Pacific Standard Time will explore the origins of the Los Angeles art world through museum exhibitions throughout Southern California over the next six months. Times art reviewer Sharon Mizota has set the goal of seeing all of them. This is her latest report.
The Pomona College Museum of Art has saved the best for last: the final installment of its Pacific Standard Time series, “It Happened at Pomona,” is the most engaging (often literally) and surprising of the three exhibitions. The first two focused on the impact of curators Hal Glicksman and Helene Winer. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, they enlivened artistic discourse on the small campus by championing the then-nascent movements of Light and Space, performance, and conceptual art. “Part 3: At Pomona” examines the impact those currents had on professors and students at the college, including James Turrell, Judy Fiskin, and Chris Burden.
Of particular note is an early Burden sculpture from 1966, created while he was an undergraduate at the school. Never before exhibited, it is a modest bronze piece, rounded like an egg on one side and tapering to a fine linear edge on the other. Burden, who was even then courting an element of physical danger, had originally intended to affix a razor edge to the form, which would’ve turned it into a kind of over-sized, prehistoric hand ax.
This idea arose as a reaction to teacher John Mason, who asserted that art should be useless. As performance and conceptual art continued to encroach on the realm of everyday life, this tension between art for art’s sake and a new kind of engagement with the world influenced the work of many Pomona College faculty and students. As presented in this show, it seemed to manifest as a rapprochement between fine art and industrial design.
David Gray’s shiny chrome sculptures have the same finish as commercial fixtures and mimic their forms—one resembles a picture frame, the other a finely machined cylinder. Taking the opposite tack, Peter Shelton’s stain paintings were created by rolling materials such as coffee, tea and camphor leaves in canvas around a steel tube and letting them sit. The results are splotchy but remarkably regular patterns—nature’s fabric designs. (Shelton eventually stopped making these “paintings" because he came to see them as more nature’s work than his own.) Guy Williams’ “Slamfoot Brown” from 1972 also looks a bit like fabric, although instead of letting nature do the work, Williams turned himself into a kind of machine—depositing paint in small, tight strokes to create an irregular pattern inspired by computer punch cards.
Even in Judy Fiskin’s tiny photographs of stucco houses or the elegant geometries Lewis Baltz found in the banal shapes of tract housing, there’s a persistent concern with the line between the purely aesthetic and the everyday. Even if art can’t by definition be of practical worth, it can at least call attention to the beauty hidden in the workaday world.
And that is just what it does in the show’s standout room: a selection of interactive sculptures by Mowry Baden, a relatively unsung artist who became chair of the Pomona College art department in 1968. Baden was interested in phenomenology and physical experience, and his sculptures were designed to be sat in, walked through, and otherwise manipulated. It’s a credit to the museum that it decided to display Baden’s original pieces (as opposed to reproductions), but unfortunately, some of the works have paid the price. “K-Walk,” a 1969 structure that guided users along a path that mimicked the gait of the artist’s wife, was so badly damaged, it had to be removed from the gallery. And the seat of the oddly sexual abstract sculpture “Delivery Suite” from 1965 has cracked and can no longer be sat upon.
Still, the remaining three sculptures are tactile experiments in sensation and physical restraint. One is a hinged metal frame that you push as you walk over a ramp, only to find that it blocks your progress on the other side. Another is a beam-like metal structure suspended on adjustable wires from the ceiling. Its underside is hollowed out, and you are encouraged to place your head inside and walk along the length, which starts out straight and then gently curves. From the outside, this makes for excellent theater as you watch people’s heads disappear into the shiny black bar. Inside, the surfaces are matte and lightly grooved so that the sides brush ever so gently against your ears (Although I suppose the sensation varies depending on the width of your head). The feeling is odd and slightly disorienting—perhaps what it’s like to wear blinders, like a horse. The heft of the metal bar is also slightly sinister—should it swing the wrong way, it could cause quite a shiner. Yet by circumscribing your movement, the piece makes you aware of the path you take through the room, how you are always tracing some geometric outline.
This point becomes even clearer in a 1970 work composed of a car seatbelt bolted at three points to the floor. You strap one long end around your waist and walk a jerky, compromised circle, restrained by the reach of the belt. (It effectively puts art viewers on a short leash.) In thus restricting our movements, it makes us aware of the shortfall between the perfect circle we expect to make and the uneven distribution of tension and slackness caused by our shifting relationship to the three points on the ground. It’s an apt metaphor for the back-and-forth between aesthetic purity and the annoying limitations of the real world, and instead of merely seeing it play out in an image, Baden makes us feel it.
Pomona College Museum of Art, 330 N. College Ave., Claremont, (909) 621-8283, through May 13. Closed Mondays. www.pomona.edu/museum