Early Saturday evening, Providence, R.I.-based artist Mark Tribe orchestrated a reenactment of a 1971 speech by Chicano labor activist César Chávez protesting the Vietnam War. On the South Lawn of Exposition Park, midway between the Natural History Museum and the Coliseum, a call went out for “organized and disciplined nonviolent action,” aimed squarely at those “seeking [their] manhood in affluence and war.”
Actor Ricardo Dominguez spoke from the podium to a crowd that numbered perhaps one-tenth of the 2,600 who had gathered in the park 37 years earlier. Tribe’s audience, in fact, was roughly equal to the number of uniformed police and plainclothes officers reported at the original (peaceful) event. Most of the attendees were probably not yet born then or were too young to remember when the brilliant, charismatic Chávez joined Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland and other speakers calling for nonviolent civil disobedience to deter American militarism abroad.
The original event represented cross-fertilization in two New Left social movements, pro-labor and antiwar. Its star power -- Fonda and Sutherland’s Oscar-winning “Klute” was just about to be released -- also gained special wattage from Chávez’s presence. Two weeks earlier, when the California Supreme Court unanimously ruled that his free speech rights were violated by an injunction against a lettuce boycott, he had been released from jail. He had been locked up for contempt.
The performance piece, funded by New York’s Creative Time and coordinated by Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, was the fourth of six reenactments in Tribe’s Port Huron Project. It was no doubt a bit less surreal here than the first three might have been.
During the last 22 months, a 1968 Coretta Scott King speech was staged in New York City’s Central Park, a 1971 address by author and activist Howard Zinn was repeated on Boston Common, and a speech given at the 1965 march on Washington by Paul Potter, president of Students for a Democratic Society, was given again on the National Mall. (Tribe’s project takes its name from the Port Huron Statement, the 1962 manifesto of the SDS, which was formed in Port Huron, Mich.) In August, an actress in Oakland will re-create an Angela Davis speech, and in September an actor portraying Stokely Carmichael will repeat a speech near United Nations headquarters in Manhattan.
What made the L.A. component seem commonplace was of course the proximity of Hollywood, where camera crews filming scripted action on the streets are plentiful.
Chávez’s words are as meaningful today as they were then, and the occupation of Iraq provided a transparent if unspoken context. Likewise, Potter talked about the government’s use of the rhetoric of freedom to justify war, Zinn called on Congress to impeach the president and vice president, and Scott King spoke of women’s untapped political power. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
But it’s the scripted, taped and electronically distributed nature of these performances that is distinctive, differentiating them from the originals. Tribe’s “We Are Also Responsible” -- a line from Chávez’s speech that disparages the common tendency to blame “the bosses” while waiting for them to act -- is performance art about the process of one person making a freely distributed Internet video.
The performance at Exposition Park was staged, directed and repeated three times so different camera setups could be arranged.
It employed two actors (Brian Valparaiso was the second) and involved the participation of the audience as extras. The edited results of all six parts are finding their way onto blip.tv and YouTube -- search for “Port Huron Project” -- and the Chávez piece should be online in mid-August. In the fall, portions will make their way onto a jumbo screen in New York’s Times Square and to a show about art and political engagement at the New York Armory. The Port Huron Project is a kind of digital samizdat, a technological twist on the distribution of political leaflets that is as American as Tom Paine and as revolutionary as farmers and small-business men toppling the combined power of George III and the East India Co.
Activism seemed futile when, despite the hundreds of thousands of people flooding into city streets around the world in protest before the invasion of Iraq, the ill-fated war went on. Yet there’s a difference between old models based on mass culture, which had their zenith in the 1960s era of these original speeches, and the new “niche culture” of our high-tech present. Mass culture is effectively over. The possibility for closing the contemporary gap between activism and the individual is underway in the netroots -- activist blogs and other online communities, including artistic ones.
At the end of Dominguez’s second performance of the Chavez speech, the crowd spontaneously erupted into a loud chant of “Si! Se puede! Si! Se puede!” Under the circumstances, it resonated as an Obama moment.
Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, 6522 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 957-1777. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays. www.artleak.org Accidental art that transforms
There’s something almost Japanese about David Amico‘s 20 “Drift-Trace” paintings at the Ace Gallery Beverly Hills. An almost hyper-refined affinity for beauty achieved by accident marks these luminous large-scale works.
A swoosh of gray paint might appear to be a calligraphic brush stroke, except that its defined edges belie spontaneity. A shape suggestive of a horizontal squeegee mark is filled in with stippled color, presumably made by dabbing the brush. Delicate linear webs, seemingly random, are carefully traced over with what appears to be oil stick.
Amico’s paintings derive from flotsam and jetsam picked up on urban streets around his studio -- bits of paper, cardboard, plastic and more. Reliance on discarded materials is venerable, at least since Kurt Schwitters in Germany nearly a century ago and including the abundant work made with down-market trash that was probably the hallmark of this year’s Whitney Biennial.
But Amico’s work is distinctive in transforming the source, which slowly reveals itself. The swoosh might be packing tape, the stippled squeegee mark a random stain, the webs the residue of crumpled paper unfolded and pressed flat. The paintings emerge as an accumulation of aesthetic choices, conducted as a dialogue with what is given but overlooked. They blossom like flowers.
Ace Gallery Beverly Hills, 9430 Wilshire Blvd., (310) 959-9090, through Aug. 30. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.acegallery.net Familiarity lurks in the shadows
Robert Gutierrez paints small, usually employing translucent acrylic inks on wood panels less than a foot per side. But the delicate imagery is jampacked -- shadowy, brooding, slightly Goth in its merger of medievalism and sci-fi.
At Sister, eight paintings and two drawings display dark mysteries. Recognizable symbols such as a snake swallowing its tail, a hovering Janus guarding the doorway between past and future, and monumental stone idols carved into cliffs are deployed along with tangled abstractions. Civilization and its ruins collide with alchemical suggestions of hidden life.
Sometimes, as in the viper-filled sewer pipe of “Attraction of the Abyss,” Gutierrez’s imagery is heavy-handed. Elsewhere, as in the remarkably evocative “The Brain Has a Volume,” with its boy perched on a ledge that protrudes from a ramshackle head, peering down at a flower below, it draws you in. (One easily remedied problem: The paintings have been installed uncomfortably high on the wall.) Volume suddenly fluctuates between material and acoustic connotations. Gutierrez’s best work creates a strange conceptual shiver.
Sister Gallery, 437 Gin Ling Way, Chinatown, (213) 628-7000, through Aug. 2. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.sisterla.com Photos through an artist’s eye
When Andy Warhol (1928-87) developed photo silk-screening as a method for making paintings of soup cans, soda bottles and especially movie stars, he accomplished something many had tried but no one had yet achieved: He gave photographs the pride of cultural place that paintings had held for half a millennium.
Warhol’s celebrated pictures of Marilyn, Jackie, Elvis and Liz are photographs masquerading as paintings. (They employ a drag aesthetic, which the artist understood well.) And once the photography door was opened, art would never be the same.
At the Michael Kohn Gallery, a selection of 59 unique black-and-white photographs taken by Warhol between 1976 and his death, shows one result. Now, virtually any photograph is interesting, especially if its author is an artist of note.
On their own, few of these pictures are more than ordinary snapshots: Valerie Perrine with an elephant on the set of “Circus of the Stars,” a TV set on a dresser or posters for a Hall & Oates concert tour. But you scan the show looking for Warholian cues, such as television’s inherent surrealism or the serial imagery of posters.
In a shot of glass bowls of caviar on a silver tray next to champagne flutes, it turns out there’s actually nothing but expensive luxury. That might be these photographs’ most Warholian feature.
Michael Kohn Gallery, 8071 Beverly Blvd., (310) 658-8088, through Aug. 22. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.kohngallery.com christopher.knight