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Performance Art: 'Theater of Ideas'

November 04, 1987|MARK CHALON SMITH

"Legal Eagles" may not have been the best movie of 1986, but it did offer an intriguing scene with Daryl Hannah as a screwy performance artist. As co-star Robert Redford watched bemusedly, Hannah's character put on a show that featured sensual prancings, provocative slides, pyrotechnics and a startlingly personal monologue.

The scene was pure Hollywood flash, but it probably reflected what most people think about performance art: It's wild, unpredictable and, more often than not, incoherent.

Alvaro Asturias and John Castagna understandably frown at such generalized depictions. Performance artists from Los Angeles, they will offer a series of pieces at UC Irvine's Fine Arts Gallery tonight as part of a program entitled, "Variations III: Emerging Artists in Southern California."

While acknowledging that performance art can be uncommonly inventive, even idiosyncratic, they say most of the best practitioners are not dabblers in the obscure but artists trying to communicate lyrical messages.

Asturias, 29, says performance art "too often is seen as a theater of images and not ideas." That concentration on images he thinks fails to "describe what's going on. I do not see us as self-indulgent or on the fringe; we try to communicate because (that is the) obligation of the artist, whatever medium he works in."

"You can't get caught up in images that might not make sense," added Castagna, 34, "because you really want to make sense."

Both noted that performance art has evolved since the late '60s and early '70s, when underground artists first began confronting audiences from basement stages with pieces marked as much by outlandish behavior as logical design. Much of the early work, they feel, was inspired by a need merely to shake up an audience--an attitude that, while useful in creating "an experience," has been dismissed by many contemporary performers as superficial.

"Maybe," said Castagna, "we're a bit more responsible now."

Like many of their contemporaries, Asturias and Castagna use various elements--particularly dance, drama and music--to create pieces that are intended to be visually challenging and mentally stimulating.

Their program tonight, "Duos and Solos," is both political and fanciful. "The 8th Wound" features a dance duet designed "to describe the nature of different wounds, from personal to universal." "Solo" is more specific, centering on Asturias' autobiographical talks about returning to his native Guatemala to find the country trying to deal with political uncertainty and, in the process, destroying civil liberties.

Asturias, who left Central America in 1976 to search for greater artistic freedom ("I wouldn't be able to do there what I do here. I'd be an outcast"), said the socio-political slant of his and Castagna's work further emphasizes their desire to make sensible points about life.

But why not opt for more traditional types of theater--like the play form with a linear plot--to reach an audience? Castagna and Asturias reject the idea because they believe in the power of alternative expressions.

"We're not involved in pop culture or mass appeal; we can't see ourselves playing to 1,000-person auditoriums," Castagna said emphatically. "Obviously what we do should make some connection (with people), but we think there are different ways to do that."

Asturias stressed that their artistic style allows them to "give information and affect people" without appearing didactic. "We have so many options this way," he said. "It can be liberating for both us and our audience."

Although listed as one of the performance artists for "Variations III," Joyce Lightbody is more a modern composer than anything else. Her work can perhaps best be described as contemporary madrigals featuring lyrics from modern poems and snippets from New York Times editorials.

The 33-year-old former visual artist from Malibu will perform her "Bear Ears and Other Songs" program at the UCI Fine Arts Gallery on Saturday.

"I don't really like the label," she said, "but you could call my music avant-garde in that it does not follow the rules. My inspirations come from everything from 15th-Century Gregorian chants to (modern composer) John Cage."

Lightbody shifted from painting to music about six years ago. Her canvases and drawings, she said, reflect an interest in "systems and complexity," which is also apparent in her songs. While well-organized in nature, their minimalist rhythms and cadences are hardly ordinary.

But Lightbody feels that they are accessible to anyone who pays attention.

"Some people might consider me and my work elitist, but I'm not elitist at all," she said. "I want people to enjoy my work, to get something out of it."

Alvaro Asturias and John Castagna will perform tonight at 7:30 p.m. and Joyce Lightbody will perform Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in UCI's Fine Arts Gallery. Tickets: $3.50 and $2.50 per program; $5 and $4 for both. (714) 856-6616.

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