LAGUNA BEACH — Meandering through her first retrospective, which opens Friday at the Laguna Art Museum, Ilene Segalove reminisced about "Meet the Turk," her 1975 photographic work featuring a swarthy, macho Mark Spitz look-alike posing in a billboard ad for Camel cigarettes. The ad proclaims that the Turk "lives. Because he Knows."
"I really wanted to meet the Turk," recalled Segalove. "They never let me. I asked what he knew and they couldn't tell me what he knows."
Quintessential Segalove. On one hand, you laugh at her joke; both of you know that no ad firm's creation exists beyond Madison Avenue. But on the other hand, Segalove seems perfectly serious. You can see her earnestly requesting the Turk's address from a red-faced executive.
The murky, sometimes indefinable boundary between reality and artifice long has fascinated Segalove, who makes wry, witty videos and radio commentaries about popular culture, particularly television and the formative impact it had on her life.
As a child in Beverly Hills, she was a TV junkie. "I think the fine line between fact and fiction, that line was what I saw when I watched television," says Segalove, now 40 and living in Venice, where she watches only wrestling on TV.
"It took me years to figure out that maybe those people on 'You Bet Your Life' weren't really that way," she said. "You know, the way they acted so gooney? I mean, were they that way or weren't they? Were they actors? That became the big question. And 'To Tell the Truth,' that was an amazing show. Again, were those people really telling the truth?"
The retrospective, "Why I Got Into TV and Other Stories: The Art of Ilene Segalove," spans the period from 1972 to 1990 and includes 33 videos, 17 audio pieces and 38 photographic works. Organized by Charles Desmarais, who became the museum's director in the fall of 1988, it is his most extensive curatorial effort to date.
Segalove's obsession with reality/unreality is perhaps most obvious in her videos, many of which are humorous, first-person accounts, often of adolescence or early adulthood.
In the 1983 video from which the exhibit takes its title, a rumpled TV repairman becomes the young Segalove's "remote control lover." "When the TV went haywire and I needed some romance, the TV repairman could always bring me and the TV back to life," Segalove says in the piece.
In "My Puberty" (1987), every frame is saturated with impossibly bright colors for a larger-than-life back-yard barbecue at which Segalove awakens to her budding womanhood. Plastic toy snails--fading vestiges of childhood--fizzle into green bile.
Friendly and straightforward, Segalove credits Billy Adler and John Margolies, instructors at UC Santa Barbara, for introducing her to video and implanting the notion that she could use her own life and popular culture as subject matter.
"Billy thought that TV was important and that popular culture was important, and he showed slides of him and John growing up. I had never thought of my childhood as having any validity or being raw material."
After graduating in 1972, Segalove bought a PortaPak video camera and started making such videos as "The Mom Tapes," starring her own mother, a consummate consumer who in one segment advises her daughter on where to buy a Toastmaster, an area rug and meat for dinner. By 1975, the artist had graduated with a master's degree in communication from Loyola University and spent a couple of years auditing classes at CalArts with conceptual art master John Baldessari--another important influence, she said.
Soon, recognition of her videos began via grants (she's won several from the National Endowment for the Arts), awards and exhibitions. Her tapes have been shown at New York's Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art and on cable and public television.
About three years ago, however, Segalove made "maybe my last tape, I'm not compelled to do them right now." She already had started making radio pieces, dealing with such topics as shopping malls, leisure suits and, more recently, the extinction of LP record albums. These pieces continue to air over National Public Radio.
Radio, she says "is more disposable, it's not so important. You know, it's just like: 'This is what I'm doing this week.' It doesn't say: 'I am Art, Pay Attention.' " Pretension in any form seems to irk Segalove, who refers to herself as "girl reporter" rather than a member of the art crowd elite.
"I'm trying to tell the truth as I see it, not to create veils or mystery," she said. "I want to be user friendly, which maybe is stupid because then (my work) seems lightweight. But I don't want to manipulate people. I think we get enough of that. Why should art do it?"