The best thing about avant-garde art is that it's so comfortable, one of the few stable traditions of this century. Once we might have worried that it was, in fact, avant garde, which is to say in front of the rest of us, a bellwether. In 1982, with the art world going mad with demands for quality, craftsmanship and pictures that are pictures of something, this is clearly no longer the case.
"I'm wired to a wall and two assistants pour brilliantly colored liquid over my nude body while a color film of trout fishing in the wild is projected over me," writes Barbara T. Smith, one of the Los Angeles performance artists who is part of the video, photography and performance document show entitled "Lately in L.A.," on view from now till Feb. 27 at the Washington Project for the Arts, on Seventh Street.
Happily, lest it fall into the La Brea tar pits of art history, there's a photograph which "documents" Smith's performance. And what company the photograph finds itself in! There's one of naked Paul McCarthy with dirt and goo on him. There's Chris Burden nailed to a Volkswagen. There's "Bob and Bob" in performances "structured of basic contemporary social elements, such as liquor, sex and loud music," says the documentation. "Bob & Bob have an enormous popular reputation in Los Angeles, one which enabled them to draw a crowd of 1,000 on New Year's Eve." When it hits out there in the Big Avocado, it hits big.
The idea of the whole show is best gotten by reading. There's lots of reading. Tom Wolfe once wrote that in the future, exhibits of abstract expressionist art will be huge blowups of art criticism illustrated by tiny reproductions of the paintings.
The future is here. Thousands and thousands of words are glued to the walls, provided in leaflets and recorded on videotapes. Most of them -- with the exception of Linda Frye Burnham's lively comments on the performance art -- are assembled into sentences that kind of die at the end, as if they were being spoken by discouraged adolescents.
"All my life when I've been hurting I've had the need to be by water," says John Arvanites at the beginning of "Echo Park," which is 25 minutes of video tape about a park, and its lake. Commenting on the work of the five videotapists in this show, Kathy R. Huffman, curator of the Long Beach Museum of Art, writes: "The persistance to broadcast will continue," doubtless confusing "persistance" with "desire."
In the exhibit of 10 Los Angeles photographers, Vida Freeman accompanies her pictures of Death Valley with explanations couched in the wary excitement of a high school book report. WPA curator Kathleen Gauss then explains the explanations. "As one reads the text, it becomes clear that Freeman, despite the sensitive printing in palladium, has captured much more." Despite the sensitive printing . . . Oh well. Gauss is also author of: "Frames that appear to be identical are just an appearance."
Jerry Burchfield goes everybody one better by making photographs of the front pages of Los Angeles newspapers, often with a scattering of toy soldiers.
A number of the photographers here transcend the words, and get well down the road toward solving the esthetic problems of using color without either thinking in black and white or using the color merely for its own sake. Some of them even tiptoe into the forbidden land of craft and technique. Some even produce, dare we say it, pictures that are pleasing to look at.
But the literature: What does it all mean? It means you get lower back pain after a while, reading stuff on walls. (And be sure to ask for a chair if you want to watch the videotapes. Maybe a recliner, with a pillow, and a light blanket.) And it means you might get guilty, picking on the writing when educated people have agreed for decades not to criticize the craftsmanship of any visual or musical art sheltered inside the thorny hedges of the avant garde.
Should we criticize "I Remember Beverly Hills," a videotape, because Ilene Segalove shot most of the houses of her childhood backlit, so that they're colorless and hard to see? After all, the visuals make you pay more attention to the narration about growing up in the same neighborhood as Donna Reed.
Maybe insipidity is the whole point. Wet magazine and Andy Warhol have made insipidity something to be reckoned with. If the avant-garde is part of the conventional wisdom, shouldn't it reflect the conventional wisdom? A number of the artists here are products and faculty of state-funded universities in California. The WPA survives, in part, by getting grants from, among others, the National Endowment, the Bureau of National Affairs, and the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities.
Why should the taxpayers fund art that people enjoy enough to pay for themselves? The avant-garde has the added advantage of being safe, firmly installed in the national psyche. After all, if they're doing it now in Los Angeles . . .