Chris Burden received his master’s in fine art from UC Irvine in 1971. For his thesis, he locked himself in a school locker for five days with 5 gallons of water suspended above him.
This was the start of Burden’s career as a performance artist, following a personal journey viewing contemporary art as a harbinger of political, social, environmental and technological change. Burden used his body as a canvas for his experimental statements, building a reputation in the international art scene for the next decade.
With the dawn of the 1980s, the artist switched his focus to object-making. During the last 30 years, he has dedicated his career to producing a varied collection of expressions of his view of a changing world. Among the most notable was “What My Dad Gave Me,” a project installed at New York’s Rockefeller Center in 2008, which consisted of a 65-foot tall Erector Set skyscraper.
Last week, Burden returned to the location of his early artistic roots as the 2011 honoree at Art of Dining, sponsored by the Orange County Museum of Art in Newport Beach. Following a laudatory introduction by Paul Schimmel, chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles, Burden appeared onstage at the Island Hotel, fronting an audience of some 300 donors who had come together to raise $400,000 that evening for OCMA.
To be more accurate, Schimmel’s address was not so much an introduction of Burden as it was a biographical recap of the artist’s career, beginning with his Orange County education and tracking his achievements forward to the present day. Schimmel did not end his words by saying “and now ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Chris Burden.”
Instead, Schimmel ended his talk, and moments later, a man of average height without distinguishing features, with the possible exception of a short-cropped pageboy haircut and a tuxedo shirt opened at the collar, came out of the crowd and started talking into the microphone.
The man who locked himself in a locker for five days with 5 gallons of water overhead spoke in a soft, almost whispery voice, taking long pauses between his sentences. Burden essentially shared with the audience that he was simply an artist of his own creation in his own time, in his own way, against the tide, pushing the preverbal rock up the hill and somewhat amazed at the phenomenal success life has bestowed upon him.
His address was so understated that it took some time for the crowd to realize who was speaking. Many had come to support OCMA, but had little or no idea about Burden’s life and work. Almost mystically, at some point through his rambling homage to his life as an artist, the cocktail chatter stopped, the room was silent and paying full attention to the words of a man who has defied convention his entire life, up to and including a conventional dinner speech.
In some strange way, this moment of attention was a sort of confirmation that experimental contemporary art reaches people in an almost inexplicable manner. It was that moment of clarity, or in other words, the “ah hah” realization that one finally “gets it” even though one may not be sure why.
Burden finished his remarks, which included thanking the museum, formerly known as the Newport Harbor Art Museum, for their early support, along with mentioning the names of his earliest benefactors, Marie and Arnold Forde, who attended Art of Dining in Burden’s honor. Outside of brief remarks from OCMA Director Dennis Szakacs, there were no additional speeches, no auction and no interruption of the evening whatsoever. It was a party meant to be enjoyed, and it was.
The Art of Dining executive committee, which included a long list of dynamic women, created an evening designed around revisiting a 1960s era chic nightclub. The event began with a cocktail reception at the museum, which allowed the crowd to view the museum’s current exhibit, “Alexander Calder and Contemporary Art: Form, Balance, Joy.”
The crowd was dressed to kill, and the scene resembled a swank gallery opening party that might have been in London or New York. Among the most glamorous women were Leslie Cancellieri, Sally Crockett, Ishani Dhillon and the ultra chic Angela Dotson-Giardini, in from New York and representing the House of Chanel. Other notable “glams” in the crowd were Stephanie Grody, Michelle Janavas, Caroline Jones, representing Cartier, Eve Kornyei, Twyla Martin, Lilly Mirage, Pamela Paul, Mindy Stearns, Jennifer Van Bergh and Jennifer Segerstrom.
Following the reception, guests were escorted to the hotel for dinner, dancing and entertainment. Executive Chef Bill Bracken created a four-course menu served in the ballroom, transformed a la version of a Sinatra supper club.
After dinner, a Las Vegas-style act featured performers duplicating the era of Sinatra, Martin and Davis, who turned up the party volume. Guests included Craig Wells, president of the OCMA Board of Directors, Sandy Keith, Melinda and Doug McCrea, Ian and Sally Leisegang, Kimberly Roush, and Jill Richter. They joined Deborah and Larry Bridges, Gordon Clune and Elizabeth An, Susan and Mike Etchandy, and Moira and Fred Kamgar in celebrating the role of contemporary art reaching an expanding Orange County audience.
THE CROWD runs Thursdays and Saturdays. B.W. Cook is editor of the Bay Window, the official publication of the Balboa Bay Club in Newport Beach.