Trickle down inspiration: the economy of Bruce Nauman's Basements at Cooley Gallery
Bruce Nauman, Basements at Reed College, (far left) Wall-Floor Positions, 1968, (large center) Dance or Exercise on the Perimeter of a Square (Square Dance) 1967-68, (photo Jeff Jahn)
There are iconic moments in my life as an artist, few of which are derived from
my own art practice, and instead have come more from looking at art. As is no
doubt the case for many who consider themselves a part of the art world, Bruce
Nauman figures into the mindscape. He has a place in my brain because of his
Setting a Good Corner (Allegory & Metaphor). The piece shows Nauman
building the part of a fence to which a gate will be affixed, a crucial, and
perhaps the most demanding aspect of such construction. When I first saw this
video, I was contemplating a move to the country and wondering how this change
might affect me as an artist, and hence, change my work. Familiar with the type
of labor portrayed in Setting, I knew its purpose and import. I did not
question the validity of the video as art as I could make the easy leap to the
larger picture. What bothered me was the corral-like parenthetical
in the title. Why the need to reach out to plea, to guide or even
over-explain? It suggested that Nauman, despite years of success, had doubts,
not about his work, but how best to give his audience access.
Setting a Good Corner (Allegory & Metaphor), video still (1999)
Two other iconic moments in my art-viewing life happened in one day, in fact,
back-to-back. It was the late nineties and I was visiting an MFA program during
its mid-term critiques. One student had a single painting to show for several
weeks in his studio. It was a small painting of a portion of his studio. The
only thing that saved the forty-five minutes was when someone floated the very
nineties idea that we were actually witnessing a performance, a parody of some
sort. All well and good, except for the hackneyed aspect of such a notion or
the actual execution. But it wasnt too far off the mark. As the critique
progressed, we came to learn that another student had painted the picture for
the presenter. Now we had a piece to discuss! True story. Or close to
true. I may have restructured the memory to better suit my taste and needs:
an icon. There may have in fact been three crits back-to-back, two of which
I have blended into one: a student who made a painting of his studio, and another
who had others paint his paintings for him, for I remember both things occurring.
Which still leaves the question, why the studio? A superior irony? No,
not really, at least not until the other (second or third) crit when a student
from another department (he had made special arrangements to be critiqued by
the fine art faculty) upped the ante and presented a calendar he had made, complete
with special days marked for specific memories throughout the year and pictures
of himself as the artwork for each month.
It would seem that I have strayed from Nauman; but hold onto the idea of what
an artist does when left to solitary devices, for this is where we often find
ourselves and what we share with Nauman, and it is in these earliest works of
his where this is made clear.
As I entered the Reed College library, I could see a woman sitting in the foyer
of Cooley Gallery.
She waved me around through the library check-out area and stood as I approached.
Welcome to Cooley Gallery! I did feel welcomed, entered into the darkened
space, and was pleasantly surprised to see that there were several works on display.
I would also like to mention the sounds that greeted me, even though that will
lead me astray of my thesis. Let me just say that it was a pleasant cacophony,
not inappropriate to the time these pieces were made, that is, when John Cage
was showing us how to listen to sounds anew. (Or, for that matter, the movement
in some of the videos appreciated because of Cunninghams innovative ideas
about choreography.) My sentiment, if it can be called that, would be parenthetical
were it not for the relative place Nauman holds in the overall history of art,
and specifically in regards to film and video performance work,
And, as with Setting a Good Corner, I was, metaphorically speaking,
at home. Nevermind that the title for this exhibition is Basements and my studio
is in my basement, or that these pieces contain what become ritualized activities
and that I burn incense while I work. No, these similarities are too simplistic.
I felt I knew his mind, meaning that there is a point in the very early stages
of a creative process where one says to oneself, Do anything. Build from
there. Busy, busy, busy are these pieces; but merely busy work made into
art? No, they are purposeful, even if the points of some are elusive.
(left) Violin Film #1 (Playing the Violin as Fast as I Can) 1967-68, (right) Flesh to White to Black to Flesh, 1968 (photo Jeff Jahn)
In Flesh to White to Black to Flesh, Nauman applies white stage makeup
to his head, torso, arms and hands, then puts black makeup on top of that, and
ends up wiping it all off. In Wall-Floor Positions, he establishes the
boundary of his movements/poses within the place where the two parts of the structure
meet while also keeping somewhat in frame of the camera, often punctuating a transition
with a slap or clap. Dance or Exercise on the Perimeter of a Square (Square
Dance) shows Nauman making sidesteps around a taped-off square on the floor,
pacing himself to what may have been a metronome. Bouncing in the Corner No. 1
shows Nauman falling back into a corner with a thump, sometimes with his arms
outstretched to slap against the walls. The other pieces in the exhibit add to
the music as they portray what their titles describe: Bouncing Two Balls between
the Floor and Ceiling with Changing Rhythms; Violin Tuned D.E.A.D.: and, Violin
Film #1 (Playing the Violin as Fast as I Can).
