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Marlena Donohue


Suzanne Lacy and Leslie Labowicz, “In Mourning
and In Rage,” performance, December, 1977.
The recent addition of Suzanne Lacy to head the Otis College of Art and Design’s Fine Arts Department is a fortuitous and timely development in the Southern California art world. That a non-traditional public art practitioner has assumed the administrative helm of a prominent art academy is a significant moment.

In the ‘70s I was no more than an interested museum goer; “postmodern” was a word in the Ikea catalogue describing tacky lamps. My first exposure to the remote possibility of a postmodern schema in art was Lacy’s early work on violence against women. In Mourning and In Rage (1977), a collaboration with Leslie Labowitz, was a gathering of shrouded females at the steps of Los Angeles City Hall protesting sensationalist coverage of the Hillside Strangler. No more than an interested museum goer at the time, ‘postmodern’ was a word in the Ikea catalogue describing lamps as far as I was concerned.

The haunting memory of veiled bodies across the City Hall steps connected me to the poetry and politics of my gender and community in an immensely visceral manner. It also suggested that there might be a tactic able to redress a problem I saw in art at the time: much of it possessed little relevance to the lives of most members of society. Art with the guts to move off the wall, to shock us, shift us. . . .what a thought.

For thirty years Lacy has practiced "new genre public art." She has created many large scale, community-building performance works involving as many as 400 "nonactors” at a pop. She has produced a body of work that artfully engages ideas from fine art, theater, social advocacy, and networking to achieve what she terms “organizing outcomes.” By this Lacy means art that elicits social connections in ways that the gallery model simply does not permit: connections between social groups, between social agencies and the public, between artist and audience. Work that, whatever else can be said about it, disrupts precisely at the perimeter of life and art.

Her work and work like hers turned both the gallery paradigm and the role of the art critic on their ear. It has expanded the function and character of an art audience, the artist’s place as an active participant in their community, and required a certain re-calibration of the way we judge effectiveness in art. Whether or not one agrees with its strategies, Lacy’s work is central to art being seen as a form of collective rather than personal representation. It broke ground in suggesting the possibility that art’s subject might be--indeed should be--group identity, group interconnectedness, community action within the context of both public event and serious art production.

With predecessors and colleagues--including the likes of Alan Kaprow, Guillermo Gomez Pena, Suzi Gablik, and Lucy Lippard--Lacy explores what happens when artists directly engage real world audiences in various public sites via framed events designed to encourage open-ended public change. In that regard Lacy and her cohorts were instrumental in short-circuiting notions of the sublime, transcendent role for art and artist, opting to exchange the model of artist as visionary/tutor for one based on dialogue with a broader sector.

An example of the complex fine art action that Lacy fosters as curricula and practice, Landed is a work in progress sited in and around the town of Elkhorn City, Kentucky (population 500) in the Appalachian Mountains. The region and the town itself have suffered from the logging and mining industries, from high unemployment and poverty. Created with Susan Steinman, Yutaka Kobayashi, Nina Aragon and numerous residents, Landed investigates in practical and symbolic ways residents’ literal and metaphorical experience of their land as heritage and commerce. This project has involved installations, a web-based map charting the installation sites, recorded stories of ties to the land developed for radio, and assistance in producing grant proposals designed to raise revitalization funds for an economic renaissance. True, Lacy leaves and the performance concludes. But Landed generated tangible change in the way participants viewed the function of art, not to mention real and tangible improvements to their community. Is it good art? You decide.

From working-class roots in the small town of Wasco in California’s San Joaquin Valley, Lacy was predisposed to issues of accessibility. Studying at Fresno State University, Lacy was working on an MA in psychology, and headed to med school, when something happened. Lacy says that what happened was Judy Chicago. In 1969-70 Chicago established the Feminist Art Program at Fresno State University with 15 students, and conducted programs in consciousness raising, performance workshops, research into women’s history, art, literature and experimental expression.

