Under The Big Black Sun – Art in America Review

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ART IN AMERICA
Under The Big Black Sun
12/22/11 / Geffen Contemporary at MOCA
By Annie Buckley

Los Angeles As one of more than 60 “Pacific Standard Time” exhibitions, “Under the Big Black Sun,” organized by MOCA chief curator Paul Schimmel, sheds light on the energetic, nonhierarchical ethos of California art during the years bookended by Nixon’s resignation in 1974 and Reagan’s inauguration in 1981. While introducing the sprawling exhibition, Schimmel compared it to a “block party,” an apt analogy given the sheer number of artists included—more than 130—and its inclusive sensibility, evoking a gathering of neighbors who may not share more than a friendly hello but together constitute community.

The years highlighted in the show, although not characterized by catastrophe, were marked by convulsive change and a widespread and deep-seated uncertainty.For the art world, as Schimmel remarked, “The linear march of modernism [had come] to an unimaginable and disturbing end,” and what was next remained unclear. “Under the Big Black Sun” takes its title from the third album of the Los Angeles punk band X and points to the dark anxiety and vibrant creativity of the time.

As the nation shifted from the idealistic tumult of the ’60s to the hardened materialism of the ’80s, a group of artists in California were engaging in a wide variety of new approaches to art. The exhibition effectively captures the intense eclecticism of the period and the breezy intentionality of the artists, who did not know at the time if their work would even be seen outside of the area. News photographs of iconic events displayed on large monitors and framed ephemera provide historical context. The artworks are loosely organized according to thematic groups, but Schimmel resists toppling the airy sense of possibility inherent in the time with the weight of strict categories. Though it includes more than 400 paintings, photographs, sculptures, films, videos, installations, crafts, zines, books and pieces of ephemera, “Under the Big Black Sun” feels surprisingly spacious.

The show offers the chance to see pieces by less familiar artists as well as early or underknown works by key figures, such as Mike Kelley’s first installation, Untitled (from The Little Girl’s Room), 1980, consisting of objects and images obliquely suggesting a young girl’s bedroom, and Eleanor Antin’s cardboard airplane with cutout figures that served as the set for her feature-length video The Nurse and the Hijackers (1977). At times, surprising relationships unfold between distinct and seemingly unrelated works. For example, visitors peruse the script and sculptural objects from Guy de Cointet’s play My Father’s Diary (1975) before turning the corner to encounter Stephen J. Kaltenbach’s large painting Portrait of My Father (1972–79). At once fiercely realistic and ethereal, Kaltenbach’s painting of the elderly, seemingly infirm man embodies the depth of intimacy and emotion that exists as profoundly but more subtly in de Cointet’s work.

Views of society, culture and politics abound, and, with so many perspectives, the concept of “other” is refreshingly reflected as an aspect of a multifaceted whole. Ilene Segalove’s videos and photographs feature elements of her day-to-day life. In the photos All the Pants I Had Except the Ones I Was Wearing (Front and Back), 1974/2010, the artist, dressed only in jeans, is surrounded by a baker’s dozen of additional pairs, cannily critiquing the dispassionate chronicling characteristic of early male-dominated Conceptual art. Carole Caroompas’s intricate collage series “The Dreams of the Lady of the Castle Perilous” (1978–79) takes the shape of mandalas and evokes the spiritual as readily as punk rock.

Chris Burden’s powerful installation The Reason for the Neutron Bomb (1979), comprising 50,000 nickels each topped with a red-tipped matchstick, visually represents the number of Soviet tanks in the era of the Cold War.

That the exhibition shifts from process to punk to the personal, and from conceptual to collage to critique, is one of its charms, and though its pluralism seems to mirror the current state of art, contemporary practice is left wanting in comparison to the freewheeling experimentation and direct engagement resonating here. Perhaps it is unfair to look back through rose-colored glasses, but the show’s vision of nonhierarchical acceptance is well worth revisiting at present.

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