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Infinite possibilities of an enlivened mind

When Eugenia Butler's work short-circuits expectations, sparks fly. She is surveyed at Otis.

October 15, 2003|David Pagel | Special to The Times

Just inside the front door of the Ben Maltz Gallery at Otis College of Art and Design lies a bright yellow extension cord. Plugged into a regular electrical outlet, it snakes across the floor and loops back to the same wall, where it's plugged into another outlet.

No ordinary cord, this one is useless. It doesn't deliver the invisible current that normally activates projectors, power tools and kitchen appliances, because its female end has been replaced with a male one. While this adaptation transforms it into a perfectly symmetrical mirror image of itself, that's not why it's a work of art.

Compositional niceties are not the point of Eugenia Butler's "Electric Cord Piece" (1967). It's a sculpture because of what it does inside your head.

Short-circuiting expectations to make sparks fly in the mind's-eye, the altered piece of inexpensive equipment is a witty emblem of Conceptual art's best intentions. It's among the most physically assertive works in the unassuming show, which primarily consists of drawings, books and single pages of paper on which enigmatic phrases have been written.

The cord gives visitors a toehold on the slippery slopes of an art form dedicated to the effect of intangible ideas, elusive perceptions and fleeting experiences.

It also provides a point of entry into a body of work that often strives to disappear into thin air -- to leave behind the dreary confines of literal reality and the clunky limits of three-dimensional things for the infinite possibilities of an enlivened mind contemplating itself, along with some logical conundrums and nutty notions.

Guest curator Anne Ayres organized "Eugenia Butler -- Arc of an Idea: Chasing the Invisible," a 35-year survey, with the help of art historian M.A. Greenstein, who cataloged Butler's oeuvre, proposed the show and selected the works. Even her title for the exhibition signals the difficulty of pinning down Butler's art. The start-and-stop rhythm of its four-part format matches the way the L.A. artist uses words to punctuate vision, stopping viewers from looking out at the world to get us to look inward -- not at our messy emotions and ambivalent desires, but at the way thoughts move through our heads.

Butler does this most effectively in a series of works consisting of nothing but wall labels. For example, on the same wall into which the dysfunctional cord is plugged hangs a small white placard on which is printed: " 'Light Cloud Piece,' ca. 1967-68, perceptual/conceptual field, dimensions variable to site, UCLA Galleries, Los Angeles, 1969; Ben Maltz Gallery, 2003."

That's it.

If you're a viewer who reads labels after you see pieces that catch your eye, you'll walk right by. But if you like to read before you look, this bit of text will stop you in your tracks.

After frantically glancing around the gallery to see where the actual piece might be, you realize it exists only in your head. The perceptual-conceptual field the label refers to is your field of vision and the space between your eyeballs and brain. Your experience is the real work of art. It's accompanied by the knowledge that Butler conceived the piece in 1967-68, showed it at UCLA a year later and has reinstalled it here.

There's something wondrous, free and easy about this realization. It's liberating and energizing. But it wears thin rather quickly.

The magic of the first time is not matched by such perceptual-conceptual fields as "Negative Space Hole" (1967) or "Static Electricity Piece" (1967-68). Nor is it equaled by "A Congruent Reality" (1969), which is no different from the first three, although its label describes it as a "time-based perceptual-conceptual event."

The children's story about the emperor's new clothes comes to mind when contemplating Butler's nakedly immaterial works. But the analogy is not exactly appropriate, mostly because so little pretense accompanies Butler's earnest art and so little hubbub surrounds it. Such qualities are the province of second-, third- and fourth-generation Conceptual artists, whose tired pieces rehash ideas already worn thin the first time.

The majority of the works in the exhibition were made in 1967, 1968 and 1969. Most of these are plain sheets of paper or vellum or pages from unlined diaries on which Butler has typed or printed such messages as "The Structure of Ineffability," "An Information Transfer" and "Inertia Piece." Some pages are sandwiched between sheets of glass, allowing visitors to read both sides. "The Continuum Through Which a Thought Passes" resides on the opposite side of "A Condition of Continual Transformation."

Several books are propped open to pages with such phrases as "The Creation of a Subjective Atmosphere of Perception" and "An Implosion/Explosion Produced by the Collision of the Ends of Symmetry." One book, propped up so it casts a shadow, is opened to a page on which is written "The Piece Is the Shadow."

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