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Tale of the tape

Getty show tracks the boundary-breaking advance of video art.

March 18, 2008|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

In a modest exhibition that closed Saturday at Cal State L.A.'s Luckman Gallery, artist Euan Macdonald showed a whimsical work that coincidentally evokes a dilemma faced by another, far more extravagant exhibition just opening across town. His 2001 "File Cabinet," a single-channel video projected on the wall, is something like a preface to the J. Paul Getty Museum's ambitious 40-year survey, "California Video."

Macdonald trained his stationary camera on an ordinary two-drawer file cabinet shown head-on against a blank wall, its form and composition reminiscent of Minimalist art. The cabinet's top drawer is open. Suddenly, as if pushed by an unseen breeze or pulled by a cosmic hand, a few sheets of paper fly up out of the drawer, fluttering in space and drifting down to the floor.

Soon, the initial burst is followed by a steady stream. Reams of paper fly into the air, leaving the orderly precinct of the file cabinet behind. Delighting us with their haphazard aerial ballet of escape from methodical office-routine, the sheets mound up at random in a disorganized blanket of paperwork on the floor. "File Cabinet" describes a familiar universe of institutionalized bureaucracy abruptly invaded by inexplicable mystery, idiosyncrasy and play. An unruly ghost lurks in the modern machine. Making chaos out of order, Macdonald's anarchic video cheerfully reverses older ideas about art's purposes.

The L.A. artist is one among 58 past and present Californians whose work is included in the Getty's big survey. (A different Macdonald video is on view.) Assembled are more than 50 single-channel videos and 15 installation works made in the four decades since Sony introduced the first portable video recording device in 1967. The unruly show is like Macdonald's file cabinet.

Introduction of the Sony Portapak was an epochal event in image-making history, and it's smartly signaled at the show's entry. A black-and-white John Baldessari video plays continuously on a vintage portable Sony TV. Baldessari shows his hand repeatedly writing "I will not make any more boring art" in pencil on lined paper, like a naughty boy kept after class.

The vintage Sony, placed atop a museum pedestal rather than a living room hutch, also illustrates an intersection between art and art museum that has long been integral to video. It's an art-form born of one institutional nexus -- commercial television -- with almost immediate ties to two others, namely art museums and schools. There, equipment was available and experimentation nurtured.

Think of a museum as a kind of filing cabinet for art, a place that puts an unmanageable variety of cultural production into some temporary semblance of order. The tensions between art and museum, plus their considerable interdependence, are suggested by Macdonald's video. Not surprisingly they are also encountered at the Getty -- perhaps art's ultimate filing cabinet.

The show was inspired by the Getty Research Institute's 2006 acquisition of the Long Beach Museum of Art's fabled video archive.

The Portapak had given to individuals a powerful electronic image-making capacity formerly held only by corporations. Artists were instantly captivated.

Women, whose work makes up more than a third of the show, were especially inventive. They recognized the possibilities in a new medium -- emerging at the same moment as feminism -- free of the art world's conventional baggage of social exclusion.

Yet, the revolution touched off by portable technology faced an obstacle. Point-and-shoot camera work was nice, but visual elaboration and complex editing were mostly beyond an individual artist's reach. That required major equipment. The Long Beach Museum stepped into the breach.

With a $50,000 Rockefeller Foundation grant (nearly $200,000 in today's currency), the museum built a video facility for artists in 1976. About half the Getty show derives from that archive, including important, rarely seen examples by David Askevold, Terry Fox, Tony Labat, Patty Podesta and many more.

The remaining videos were made by Bay Area, San Diego and L.A. artists working independently, often in academic settings. The skylight in one gallery ceiling is the site of a terrific commissioned work by Jennifer Steinkamp, whose projected clouds of sliding, shifting color are part inner eyeball, part metaphoric birth canal and part hell's mouth.

It is a lot to take in -- an unavoidably unwieldy array of single monitor works and installations in styles that careen among narrative, pure abstraction, comedy, surrealist fantasy and much more, and in formats that derive from painting, sculpture, performance and installation art, as well as commercial TV. In tandem with an excellent catalog, Getty curator Glenn Phillips has done a remarkable job of giving rudimentary shape to a resistant West Coast history.

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