They've Made a Mockery Of the Color School

Meg Mitchell and Jeffry Cudlin performing
Meg Mitchell and Jeffry Cudlin performing "The Chariot" as part of "Ian and Jan: The Washington Body School." ( By Steve Strawn)
By Jessica Dawson
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 23, 2007

In the late 1950s, the attention of the nation's art world focused on D.C. artists Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, kicking off an infatuation with canvases covered in drips, dots and stripes.

Though this city's fixation with that moment of national prominence is now more than 50 years old, the so-called Washington Color School retains a hold on the art community. This spring's citywide Colorfield.remix project, in which museums and gallerists dusted off the Color School canvases, only intensified the turpentine high.

Yet this is no benign obsession. When a master narrative as powerful as the Color School arises, don't mavericks wind up art history roadkill?

Yes, says an eye-opening exhibition at District of Columbia Arts Center. Artists Meg Mitchell and Jeffry Cudlin present an exhaustively researched examination of one Color School casualty, two artists who got lost in the stained canvas shadows: talented husband and wife performance duo Ian and Jan.

Coming on the Color School's heels, the pair staged performances and interventions that brought the conventions of color field painting onto the naked human body, effectively bridging abstract expressionism and 1970s body art. In 1974's "Streaking," they ran naked across S Street NW, trailing colored plumes from pigment-filled backpacks. Two years later, the duo created "The Chariot," in which Ian pulled Jan, rickshaw-style, around Dupont Circle. But it was 1971's "Absence," a performance piece in which Ian and Jan never showed up, that was probably their most influential.

So what was the response to Ian and Jan? Turns out local art institutions and curators were so wedded to Louis and his cronies, so intent on maintaining Color School supremacy, and so put off by Ian and Jan's prickly personalities and difficult-to-document performances that they ignored the duo entirely, effectively squelching the movement.

Found video documenting performances, props, artist sketches and photographic records are on view in the arts center exhibition, complemented by interviews with the artists -- Ian is nearing 70; Jan is a couple of decades his junior. Insightful interviews with art historians, critics and dealers who knew the couple flesh out the history. "Ian and Jan: The Washington Body School" paints a vivid picture of the outrageous and prolific pair that led the so-called Washington Body School

Sorry? What was that? You say you've never heard of the Washington Body School?

I may have neglected to mention that Ian and Jan don't exist. That they're characters made up by Cudlin and Mitchell.

Turns out Cudlin, 34, and Mitchell, 28, both teachers at University of Maryland, College Park, have made D.C.'s first Color School mockumentary -- and it's a resounding success.

Last fall, the pair began fleshing out their characters and filming a short video of themselves playing Ian and Jan. Then the pair sought out a coterie of real-life Washington art world power players willing to play along. The all-star cast includes Joshua Shannon, University of Maryland assistant professor of contemporary art history, Color Field painter Sam Gilliam, artist and writer James Mahoney, gallerist Andrea Pollan and several others. Each contributed their own "reminiscences" about Ian and Jan. Their interviews are spliced into four faux documentaries screening at the gallery alongside the remnants and documents of Body School performances, which Cudlin and Mitchell acted out for the cameras.

The pair emerge as an art world cliche. Jan was Ian's student in the '60s. They soon began an affair and then an artistic collaboration. Ian was the showboating boor, Jan his long-suffering assistant. Video interviews made after their divorce betray the partnership's fault lines.

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