A Provocative ‘State of Mind’

Amid all that distinguishes California from other places in the country, one aspect of the state’s history and culture that I don’t hear about very much beyond the art community is the distinct, historical art scene that still thrives to this day. At the Orange County Museum of Art, “State of Mind: New California Art circa 1970” features over 150 works of various media from numerous California artists that are both iconic and less-known. This unique exhibit revives a historical period of social change, youth counterculture and reveals when a new California art scene of Conceptualism began to emerge.

Living in a revolutionarily-charged atmosphere, when it was all about going “out with the old and in with the new,” one could only expect that California-native artists experimented in their artwork; whether they created in private spaces or publicly on the streets of San Francisco and Los Angeles, these artists helped shape Conceptualism and broke traditional boundaries with their provocative, avant-garde practices as they responded to various social and personal issues of the time.

I visited the “State of Mind” exhibit on Oct. 20, when the OCMA and UC Irvine co-hosted a special “Student Night” at the museum. After catching the remainder of an interview between artist Barbara T. Smith and art historian Juli Carson, I ventured toward the glass doors that entered into “State of Mind.”

The exhibit was organized by certain themes, including “Mapping the Environment,” “The Street,” “The Body and Performance” and “Politics,” to name a few. As the glass doors slowly shut behind me, I looked around to see that I was surrounded by walls displaying vintage landscape photographs.

One multi-part photography set called “California Map Project Part I: California” (1969/2009) by John Baldessari literally maps out the state of California; each inkjet photograph featured a semi-camouflaged letter from the word “California” set in California landscapes like Joshua Tree and Shasta Lake. Baldessari’s piece demonstrates his emphasis on the concept and process of mapping out California rather than focusing on the physical objects seen in each photograph.

Moving further into the exhibit, I walked into the section called “The Body and Performance.” As the name states, all the works here involved the use of the artist’s own body to either create the piece or even as the artwork itself. The works of one artist that will forever be engrained in my mind are those of Suzanne Lacy.

In her 1976 piece, “Anatomy Lesson,” a colored full-body photo shows an aerial view of Lacy lying on a beach with preserved body organs — the heart, stomach, intestines and so on — all accurately arranged on Lacy’s bare torso. Right across from this photograph stood Lacy’s “Lamb Construction” (1973/2011): a wooden sculpture that also includes preserved animal organs, all glistening under the museum lights. The intriguing quality of Lacy incorporating anatomy into her art clearly conveys her fascination with the human body, and also had me transfixed to her works for a good amount of time (even if I did feel a little nauseous).

Other works in this section made clear comments on social issues that still exist to this day. One example is “Carving: A Traditional Sculpture” (1972) by Eleanor Antin. Here, Antin took 144 photos of herself every morning from July 15 to Aug. 21, 1972 as she went on a strict diet regime, wanting to “transform herself into a sculpture.” As I walked to my right, each photo showed Antin’s nude body gradually becoming thinner. As the piece’s text label mentioned, it was evident that Antin was critiquing “the social pressure that women feel to make their bodies conform to a particular fashion, aesthetic or cultural ideal.”

As I looked out to the other rooms, a bright yellow light shone through one of the pathways. The closer I got to it, I began to see more of where the light was coming from: a large wooden box that almost touched the ceiling. This was Bruce Nauman’s “Yellow Room (Triangular)” (1973), a perceptual and psychological artwork. I peeked inside the box to find nothing but a plain white interior and the yellow fluorescent lights. However, what was perplexing about this wooden box is that the inside was triangular.

Another element about this piece was that the yellow lights were meant to provoke a psychological response from the viewer: I’ll just say that the yellowness of the fluorescent lights intensified by the white walls became irritating.

Nearby was Barbara T. Smith’s “Field Piece” (1968-72/2007). Adjacent to a photo of the installation first being used in a performance, “Field Piece” is an artificial “garden” in which the enormous fiberglass “grass blades” would light up when visitors walked around them on the Ethafoam mat. This was an early example of an interactive art installation — and a lot of fun to play in, I must admit!

Some works had a political message. “First Supper (After a Major Riot)” by the East LA-based performance group Asco features the group having a meal on a traffic island in Whittier Boulveard in memory of a young man who was killed during the Chicano uprising of 1970. Allen Ruppersberg’s installation, “Al’s Grand Hotel” (1971) explores private and public space. In the original piece, Ruppersberg let visitors rent one of seven themed-rooms in his hotel on Sunset Boulevard in LA. At OCMA, artifacts from the artpiece — neon signs, cardboard cutouts of Ruppersberg and ad-like photos of the hotel in use — were neatly arranged for show.

The list of artworks in this unique exhibit doesn’t end here. With the multiple themes and issues it addresses, “State of Mind” exposes visitors to the individual thoughts and opinions these California artists gave through their own works. Thought-provoking and poignant, “State of Mind” not only highlights the essence of Conceptualism, but brings the much-deserved attention to these artists who helped pave the way for what the California art scene is today.