Although varied in length, some of these pieces continue for an hour, and to
watch them in their entirety would begin to approach the time required for Naumans
Mapping the Studio (Fat Chance John Cage), a video from 2000 and
not unlike this group in which he documents the goings-on of mice and
his cat in his studio at night. I might be forgiven for not spending the day,
yet when I was about to leave, I passed by Flesh again to see Nauman sitting
there in blackface, rolling his eyes around, rubbing his hands together, looking
at his fingernails. He was dawdling, hamming, waiting for some arbitrary moment
to return to his normal flesh tone. This relative inactivity, less dramatic
or frenetic than anything on the other monitors or in projections, held my attention
and somehow felt key to everything else in the room. It was the time of What
next? for both the artist and the viewer, waiting for something to which
we could attribute some purpose, no matter how seemingly absent of import it
may be. And from here we traverse though the years that follow, not only in
Naumans career, but for those he has influenced, whether they knew it
or not, and for the latter, though many hardly matter at all.
When I returned home and determined I wanted to write about this show, I knew
I would want to see the videos again to make sure my observations were accurate.
It was doubtful that I would be able to return to Cooley Gallery, so I went
to YouTube and typed in Bruce Nauman. The third video listed was
Hennessey Youngmans bit on how Nauman owned a number of art materials
and subject matters. Youngmans advice to young artists influenced by Naumans
work or wanting to work in a similar vein was they should just forget about
it. However, upon further perusal of videos, it was clear many had not heeded
this advice, for there were many, many more videos tagged as an explicit homage
to Nauman some even restaging his work and not an insignificant
number of these artists were applying stage make-up for the camera. These folks
might have been better off having never been exposed to Nauman in the first
place. Or Duchamp, or Warhol, or Beuys, or Picasso. You get my drift.
Not that we should not take note of other artists who provide inspiration.
(Nor should we use them as a measurement to determine how well we stack
up.) Nauman is one of those contemporary artists who light the way by
showing us what is possible outside of the restrictions we may unnecessarily
impose on ourselves. Through his work he becomes the unintentional/reluctant
instructor/purveyer of how to open up to that place in our mind from where ideas
spring. Alone in the studio with only our materials and imagination, the question
persists: What next? Think small; then do: so rudimentary yet so
hugely liberating, this purpose for no practical reason. Yet, for some the problem
seems to be assuming that if someone like Nauman can do almost nothing and call
it art, then something that more closely resembles absolutely nothing relevant
for an audience is even more radical. It is a mistake to be so easily contented
or less discriminating as to settle for the uncongealed inspiration as ones
art; yet the trick is to recognize this mistake. Still, Nauman is keenly aware
of a need for structure as an accompaniment, hence the camera placed on its
side or upside down, or, in later work, the use of parenthetical enhancements
to titles. This is what makes his works significant. To think that many of these
early Nauman pieces are idle thoughts manifested into actions fails to recognize
a difference between minimal gestures within a given form and the more commonplace
art that comes out of narcissism, self-indulgence or unacknowledged sense of
entitlement, the latter all suitably designed with an efficacy for an audience
Bruce Nauman Basements | January 27 - March 9th
THE DOUGLAS F. COOLEY MEMORIAL ART GALLERY | REED COLLEGE
3203 SE WOODSTOCK BLVD.
HOURS: NOON TO 5 P.M., TUESDAY â€“ SUNDAY, FREE
LOCATED ON THE MAIN FLOOR OF THE REED LIBRARY
A lot o people whose opinions are worth listening to feel like Basements is the best show they have ever seen at Reed and I'm inclined to agree.
Perhaps it is the fact that this is a collection of some of Nauman's earliest fully realized works all together in one room... a cacophonous but slick presentation comprised of some rather charmingly bare bones even tough works. The effect is a bit like Led Zeppelin’s BBC sessions, it's all there in such an fresh and intimate setting but we all know how influential it becomes. It is all a bit like watching super 8 films of Steve Jobs and the Woz making the first Apple Computer in a garage in a museum.
To the musician in me (which Nauman is a well) they feel like a series of rudiments or exercises and it wouldn't surprise me at all if he had practiced these numerous times before recording them. These aren't simply performances, it is kinesthetic source code and it is open source at that.
Overall, it is all there, the sense of constant impersonal interrogation, panopticon surveillance, rigor and systematic curiosity. Like a lot of his earlier works he is the subject and once he gets his chops together things like Clown Torture come much later.