PRINT Summer 2007

Connie Butler

Guy de Cointet, The Halved Painting, 1974. Performance view, University of California, Irvine, 1974. Deborah Coates.

ONE OF THE SONGS I had in constant rotation for years in my car in Los Angeles was David Stephenson and Richard Bell’s “I Want to Hang Out with Ed Ruscha”: “I want to pack up and fly to LA / I want to hang out with Ed Ruscha / He makes the words and light interplay / He puts cool into LA / That’s Ed Ruscha.” It was on a compilation CD commemorating the late Giovanni Intra, the mercurial New Zealander who was a founder and the pied piper of China Art Objects gallery in Los Angeles for four short years. Like the French-born artist and LA immigrant Guy de Cointet, whose work is the topic at hand, Intra’s light burned fast and bright. The impact he had on his host city and its resident artists was profound and indelible. He must have loved that catchy Ruscha tribute (I assume that’s why it’s on the disc) for the way its languid phrasing and cool temperature crystallize the exotic, archly existential, and deeply humorous posture of a certain kind of Conceptual art that has emanated from LA for more than thirty years now. Coming from one of the most beautiful and extreme landscapes in the Pacific, Intra somehow understood the weird confluence of light and text that infused Ruscha’s best text paintings of the 1980s and the coolness that characterizes his body of work as a whole.

But then the nausea took over again. And trembling and shaking, for some reason, she lost her balance and fell into the river. Fortunately, two persons, two gentlemen, with a slight accent from Luxembourg, caught her just in time!
—Guy de Cointet, from Oh, a Bear!, 1978

According to those who knew him—and no one seems to have known him very well—Cointet’s time in Los Angeles was deeply imprinted by his experience of the popular culture there and the surreal beauty of the California exotic. He lived in a loft in Little Tokyo long before it was colonized by artists, and there he listened voraciously to Chinese, Filipino, and Mexican radio stations, which provided the sound track to his steady diet of television soap operas in as many languages as pre-cable Los Angeles had to offer. Cointet had moved to LA in 1968, and he remained there until his death in 1983, of AIDS. As suddenly as he had arrived on the scene, he disappeared into the hospital, having deteriorated quickly from what his doctors mistook to be hepatitis.

Fully at home as a cultural transplant in a city often caricatured, to this day, as a cultural wasteland, Cointet made theatrical performances that defy categorization and yet are absolutely central to a largely unmined history of Conceptual performance art as it unfolded on the West Coast. Like that of his contemporary Ruscha, Cointet’s involvement with language was of a largely pedestrian kind. More often overheard than read, his sources were of the down-market variety—the smarmy cadences of ’70s television advertising, the trashy condescension of fashion magazines, the loopy hysteria of soap-opera confessionals, and the random brilliance of eavesdropped conversations—and together they contributed subplots about food, beauty, dieting, and love.

The land lays silent, still, under the brilliant sun already starting to set down . . . Only frail butterflies, fearless children of the sun, capricious tyrants of the flowers, are fluttering about audaciously. Their minute shadows hover in the swarms over the dropping blossoms, run lightly on the withering grass, or glide on the dry and cracked earth . . . Oh! It’s starting to rain!
from Ethiopia, 1976

When he moved to Los Angeles from New York, where he had experienced Warhol’s Factory firsthand and had begun to develop his performance theater, Cointet joined artists such as Bas Jan Ader, Michael Asher, David Askevold, John Baldessari, Ger van Elk, Douglas Huebler, David Lamelas, William Leavitt, Allen Ruppersberg, Ruscha, William Wegman, and others who were, at the time, inventing the Conceptualist trope of location. While Robert Smithson was in New Jersey making his non-sites and calling his home state the California of the East in tribute to the left coast, where he had made some of his most ambitious site-related works, artists in Southern California were using the extreme hybridity of the landscape and the locally diverse culture around them to fashion a regional, location-related conceptual language. I think here of Cointet’s ravishing and mysterious Halved Painting, 1974, a landscape of letters with a gash through the middle, a gap that functions as a silence, a challenge to the aural image called up by the title of the latter of two plays in which the painting starred as its leading prop—At Sunrise . . . a Cry Was Heard, 1976. An actress, dressed with Carol Merrill aplomb, narrates an epic journey punctuated by the letters in the painting to which she gestures at critical points in the story line. While a specific location is never revealed, the journey recalls one of Cointet’s (and Ruppersberg’s) favorite fictions, Raymond Roussel’s Impressions of Africa (1910). This mix of a silence that is expressed visually and an aural experience that is described with language or letters but is unintelligible to the audience—this experience of confounded reading, of audiovisual aphasia, is similar to the experience of reading Ruscha’s paintings. Or more to the point of the gap, Ruscha’s paintings of the late ’80s that contain actual chunks of negative space, unpainted moments where words should appear. They appear to function linguistically but don’t, or can’t. In Ruscha’s Nothing Landscape, 1987, for instance, the gap is framed by two trees that act like parentheses around the silence in the middle—a luscious caricature of a landscape that is structured by language and generates only silence.

We used to live there, on a plantation between the Rio Colorado and the Rio Negro, just East of Bahia Blanca.
—from Oh, a Bear!

