Jamie McMurry, Joe Deutch, and Jeff Huckleberry in Free Clinic #1, curated by The Action Bureau, Human Resources, August 9, 2011
I’ve written here before about how the general population consistently misuses and misunderstands the term “performance art.” Just the other day, Charles McNulty did it in an LA Times review of Sandra Bernhard’s I Love Being Me, Don’t You? at REDCAT: “Somewhere inside of Bernhard is a performance artist waiting to bust out. She has a couple of set pieces—a reminiscence of a high school friend who vanished on the night of a Cat Stevens concert and a San Francisco retrospective ingeniously reworking Sylvester’s ‘You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)’—that show just how mesmerizing she can be.” I would argue that Bernhard’s persona in general can be considered performance art, but individual pieces like the ones McNulty describes are closer to traditional theater.
Of course part of the issue here is that performance remains a fugitive, experimental arena that can take a variety of elusive forms, and one can’t completely blame outsiders—those who have not steeped themselves in this discourse for a significant period of time—for being confused. Many of the works I’ve written about here have been not so much performances in themselves per se, as works of art—sometimes blending various disciplines, sometimes entirely uncategorizable—that have a performative element to them.
Last Tuesday night, the curatorial duo known as The Action Bureau (artists Parker Davis and Paul Waddell) presented the inaugural event in their new Free Clinic performance series, to much fanfare. It was such a powerful and basic set of performances that experiencing them served as a reminder of what performance art is or can be, at its most essential core. It was something of a reset or recalibration to ground zero, to base-level operations.
Engagement with the body and with the audience, complex dialogues with objects and ideas, and physical challenge/endurance—essentially, a work of art in which performative action is rigorously used as a medium. These could be said to be the hallmarks of classic performance art, and all three artists took them on with aplomb.
Jeff Huckleberry is a Boston–based artist who was flown in by The Action Bureau for this occasion; he is part of the editorial collective for the new online performance art journal, Total Art. Jamie McMurry, who also serves as an advisor to Total Art, lives in Los Angeles and exhibits his work internationally. And of course, Joe Deutch is a well-known local fixture of some notoriety.
I am not going to go into a detailed description of each performance, because that would drive both you and me crazy. Each one lasted about 45 minutes, with breaks of about 15 minutes in between. All were similar in that they featured extreme engagements with a vast panoply of objects and materials; explosions and collisions; and exposure of the body to unpleasant substances (paint, India ink, rubbing alcohol, Four Loko) and circumstances, including self-mutilation.
Futility, absurdity, and contemporary mutations of masculinity seemed to be common themes in all three works. McMurry and Huckleberry shared an intensity of focus and a fine sense of tragicomedy. McMurry paid tribute to his environs by singing/reciting lines from 2Pac’s “California Love,” a move that was echoed by Deutch, making for comical interludes in the midst of endurance-based acts. Deutch was the most bipolar of the three, doing weird things to oranges to the tune of the Cars’ “Magic” and “You Might Think,” and doing the most lasting damage to himself physically. The incessant sounds of an alarm and a toy car also made for a queasy, hypnotic effect later in his work.
Smell also played a big role in all three performances. McMurry played with paint and marbles and apple sauce and bird feeders, guzzled ink and sprayed it onto a series of Xeroxed images affixed to the wall, cut off his hair and then lit it on fire, and ended by bungee-cording a lighted lamp into the wall, which crashed into pieces. Deutch did everything you can imagine doing to an orange (including cutting himself and an orange with a box cutter), guzzled and then recycled and blended various beverages, set off an explosion in a cage, and closed by hammering a nail into his left hand. Huckleberry, in an apparent reference to Matthew Barney, measured the distance between his testicles and the ground both before and after his performance, which included pouring rubbing alcohol and coffee all over himself; rolling around with his pockets stuffed with beer bottles, and inserting his body in between tight planks of wood. The distance seemed to increase by one inch.
And those are just the briefest of highlights. It was an intense and grueling evening, not just for the artists, but for audience members as well, who were often heard to emit groans and gasps, and who collectively flocked to Night Gallery afterwards for debriefing/decompression. There was a deep level of commitment on the part of each artist, and the intensity of their engagement, not to mention the abundant detritus emitted by their performances, saturated the cavernous Human Resources space completely.
Personally, there have been many performance works that I’ve liked better—that have been trickier, more complex, more discursive, more psychological, etc. But I really have to respect both the artists and the curators for what they’ve achieved here. Free Clinic #1 was nothing short of a major statement, an announcement that there’s a new player in town setting high standards for performance events.
I can’t wait to see what they do for a follow-up. On the plus side, upon hearing some criticism of the overwhelming “bro” factor in Tuesday night’s performances, Davis and Waddell have already reassured me that female performance artists will be prominently featured in future programming.