SANTA FE – A string orchestra chirping like crickets. A gowned and sequined Pat Nixon posing beneath a photograph of the war raging outside the White House. A chicken-suited woman strutting on a San Francisco sidewalk while a matron gapes.
With conceptual art, the idea is the medium. In 1970s California, that investigation focused on the periphery, the background, the shadows of what we usually ignore. From the late 1960s to the mid-’70s, the Golden State lured an artistic migration with its vast beauty, climate and ease.
The state grew into an incubator for both social change and the counterculture. Experimental artists — including New Mexico transplants like Ed Nauman, Ed Ruscha and Terry Allen – wanted to shatter the rigid boundaries of the established rules of art-making.
They would continue to influence generations of younger artists for more than 40 years.
In an overview of this often neglected breeding ground, SITE Santa Fe has opened “State of Mind: New California Art Circa 1970.” The exhibition was co-organized by the Orange County Museum of Art and the University of California, Berkeley, Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, in conjunction with the related solo shows “Linda Mary Montano: Always Creative” and “Mungo Thomson: Time, People, Money, Crickets.”
Comprised of 150 works by 60 artists, “State of Mind” is one of three anchor exhibitions that helped chart the course of “Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980″ celebrating the birth of the California art scene. Overshadowed by that creative behemoth that is New York, in the 1970s, California was still considered too far away to matter.
“California was still pretty isolated from the larger art world,” SITE curator Irene Hofmann said. But as artists such as Nauman and Ruscha flocked there, they established themselves in the galleries, universities, museums and other welcoming institutions.
These artists experimented until they created new genres: text-based works, video, sound, performance, installations and more. No longer chained by scale, materials or marketing, they made ephemeral works outside the studio, often to boost viewer interaction and perception. The world was their stage as they changed the definition of art.
Accordingly, the exhibition centers on 10 themes: the Street, the Environment, Politics, Feminism, Domestic Space, Public Space, Perceptual and Psychological Space, the Body and Performance Art, Art about Art, Artists’ Books and Ephemera.
Nauman’s 1973 “Yellow Room (Triangular)” subverts the viewer’s expectations: Visitors are both repelled by and attracted to the glaring fluorescent light inside the space.
“It becomes very disorienting,” Hofmann said of the plywood A-framed structure. “It has this effect on your vision and perception.”
Ruscha’s 1966 “Every Building on the Sunset Strip” unfolds, accordion-like, into individual pages of building photographs immortalizing the West Hollywood street from the vantage point of a passing car. The 27-foot-long piece documents every apartment, parking lot, curb and swimming pool, minus human occupants in the epitome of the late-20th century post-pedestrian American city. The artist set his visual book inside a space-slicing glass case.
“It’s sequenced as you would see them,” Hofmann explained.
To other young conceptualists, the street was less subject than stage. Linda Mary Montano enacted several street “interventions” in early ’70s San Francisco. Shod in tap shoes, she danced in various landmarks like the Bay Bridge, flounced in blue chiffon topped by a chicken hat. She adopted the fowl as her personal totem because of their laser focus on gathering food with nonfunctional wings, reminiscent of a Zen parable — New Age before there was a New Age.
“You think of people here who think they have an animal spirit,” said Janet Dees, curator of the Montano show. “It’s a light-hearted look at her work in this period.
“She talks about being a very shy person,” Dees continued. “But getting into the performance persona was a way of being out there, but protected. One time she did this performance on the San Francisco Bay Bridge and somebody called the cops.”
Martha Rosler’s “Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful” (1967-72) photomontages reveal the political upheaval of war and the feminist movement. The series captures well-coiffed women engaging in household activities while the war rages outside their windows. The collages comment not only on female domestic labor — one woman vacuums the drapes, oblivious to the largely black soldiers behind her curtains — but the brutal racism of the Vietnam War. In Rosler’s work, whiteness is not a neutral background.
The Thomson show continues the exploration with a much younger California artist (he was born in 1969) heavily influenced by the “State of Mind” generation.
“Crickets” (2012) is an HD video and audio installation of an orchestra imitating the clicking insects. The project illustrates the artist’s interests in backgrounds: Crickets are such a constant presence that they have come to stand for serenity and silence.
“Cricket sounds are background,” Hofmann said. “But here (they are) the main event.”
Thomson’s homage “Untitled” is a stop-motion film animating the business card Rolodexes of Los Angeles’ legendary Margo Leavin Gallery, founded in 1970. The recently closed landmark was home to many of the artists in “State of Mind.”