Hold Your Mud Review
September 12, 2009
“Hold Your Mud, LA” – reviewed by Michele Jaquis
I went to art school in the mid nineties and my circle of friends involved a range of artists and musicians who collaborated regularly. Someone would create a painting or an installation that would become the score for several musicians to improvise from. We were influenced by the art of the 60’s and 70’s, most of which we only read about in books and magazines.
When I was planning to move to Los Angeles almost ten years ago, I began researching local artists, schools and arts organizations. At the time there were four women who’s names I kept coming across and subsequently mixing up: Linda Burnham, abstract painter and then chair of the fine arts department at Otis College of Art and Design, Linda Frye Burnham, writer and co-founder of 18th Street Art Center and Highways Performance Space, Barbara Smith, feminist writer and activist (who doesn’t even live in California), and Barbara T. Smith, feminist and performance artist.
Nine and a half years later two Otis grad students, Nathalie Sanchez and Paige Tighe, invited me to Highways at 18th Street to see “Hold Your Mud, LA” a performance by Smith (the one with the T.) And when Paige asked me to write about it for her blog, I remembered that I first came across Smith’s work in a back issue of High Performance magazine, while preparing for my job interview to teach at Otis. I realized that although I knew she was an important artist from the 60’s, I had never seen any of her work in person, until last weekend.
In Los Angeles, I feel a bit disconnected from performance and experimental music in particular, and it was wonderful to again be inside that space where the visual and aural interact and unfold while the audience experiences it along side the performers. The black box theater at Highways was arranged so that the audience and musicians were intermingled – stage line broken. The piece opened with an intense, ethereal drone of the largest singing bowl I’ve seen, which looked like it was made of milk glass. Entering stage-right, was Smith, along with Nathalie and Paige, all sweeping the floor with palm fronds, as if to clear the psyche or spirit of the space we were in. Once that was settled, and the three had poured buckets of water into a sand box, Smith in her long, black house-dress, escorted a thin but well built, naked man (Mike M. Mollett) across the floor and eased him into the box full of mud. I couldn’t help but smile at the feminist interpretation of Yves Klein’s 1960 performance, “Anthropometries de L’Epoque bleue,” in which he orchestrated nude women to paint with their bodies while a small chamber orchestra played for a well-dressed audience.
In this case, the man covered himself in mud, sometimes as if he was at a Palm Springs spa, other times as if he was a kid at the beach. Beyond the fact that the title seemed mostly related to his presence, it was hard to decipher the connection between the “mud man” and the rest of the piece. For close to an hour he continued to writhe in the mud occasionally changing the shape of his body through sculpted forms added to his chest, limbs or genitals. All the while the musicians, who’s instruments ranged from electric guitar, percussions and tuba, to ting shaw, sruti box, and didjeridoo, gazed at a projected sequence of black and white slides (or jpgs of scanned slides, if you need me to be precise). Each slide presented an image of Los Angeles palm trees and/or power lines, while the red light from Smith’s laser pointer messily traced each image as if making a gesture drawing. Right away I made the connection that the images were the score and the pages on the music stands probably gave each musician detailed instructions on how to respond to the numbered images. However, it wasn’t until much later that I realized Smith’s gesture drawing was really her conducting effort to keep all eleven musicians in time. Once I mentally replaced her laser pointer with a baton, instead of a piece of vine charcoal, I no longer wished she had been more precise in her tracing of the power lines. Eventually the instruments became more interesting than the images, and I found myself particularly fascinated by the collapsible Tibetan horn, played by Jack Haer, and the unique shape of the cora, played by Linda Albertano and the sounds from the hammered dulcimer played by Kate Johnson.
In the end my husband (Jeremy Quinn) and I left before the Q & A, but during the ride home on the 10 freeway, we understood Smith’s fascination with power lines and electrical towers and why she had been so interested in Jeremy’s 2005 installation, The Hollow Men.
–Michele Jaquis is an artist and educator residing in LA—she is part of Rise Industries–their blog is http://www.facebook.com/l/64fc5;riseindustries.org–