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Crucible for new ideas

March 27, 2009|Leah Ollman

San Diego is a sleeper in the art world, always overshadowed by that rather larger cultural engine 120 miles to the north. If institutional and commercial infrastructure has often been the city's weakness, its community of artists has consistently been its strength.

Much of the credit goes to UC San Diego, whose visual arts department was founded in the late 1960s as a conceptual enterprise in itself and emerged over subsequent decades as a haven for experimentation, interdisciplinary practice and impassioned irreverence. Unfortunately, a thorough history of the department and its broad impact has not yet been written; a show at Cardwell Jimmerson Contemporary Art serves as a compelling proposal for just such a text.

"San Diego and the Origins of Conceptual Art in California" feels like the outline for an introduction, notes toward a thesis. The show identifies a dozen central players in the evolution of a local scene -- not just at UCSD but also elsewhere in San Diego -- with international scope.

Eleanor Antin's brilliant "100 Boots" (1971-73) starts the show off with a bang of humor and pathos. The legendary series of 51 photographic postcards (shot by another participant in the show, Phel Steinmetz) tracks the exploits of a troop of surrogate Everymen, following the empty boots as they seek work and wander the streets, ever in search of a place and some meaning. An excerpted sequence of eight postcards aptly represents the work's unprepossessing power.

The Southern California strain of Conceptualism tended to be juicier than its East Coast counterpart -- socially engaged but also funny, intellectual as well as amusing. Antin is a prime example, as is John Baldessari, who grew up in San Diego and was one of the founding faculty members at UCSD before heading north to CalArts in 1970. A pithy little sticker by Baldessari, made in collaboration with George Nicolaides, hangs in the show, as well as a small abstract painting from 1966, minor in itself but notable as a survivor of Baldessari's publicly announced "cremation" of his own work dating from 1953 through early 1966.

Baldessari took the so-called de-materialization of the art object to its fatal extreme in that 1970 bonfire, but others of that time and place nudged the process along as well. In a recorded 1966 lecture, Allan Kaprow (at UCSD, 1974-93) issued directives on "How to Make a Happening." He starts out by admonishing artists not to make a painting, not to make poetry and not to write plays, but to make something new that doesn't remind you of culture as you know it, something that arises from the real world and happens in natural time.

David Antin's talk-poems evolved around the time he directed the university's art gallery (1968-72) and subsequently taught there; a DVD of one of his 1992 performances skews the show's chronology a bit but gives a taste of his work's rich personality. Founding faculty Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison delve into ecological stress points around the world through a combination of handwritten narrative poetry, drawings, maps and photographs, exemplified by their "Book of the Seven Lagoons."

Wry investigations of conventions of all sorts (aesthetic, cosmetic, domestic, political) dominated the work of the rest of the artists: Martha Rosler's tongue-in-cheek deconstruction of the "North American Waitress"; Allan Sekula's self-portrait as three types of artist; Russell Baldwin's printing plate, ironically both canceled and gold-plated; and Steinmetz's four-part family portrait with spare and dour captions.

Another highlight from this unwritten chapter of art history is Fred Lonidier's 1974 "The Double Articulation of Disneyland," a photo-text installation chronicling a trip several of the artists made to the theme park only to discover its most prevalent theme to be corporate branding. Beneath the plainly stated captions to the pictures runs the text from an academic critique of Disneyland as an ideologically driven model of utopia. Performative and playful, self-referential and slightly subversive, the piece, like the formative moment it hails from, is worth revisiting.

Cardwell Jimmerson Contemporary Art, 8568 Washington Blvd., Culver City, (310) 815-1100, through April 11. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www .cardwelljimmerson.com.

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It's America, close-cropped

One sign of a generous photographic image is its continuously unspooling details, narratives and readings. As long as you attend to it, it just keeps unfurling. Mark Cohen's photographs at Rose Gallery are like that: small snippets of reality, densely packed with possibility.

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