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Entertainment & Arts

David Askevold made it all perfectly unclear

David Askevold made it all perfectly unclear
A dream-like quality figures into many of Askevold’s works, including, in detail here, “The Poltergeist,” 1974-79.
(David Askevold, Armory Center for the Arts)

Mysterious. Elusive. Hard to pin down. Tricky. Slippery. A “difficult conceptualist.”

These are a few of the words that come up often in conversations about the work of the late David Askevold, whose traveling retrospective is up at the Armory Center for the Arts through mid-September. The latter term comes from a story told by Paul Tzanetopoulos, who was Askevold’s teaching assistant at UC Irvine in the mid-1970s and a close friend throughout his life. The two artists were teaching in collaboration with the late Mike Kelley, he says, and “Mike didn’t know how to introduce David to the class — he wasn’t sure what to call him — so he just blurted out, ‘Well, he’s a difficult conceptualist.’” Tzanetopoulos later curated Askevold into a show of the same title.

“Artists love David,” says Glenn Phillips, a Getty Research Institute curator who included Askevold in his seminal “California Video” exhibition at the Getty in 2008, “because no one had any idea what he was doing. No one understands his work. If you claim to understand his work you’re probably lying. His work is not about understanding, it is about not understanding. There’s that side of conceptualism that we tend to think is about clarity — the reduction of ideas down to their central form — and that’s great.” (Think of Joseph Kosuth, Robert Barry, Sol LeWitt, Douglas Huebler.) “But David is a reminder of that other side of conceptualism that is about the terror of not understanding.”

Askevold’s name may not be as familiar as those of Kosuth and LeWitt, but his influence was keenly felt among those who knew him and can be seen to trickle down to subsequent generations through the work and teaching of artists like Tzanetopoulos and Kelley.

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The survey, which was organized by David Diviney, curator of exhibitions at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, presents an artist who was fascinated by the subjective, the internal, the supernatural and whose work is illogical, irrational, difficult to track and impossible to encapsulate in words. After three visits to the show I was frankly surprised to find myself no closer to making sense of the odd fragments it contains — in photographs, videos, installations, text-based works and a handful of unabashedly amateurish Photoshop collages — than I was upon my arrival.

Grainy, black-and-white video footage of a live microphone being wrapped in tinfoil; aerial photographs of Nova Scotia harbors; a series of photographs depicting a black snake with white stripes slithering across a wood floor amid a rolling constellation of ball bearings — the images are eerily memorable but float through the show in a loose, largely disconnected manner, like flashes of a dream. A multi-paneled photographic piece called “The Ambit (Nine Clauses and Their Allocations)” combines a beautiful sequence of shadows and seascapes with statements like this one: “This treatment is followed by one which circumscribes a nature but doesn’t present its abilities when this nature is too familiar with another....” (It goes on at considerable length.)

Is the obfuscation deliberate? Or did these kind of statements actually make sense to Askevold?

After numerous conversations with friends, former students and curators of Askevold, it became clear that my bewilderment was hardly unusual and that, indeed it is an essential component to any appreciation of this “very unique and eccentric artist,” as Dorit Cypis, another former student and friend, describes him.

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“His work was very much about the interior landscape,” says Cypis. “The interior psyche, wrestling with phenomena, with meaning, with games and relationships. He used whatever props were necessary to reflect some interior narrative that didn’t have a logical structure to it. He created his own structure. It was very playful, very permissive. I didn’t know anybody else doing work like that.”

“The idea of explaining something was kind of nonsense to him,” says Tzanetopoulos. “He wasn’t out to solve anything. I believe that his sincerest desire was to expose the fact that things just weren’t that simple.”

Born in Montana, Askevold studied anthropology at the University of Montana before receiving a scholarship to study art at the Brooklyn Museum Art School. He remained in New York for several years, working in a loft sublet from Eve Hesse, in the orbit of LeWitt, Richard Smith, Donald Judd and other conceptual luminaries, before moving to the Kansas City Art Institute to complete his BFA. He spent most of his adult life in Nova Scotia, where he taught at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, then a hotbed of post-minimalist and conceptual practice. The school was particularly known for its innovative approach to pedagogy, thanks largely to Askevold’s Projects Class, which combined enigmatic assignments with visits from groundbreaking artists like Dan Graham, Vito Acconci, John Baldessari and Lawrence Weiner.

From 1975 to 1981, Askevold lived in Los Angeles, then a hotbed outpost in its own right, teaching at CalArts, UC Irvine and Art Center. Tony Oursler and Mike Kelley studied with him at CalArts, and remained lifelong friends and collaborators. The Armory show includes Askevold’s collaborations with both. “He had a very nontraditional method of teaching,” Oursler says. “He was a very gentle guy, very sensitive to the pedagogical relationship that he was involved in and always spinning it in a very interesting way. His assignments were almost like riddles or poetry.”

Irene Tsatsos, director of gallery programs at the Armory, curated an exhibition of Askevold’s work at LACE in 2001, when she was the director. She sees the artist’s influence in Los Angeles as decisive, despite his relatively short tenure here, thanks in large part to his committed yet indeterminate teaching style. “It opens up the idea that anything is possible,” she says, “but also demands a good answer about what you do when anything is possible. I can imagine how an artist who’s thinking in such an open-ended way would appeal to an artist like Mike [Kelley], who took very seriously and very rigorously the opportunity to call anything he wanted to do art. I think it’s been an enormous influence, and Mike of course extended that to generations of artists that followed.”

Oursler speaks of Askevold today with a kind of melancholic devotion — a tone that’s clearly haunted, as many of these conversations were, by the death of Kelley earlier this year. Oursler in fact completed Askevold’s final work: a video projection titled “Two Beasts” that involves a gridded presentation of photographic images that the two artists sent back and forth to each other in the years before Askevold’s death in 2008, at the age of 67.

“There are certain artists who have made work that I consider almost ideal,” he says. “It’s not about measuring yourself against them, because it’s not about competition. It’s about an artist unlocking potential in a work. David was able to do that in very mysterious ways. So I keep David in my mind as one of these artists I refer to, and it could be that, in that sense, I keep my relationship going with him.”

Learning of the allegiance Askevold inspired in others may not illuminate the content of any given work — the “treatment [that] circumscribes a nature but doesn’t present its abilities” remains a mystery to me — but it encourages one to have patience with the mystery. And it is through the mystery, not in spite of it, that the work does, gradually, of its own accord, reveal itself.

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