Suzanne Lacy: “It was not a huge leap. I’d always done art as a kid; my Dad was an amateur painter, so art was very much in my field of reference. Also, I grew up with ideas of service, of social responsibility, so I was pre-sensitized to the public agendas of the ‘60s. Faith Wilding and I followed Judy to CalArts, and I ended up getting a MFA in Design there.”

Within two years of her first exposure to the Feminist Art Program, Lacy, along with Aviva Rahami, Sandra Orgel and others, conducted her first important work, Ablutions (1972), in which rape victims recorded narratives recounting their traumatic experiences. A series of powerful performance projects included the aforementioned In Mourning and In Rage; her response to Chicago’s The Dinner Party called Interactive Dinner Party (1979, with Linda Pruesse); the Crystal Quilt project (1987), involving 430 older women and broadcast live on Public Television. In 1993 Lacy created Full Circle for Culture in Action, a Chicago sculpture exhibit curated by Mary Jane Jacob; and Auto: On the Edge of Time (1993-95) an installation on domestic violence for Art Park and the Public Art Fund. Lacy has also published articles on public theory in journals too numerous to mention, and exhibited in the Museum of Contemporary Art in London, the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco, and the New Museum in New York. Her work has been reviewed in every major art journal, and she’s held fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, and National Endowment for the Arts.

In 1996 she instituted, with L.A. muralist Judy Baca, a Fine Arts curriculum based wholly on visual/public art practice at Cal State University, Monterey. Returning to California College of Arts and Crafts (CCAC), where she had previously been Dean of Fine Art for ten years, Lacy founded the Center for Art and Public Life, a program that taught undergrads public practice. Her book on new genre public art, Mapping the Terrain (1995), is a seminal text on the subject.

Why did many of us lose sight of this thinker and this sort of work? And what might the imprimatur of this sensibility mean in L.A.? In the ‘80s, when I made art history my career, we were in the throes of a dialectical return to art as corporate commodity. Julian Schnabel was jet-setting to Paris, Japanese collectors were in a frenzy and white America was paying record prices for Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, patron saint of girls who suffer for their guy.

The prevailing art academy retreated back to art as purchase, artist as broken genius, and to the passive position of awe for precious skill as the preferred stance for the viewer/consumer, critic and art school. In this distinctly apolitical wind, I was schooled on Plato, Immanuel Kant, Clement Greenberg. Kant, the great German Idealist philosopher of two centuries ago, made a convincing case suggesting that we can “see” a fetching landscape, but that life--embedded as it is in the whirlwind of banal experience, with its problem solving, its eating, bill paying--can never have the same potent impact as the aesthetic experience of a work of art depicting that landscape, separated as it is from life by virtue of skilled intention/evocation. The ‘80s reaffirmed that high art was high by virtue of the relief it gave from life. Community connection was out of fashion and, to a great extent these themes have not returned. Her history of advocacy makes Lacy’s presence in historically apolitical L.A. particularly open ended.

Two things happened after the object d’art reaction of the ‘80s: The intense, in-your-face activist stance of much feminist performance work like Lacy’s got subsumed by increasingly cerebral, Conceptual, hermetic male versions. Artists such as Mike Kelly and Paul McCarthy took center stage, and art writers and curators became much more engaged with the objective, controlled distance this intensely personal new genre offered. At the same time, advocacy-based public projects began to take serious heat from critics of theater and fine art, who grew cautious of increasingly zany, issue-driven, audience involved, experience-based art, accusing it of being "voyeuristic," "utilitarian ,” “more outreach than art," "multiculturalism”--everything but legitimate “high art.”

