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A Performative Trigger: Radicals of UCI

The University Art Gallery’s latest exhibition, A Performative Trigger: Radicals of UCI, has taken an interesting approach to promotion. Everything from the website to the enormous, informative pamphlets available in the foyer is adorned with the same image: a photograph of a “Keep Out” sign nailed to the post of a barb-wire fence. Potential visitors fear not; the image is not meant to scare patrons off, but, like the featured art, stir up a reaction and push one to think outside traditional boundaries.

Curated by Juli Carson and Marilyn Nix, the exhibition opened its doors on October 3, and will come to a close on December 12. It features eight artists, the so-called “radicals” from whom the exhibition draws its title.

Since its inception, UC Irvine has had a reputation of being a fairly moderate school, at least amongst the UCs. Its location in the upper middle-class suburbs of Orange County leads Peter Frank, author of the aforementioned informational pamphlet, to call the university, “an island of higher inquiry floating in a sea of commerce and domesticity.”

The lack of political action on UCI’s campus established an isolated stability that allowed the exhibition’s featured artists to rise to the forefront of the Orange County art scene. In an attempt to shock people out of complacency, UCI art students like Chris Burden performed physically demanding, dangerous and arguably repulsive acts, all in the name of art. Others, like Richard Newton, abandoned traditional artistic mediums in favor of materials one would usually find in a dumpster.

The gallery itself juxtaposes the extreme, rebellious and grimy works it features. Against white walls and picture-perfect hardwood floors hang pastel depictions of sex acts and standing installations composed of refuse.

The TV screens that line the walls display a variety of abstract videos. On one plays Barbara T. Smith’s Starbiker, which centers on motorcycle culture, specifically rider Dick Kilgroe, a celebrity in his area at the time. Smith performs spoken word poetry over grainy scenes of high-speed races. In meta fashion, the chest cast Kilgroe is seen wearing in the film is featured in the display adjacent to the television, having undergone a makeover featuring feathers and some kind of sash.

Another featured work of Smith’s is Performances, a medley of clips, one of which serves as a behind-the-scenes look at the work put into a series photographs titled Nude Frieze, which is also exhibited. The process included taking several nude individuals, and using duct tape to adhere them to the walls. The final product was the negative space surrounded by tape the nudes once occupied.

The least provocative piece is actually the first, though it is as avant garde as the rest in its own way. Titled Silent Harp, Bob Wilhite’s hardwood and brass piece features a caption stating, “It has a very timid sound, melancholic and infinitely sweet.”

One massive piece was a large number of flattened cans tucked into a corner, having the appearance of a flowing river. As impactful as all the pieces are, Chris Burden’s are, far and away, the most extreme. In one of his performances, Burden had his palms nailed onto the roof of a car, which sped down a track with him on it. In Shoot, Burden had a friend shoot him with a .22 caliber gun while the crowd filling the Orange County F Space, of which he was one of the principle founders, looked on.

A Performative Trigger: Radicals of UCI is an interesting and sometimes shocking look back into the history of art at UCI. It’s hard to believe such works could come out of the calm, moderate OC school. Their role as necessary artistic expression is undeniable, especially in a STEM heavy, politically moderate university like Irvine.