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Through June 8, 2008 at The Getty Center, West Los Angeles

by Shirle Gottlieb

Eleanor Antin, “Caught in the Act”,
1973, still from single-channel video.

Suzanne Lacy, "Learn where the
Meat Comes From," 1976, still from
single-channel video.

Harry Dodge and Stanya Kahn,
"Whacker," 2005, still from
single-channel video projection

Martin von Haselberg and Brian
Routh/Kipper KidsBrian, "Up Yer
Bum With a Bengal Lancer," 1976,
still from single-channel video.

To fully appreciate “California Video,” a mammoth and rambling experience that “spotlights 40 years of groundbreaking video by California Artists,” you have to go back to Long Beach in 1974. That’s the year the Long Beach Museum of Art established its Media Arts Department, which led to LBMA/VIDEO, a vital showcase/production program that enabled artists from all over the country to explore both production and post-production techniques of this new art form that required major equipment.

Word spread fast. Soon West Coast pioneers such as Bruce Nauman, Jay McCafferty, and William Wegman came to town--followed by Chris Burden, Ilene Segalove, and Nancy Buchanan to name only a few. All of these artists were aware that “time” could be used for visualizing new concepts and processes. In fact, it was during the 1970s and ‘80s that performance and video artists began to rattle the art cage with their wild and wooly experiments. In those days, you could walk down Belmont Shore, pop into the inconspicuous brick building next to the fire station where LBMA/VIDEO Annex was housed, and see the early ideas of Suzanne Lacy, the Kipper Kids, Doug Hall, or the Yonemoto brothers come to life.

Under the superb management of Joe Leonardi, the VIDEO Annex lent support to artists who came to Long Beach to investigate video’s unknown potential. Excitement spread, and soon Bill Viola, John Baldessari, Stuart Bender and Angelo Funicelli joined the bandwagon, some of them doing double duty as artists-in-residence at Cal State University Long Beach.

From its inception, the Long Beach Museum of Art was committed to video art as a major component in its exhibition schedule. From 1974-1994, it created, exhibited, and collected over 3,000 videotapes. It also generated 150 exhibitions, produced “New California Video: Open Channels,” and developed grants for a Video Access Program (VAP) where artists could try their hand on local cable television. Thanks to the dedication of its board and the enlightened vision of its curators--from David Ross through Kathy Rae Huffman, Connie Fitzsimmons, Michael Nash and Carole Ann Klonarides--the LBMA Video Collection became renowned around the world. Like “the little engine that could,” “the little museum on the bluff” chugged itself to the top of the hill.

Then somewhere between 1995-97 the Video Room at the Museum was quietly closed without warning. When people became curious and inquired about it, they were told, calmly but nonchalantly, that the videos had been packed away somewhere in storage.
Point of information: Since Director Hal Nelson arrived on the scene (he no longer holds the post), the Museum had been shifting its focus slowly but surely toward decorative arts and crafts. Exhibits of ceramics, teapots, furniture, more teapots, jewelry, and porcelain became more and more prevalent. Everyone in the local arts community was stymied and frustrated, but that was the director’s choice so they felt helpless. Tensions grew. No one had seen the missing video collection for years.

Then in 2005, the Getty rode to the rescue like a knight in shining armor. A deal had been made between the Long Beach Museum, the City of Long Beach, the Getty Museum, and the Getty Research Institute (GRI).

According to Nelson, “Neither the museum nor the city have the resources to house and provide a proper preservation environment for that collection.” According to Glenn Phillips, “California Video” curator and a senior project specialist at the GRI, “All of the work has been saved, preserved, digitalized, and catalogued. We even have some tapes that the artists themselves thought were lost.”

At last, now that “California Video” has opened, the people of Long Beach can breathe a sigh of relief. About half of this extraordinary survey comes from the Long Beach video archives; the other half comes from independent artists working in the Bay Area, San Diego, and Los Angeles. All together, the exhibit covers the entire top floor of the Getty’s special exhibition pavilion.

Be prepared for a heady cerebral experience. Though some of the tapes and installations are light, breezy, and entertaining, most of the show consists of stuff that scholars love to chew on. So sit down, relax, put on head phones, study, and have a dialogue with whatever you encounter.

One of the highlights, “The Eternal Flame,” was originally installed in Long Beach in 1976. Created by Ant Farm and T.R. Uthco, this video re-enactment of the Kennedy assassination has been recreated in detail by the Getty Research Institute: A kitschy living-room, complete with flocked wall-paper, overstuffed coaches, and a vintage TV where you can view an ersatz copy of the Zapruder tape.

The earliest piece on view is Nauman’s “Public Room, Private Room,” an experimental, two camera work created in 1969. The most recent video, just completed, is Jennifer Steinkamp’s “Oculus Sinister.” Inspired by the sight of rain falling through the dome of the Pantheon in Rome, she projects abstract shards of color into a funnel opening in the Getty skylight. Looking up through this kaleidoscopic swirl of color, visitors can see why Steinkamp thinks of it as “the left eye of God crying.”

There is so much to see in this pivotal exhibit that it deserves multiple visits. Of course there are serious subjects throughout, but the following random list of ten works illustrates the artists’ emphasis on intellectual wit, spoof, social criticism, and political satire:

Baldessari’s “I will not make any more boring art”; William Wegman’s tape of his torso performing a “Stomach Song;” Paul McCarthy’s cockamamie experience “In the Stomach of a Squirrel;” Eleanor Antin’s spoof of herself attempting to be a ballerina; Bill Viola’s “Anthem” to a spiritual journey through death and rebirth; Suzanne Lacy lying next to a carcass in “Learn Where the Meat Comes From;” Cynthia Maughan taking one of many “Calcium Pills;” Harry Dodge taping Stanya Kahn whacking weeds along the freeway; Skip Sweeney’s phony interview with Nixon in “The Philo T. Farnsworth Video Obelisk;” and Meg Cranston’s impressions of “Trash, Volcano, and Ice Cream” pouring down Mount Vesuvius.