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TV REVIEW : Performance Art Explained

October 31, 1987|TERRY ATKINSON

What is this thing called performance art? One good way to find out: Tune in "Art: Off the Wall," tonight's edition of KCET-TV's insightful "California Stories" series (7:30 p.m., Channel 28).

Performance art--increasingly being called simply "performance"--is an umbrella term for several sorts of artistic expression. Yet it has a definite tradition, dating back at least to the "happenings" of the '60s (a point missed in the show) or even (as the show does say) to when Marcel Duchamp brought a urinal into a gallery to be looked at as "art."

Most typically, performance combines theater, painting, dance, music and politics--or occupies the obscure, fertile gaps between them. Generally intended, as host Roger Bingham says, "to stir up the pot," the art has often been provocative, even outrageous. Chris Burden shoots himself in the arm. Rachel Rosenthal parades animals across the stage. Paul McCarthy paints with his body.

The work can be indulgent, shocking, boring, enlightening, funny and/or cathartic. And most of it, like most theater, is for the moment. Fortunately, enough has been caught on film to supply this show--titled "Art: Off the Wall"--with some enticing glimpses of historic highlights.

Only glimpses, as it turns out. The program's chief flaw is its brevity. At a half-hour, some omissions become apparent even to someone not well versed in the topic--not just the failure to cover "happenings," but no mention of such important L.A. artists as Johanna Went or of such L.A. sub-genres as the cabaret-ish work of John Fleck and Tomata Du Plenty.

What does get squeezed into this time space is frequently fascinating and sensibly presented. "Art: Off the Wall" gives a superb if quick look at something that, as Burnham states, "knocks down borders between art and life."

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