SL: “Even if we decide aesthetic experience is different from other forms of life experience, it is meditated by our senses in real time and real space. Because my media is performative, it is harder to assign art of non-art status. Art is the moving of shapes in time in careful and compelling ways; that can be shapes of people, of ideas, or paint. When I design an event with 500 non-art participants, a helicopter, cops, and dancers, I am seeing a shape. I direct from sites high above the performance, and I know when the conception is realized visually. The difference is that a performance, while still art, has the capacity to continue to form ideas and connections outside of itself. Some art ends in a product, some art is process. I don’t see it as a question of high or low art, but of function. We understand certain art by its dissociation from common meanings. At Otis I hope to foster many kinds of art. It is not so much that what I do is more or less meaningful; I just chose to ask the question: Meaningful to whom?”

Lacy politely suffers me the next query: So, is her new job “art?” She tries to hide it, but I see this look of “get real.” And I am relieved.

SL: “I was hired at Otis to promote connections. . . .probably because there are overlaps between public art and fine arts administration. Both require acute organizational skills, both are directed action moving to an articulated, thoughtful plan, both hope to engender consensus, both choreograph shape, time, space, ideas, people, hopefully without limiting things too much. . . .Is that to say that as a performance artist I see all my actions as art? Absolutely not.”

Which brings us to the broader issue raised by this appointment. In 1971 Linda Nochlin asked Why Are There No Great Women Artists? in a publication aptly subtitled “Studies on Power and Powerlessness.” Her answer was that the canonical list of what is real and good, the list of history itself if you will, was (and on the whole still is) constructed by males who had long held a monopoly on things like knowledge, naming and language. Today instead of asking why are there no great female artists, we would do better to ask why are there so very few females at the helm of the academies that make or unmake such lists. The “canon” is decanted through the academy, that loose institution that includes museums, curators, fine art graduate schools, serious dealers and, significantly, fine art department chairs. The Lacy appointment comes on the heels of thirty years of what we want to call progress in both theory and art practice. We have passed as a discipline into the inter-contextual, post-structuralist age; we take as given that art’s discourse includes the social construction of reality inevitably sieved through rhetoric, power, class and gender. It is so much a given that freshman students, obliged as they are to read Marxist and feminist theory, seem to wonder what the big deal is. . . ."like, duh, as if we don’t already know that we’re liberated. . . ." Yes, Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, Lynda Benglis are among a growing number of women artists now included in Art Through the Ages, but a tally of the last thirty years shows the number of women heading up art museums and fine arts departments has increased anywhere from 5%to 10%, depending on the source you use; is that progress? We've mastered a post-structuralist, diversity heavy, ultra-critical stance in our student jargon. But change in the real world is apparently slower.

This makes the Lacy appointment as the second female artist to be in charge of Otis Fine Arts (her immediate predecessor Linda Burnham stepped down to teach) not only provocative, but promising. The women who are let into academies often seem to be there because they can play the game like a man. Or maybe once the advocate/provocateur gets comfy, maintaining alterity seems unnecessarily risky. We should probably be asking: Can the woman (or other minority) at the helm of any aspect of the academy retain an authentic voice? I can think of two additions of women to the heads of major museums in this city, and their success seems to be based on their ability to think like the power base, maintain the status quo, keep the traveling blockbusters coming, and market.

What will become of Lacy? It seems to me that this spunky, literate veteran will not go easily into the mold. One of the chapter’s in Lacy’s book is called Art After the Individual, written in '95 as we were coming to understand “the other” as a springboard for discourse about commonality. We embark again on an era strongly marred by “us ‘n them,” where notions of connection and expansion are radically challenged by new forms of hegemony and fear. I applaud Otis for selecting another strong female voice, for countering these contractive times, for hiring someone committed to finding ways to honor at once canvas, new genre, art action and any disciplined, experimental risk-taking that permits art to dislodge, enrich, deploy, deconstruct, portend, and maybe even unify. We are at a moment in history when these and the scope of human modalities are sorely under siege. Let’s just hope they allow Lacy to do her thing.


Suzanne Lacy and Leslie Labowicz, “In Mourning
and In Rage,” performance, December, 1977.

Suzanne Lacy and Leslie Labowicz, “In Mourning
and In Rage,” performance, December, 1977.