and gathered during the odyssey. Even her bush jacket hangs high on a wall, where a visitor looks up as a kind of supplicant before a venerated relic.

Finally, though, a bush jacket is just a bush jacket.

The show is certainly worth seeing, given the resonance of Smith's best work and her critical role in the contemporary history of performance art. But the incompatibility between the time-based medium of performance art and the object-based reality of an art museum is an inevitable limitation. The show does not transcend it.


'The 21st Century Odyssey Part II: The Performances of Barbara T. Smith'

Where: Pomona College Museum of Art, 330 N. College Ave., Claremont

When: Noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; closed Monday

Ends: April 10

Price: Free

Contact: (909) 621-8283; www.pomona.edu/museum

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