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“State of Mind” Marches to a Regional-Art Beat

The Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, Vancouver September 28 to December 9, 2012

A question I struggle with as a writer on the visual arts is the relationship between art and region.

The 1960s writings of US art historians Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried show little interest in what nation, state, province or city a work is made, so long as it corresponds to their formalist ideas about painting and sculpture, respectively. Between 1969 and 1974, critic/curator Lucy Lippard bypassed formal constraints in the plastic arts (and the plastic arts, in general) with her conceptually oriented “numbers shows”: a series of exhibitions where each show took the population of its city as its title and included a variety of non-gallery locations as well as a relatively high concentration of women artists.

Anyone who has spent time on a Canada Council jury will tell you that region—more than class, ethnicity, gender and sexuality—is the elephant in the room, while outside that room the anxiety many Canadian art writers face over the international “success” of Vancouver artists is such that reviews of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art’s current “Oh, Canada” exhibition have had to address their absence (in Sarah Milroy’s case, by noting how the exhibition would have benefited from works by Rodney Graham and Brian Jungen; in Murray Whyte’s case, by wishing such artists a kind of good riddance). And don’t get me started on R.M. Vaughan’s take on the Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst Antwerpen’s 2006 exhibition “Intertidal: Vancouver Art & Artists.” That was bizarre.

It is with this struggle in mind that I came to view the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery’s current exhibition “State of Mind: New California Art Circa 1970.” Curated by Constance M. Lewallen and Karen Moss for the University of California Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive and the Orange County Museum of Art, this Vancouver appearance is part of a tour organized by Independent Curators International.

Accompanying the exhibition is a catalogue with essays by Julia Bryan-Wilson and Anne Rorimer in addition to contributions from the curators who, in their introduction, remind us of some of the conditions pertaining to California’s recent art history: its allure in terms of its “relative ease of living” and its status as an “incubator for social change”; its institutional context where the “relative paucity” of schools, magazines, galleries and museums might have contributed to this “New California Art”; the fact that the state’s traditional divisions, which includes long-held distinctions between “Conceptual” art practices in the Bay Area (“body, ritual, Eastern philosophy”) and the Los Angeles basin (“narrative, media and popular culture”), are not as clear-cut as they seem; and a record indicating that, since the 1970s, “a group of artists identified with the beginnings of Conceptual art was narrowed, and, with a few exceptions, California Conceptual artists were less likely to be included among them.”

Indeed, it is this last proposition that has the potential to provide “State of Mind” with its rationale, and it was the one I took with me after I exchanged the catalogue for the gallery: not with an eye to oft-seen works by John Baldessari, Chris Burden, Terry Fox, Martha Rosler, Ed Ruscha and Allan Sekula, but with an interest in who these “less likely” artists are and how their inclusion makes a case for what the curators are calling “California Conceptualism.”

Does it come as a surprise, then, that “less likely” artists such as Newton Harrison, Helen Mayer Harrison, Joe Hawley, Mel Henderson and Alfred Young are those for whom environmental issues provide the content of their work? This is not to suggest that “social issues” preclude a work from being conceptual, particularly where Martha Rosler (“war and the exploitation of women”) and Allan Sekula (“labor”) are concerned, only that “the environment” appears to be the wrong issue—one aimed at preserving the natural landscape of the state to which the “New California Art” is linked. (Contrast this tendency to preservation with Baldessari’s California Map Project of 1969, in which temporary alteration of that state through the imposition of naturally sourced letters that spell, over different locations, its name.)

But if “the environment” suggests a case for exclusion within the larger “Conceptual” art canon, one need look no further than the public outcry (and the threat of legal action) over Robert Smithson’s proposed (and quickly cancelled) Island of Broken Glass for Lippard’s “955,000” exhibition in Vancouver to understand why that might be so, especially in light of the passionate support Smithson received from artists, critics, curators and directors (recall Jeff Wall’s 1990 division of contemporary British Columbia moderns as those working “in harmony with nature” and those focused on “the conflict between the city and its natural setting”). That no effort was made by the “State of Mind” curators and writers to explain the under-representation of environmentally friendly “Conceptual” art within the “Conceptual” art canon might be too much to ask of an exhibition whose relationship to California appears closer to its political (state) boundaries than what one might expect from a research-oriented university art gallery.

But there are other reasons yet for mounting an exhibition that falls short of its potential.

One reason concerns the inclusion of women artists who were active in the California scene of the 1970s but who are not represented in the “Conceptual” art canon, “less likely” artists such as Nancy Buchanan, Susan Mogul, Ilene Segalove and Barbara T. Smith. That the under-representation of women in many facets of society (not just art) often contributed to the content of these artists’ works is less an irony than a case for their clairvoyance, because the problem persists to this day, a problem that is to social structure what the San Andreas Fault is to California geography—and that is patriarchy.

Another reason is the existence of another regionally specific “Conceptual” art show that opened at the Vancouver Art Gallery just after “State of Mind” did at the Belkin: “Traffic: Conceptual Art in Canada 1965–1980.” Like California, Canada has its polarities (in this case east-west, with Halifax and Vancouver analogous to San Francisco and Los Angeles, respectively), as well as a similar-sized population. However, unlike California, Canada is a country, and it has a welfare-state aspect that includes a national arts funding agency (the Canada Council for the Arts) which continues, for all practical purposes, to privilege region over gender.

What both “State of Mind” and “Traffic” have in common—and this is an a priori assumption that affects all art-and-region exhibitions—is a desire to show how heterogeneity is not an aggregation of difference but, like all politically demarcated landscapes (nation, state, province or city), a function of the whole.

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