Berkeley Art Museum showcases California’s conceptual artists of the ’70s

Robert Kinmont: "8 Natural Handstands" 1969/2009 (detail); nine black-and-white photographs; courtesy of Alexander and Bonin, New York.
Bill Orcutt/Courtesy
Robert Kinmont: "8 Natural Handstands" 1969/2009 (detail); nine black-and-white photographs; courtesy of Alexander and Bonin, New York.

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There’s something about California that makes people go a little nuts — in a good way. When 19th-century colonists first faced the all-consuming blanket of the Pacific Ocean, customs and ideologies got thrown out the window. Fast forward to the 1970s,  when the Golden State served as a haven for youth-oriented counterculture and a place where people came to reject tradition, experiment and build anew. “State of Mind: New California Art Circa 1970” at the Berkeley Art Museum features 150 California artists and their radical contributions to Conceptualism — an art movement that emerged alongside the explosive cultural and social changes of the time.

So what is it about California anyway? The sunshine definitely seems to make a difference. Whereas the high-brow art world of the ’70s placed the artist on a pedestal of shrouded mystery, California artists were more than happy to shed light on exactly what they meant by presenting the artistic process itself. Paul Kos’s installation, “Sound of Ice Melting” — made by eight microphones connected to an amplifier recording the sound of melting ice blocks — is a perfect example of conceptual art being a record of creativity, rather than a fixed object on a gallery wall.

Humor is recognized as a strategy to involve the viewer in the experience — John Baldessari’s deadpan anti-performance in “I am Making Art” takes Marcel Duchamp’s notion that whatever the artist does in art is art, reducing it to ironic absurdity. Other artists further challenge the role of the artist by becoming part of the work itself — in his short film, Paul McCarthy manipulates his body to become a human paintbrush and a series of photographs show Robert Kinmont doing handstands in chancy locations, recalling images of modern-day planking.

Another aspect that makes California an oasis of progress is the ocean that reminds us that nothing is ever static.  The mutability of language is explored in a video by Kos, whose head is shown turning in one direction to say the words “a trophy” and another way to utter the term “atrophy” — an eerie sequence that is repeated on high-speed until the words blur and shift meaning. Puns were an additional interest, and artists like Baldessari experimented with the fluidity of language in text paintings to satirize the jargon of art criticism.

Rather than being tied down by a traditional venue, California conceptual artists and their imaginations worked freely, opting for city streets, beaches and mountain cliffs. Bas Jan Ader’s “In Search of the Miraculous (One Night in Los Angeles)” records in solemn photographs his walk from the Hollywood Hills to the Pacific Ocean, a dusk-to-dawn compilation imprinted with handwritten lyrics from The Coasters’ ballad, “Searchin’.” Los Angeles Chicano collective Asco takes us to city walls, where they mock stereotypical murals by dressing up as parodies of popular figures — for instance, a gothic Virgin Mary — to address ignored issues of gender and sexuality.

Seeing an exhibit that showcases the artistic conversations from the youth of the ’70s just steps away from where some of the most significant movements  of their time took place makes viewing “State of Mind” a particularly powerful experience.  Tapes of Terry Allen’s live performance at Al’s Grand Hotel that play at the end of the exhibit will instill a sense of nostalgia to the rest of your day. But a thought that lingers long afterwards is not a look back, but a glance forward — are we genuinely doing our best today in carrying on the torch, inciting change and documenting California in all its golden glory?

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