Like his LA compatriots Ruscha and Ruppersberg, Cointet made books and breathtaking drawings using coded language apparently developed from many sources (his mother was a linguist; as a child during the war, he became intimately familiar with military codes; etc.). The drawings and books can be deciphered and were often narrated in lecturelike monologues in his performances. “Mock professorial” was a frequently employed mode for Cointet’s characters. His first play, Espahor ledet ko uluner!, 1973, was a monologue in which the actor Billy Barty read from the artist’s eponymous book in a kind of overenunciated gibberish, creating narrative interest purely through gesture and intonation. The books and drawings functioned as guides or keys to the embedded and implied narratives that the artist worked out, but also as daily objects, props, or scripts to everyday existence. Cointet’s drawings and books all cycled around the dramatic tableaux and plays he would write and stage for various art houses in Los Angeles (and, later, around the country and in Paris). Like Ruscha’s photographic books, Cointet’s books and drawings are exquisite and opaque, unyielding yet indulgent in their appreciation of the vernacular. One drawing, from around 1976, is a monochromatic, red constructivist landscape of peaks and valleys that apparently spell out the work’s title, I Smoke All the Time, a phrase of hilarious and compulsive rejection of the natural, wholesome beauty that is the Southern California landscape, the backdrop of transgression of all kinds. Campy linguistics dressed up as cool, reductive abstraction.

Cointet’s dramas—Ethiopia, 1976, Iglu, 1977, the incantory Espahor ledet ko uluner!—not only occupied or implicated dystopic locations of desire and otherness, they transported the audience through a narrative of dramatically inflected clichés, non sequiturs, and pulp-fiction fragments. Brightly colored props, oversize geometric forms implying various domestic fragments and resembling a Constructivist reading room, were manipulated by elaborately clothed women (and they were almost always women) performing a kind of hyperfemme drag concocted from the daytime soaps and the self-conscious voyeurism of Warhol’s screen tests. The connection to Warhol is not unimportant, and Cointet would even cast Viva, a Warhol actress, in The Paintings of Sophie Rummel, 1974. The script to Five Sisters, 1982, arguably Cointet’s most resolved and mature play, is a collage of clichéd exclamations about beauty, self-help, and all manner of feigned emotions. Cosmetic surgeons, exotic locales, and New Age tinctures are discussed and punctuate the simple stage directions. The final cadence of the play is a comment on the art world, which returns us to some kind of known reality but renders it as transparent and ridiculous as the facial moisturizer that has been discussed at length in the scene before: “Why are my paintings so disturbing to me, and to Rachel, to Maria, to Dolly? My dealer seems to like them. He says they’re neat and pretty. Maybe he should take a second look at them.” Funny, and a little too close to home.

Guy de Cointet, ca. 1980. Photo: Manuel Fuentes.

She’s presently all alone in the garden of her West Los Angeles home. Showing signs of emotional distress, she aimlessly wanders about hoping to find some comfort in the solitude of this summer night . . . Surrounded by the dark shadows of trees and bushes, the graceful woman is standing arms stretched out, and she seems to address the moon . . .
from Iglu, 1977

Imagine a constellation that might include William Leavitt’s California Patio, 1972, an installation consisting of a sliding glass door of the tract-house variety and a fake potted landscape of the sort one might find on the adjacent patio; Ruppersberg’s Location Piece, 1969, a performative installation comprising a pathetic arrangement of nature’s leftovers in a theatrical construction in an office; Instant Mural, 1974, made by the Chicano collective ASCO (Spanish for nausea): an ephemeral tableau of an artist taped against the wall, suspended in action as if caught, framed on the sidewalk of East LA in a moment of fragility and aesthetic transgression in the geography of the stucco neighborhood; and, finally, David Lamelas’s film The Desert People (1974), in which a collection of characters, including a Native American, a housewife, and a jock, all cruise around the freeways of LA, packed into a sedan, narrating their memories of a Papago Indian reservation, their journey ending with the car careening over a cliff. All synthetic landscapes, all completely familiar and generative.

To get from Cointet to the present, add to this constellation the over-the-top, postpunk, mariachi, Warholian theatrics of the anarchic collaborative duo Martiniano Lopez-Crozet and Milena Muzquiz, who call themselves Los Super Elegantes. Promoted early by Silverlake drag queen Vaginal Davis and supported by artists Stephen Prina and Mike Kelley, who knew Muzquiz at Art Center, Los Super Elegantes brilliantly embody a kind of conceptual mestizaje that could only have been nurtured in Southern California. Also emanating from Los Angeles are the campy conceptual, pseudo-glam-rock stylings of My Barbarian, another performance group, founded in 2000, whose core is Malik Gaines, Jade Gordon, and Alexandro Segade, who claim that their “antic, rock-operative oeuvre synthesizes music, art, and theater through site-responsive spectacles, videos, and recordings.” Squirrel Radio Action, a 2005 performance, video, and radio play commissioned by Pacific Drift for public radio station KPCC in Pasadena, centered around a posse of disease-ridden rodents that make street theater to call attention to their plight. My Barbarian aspire to be famous for nothing, à la Paris Hilton.

Immersed in the pop-culture landscape of Los Angeles, these two groups have emerged in the past few years, producing some provocative and often absurdist performance-based work that is, in fact, deeply connected to the work of Cointet and the history I’m attempting to conjure (of conceptual performance steeped in what Muzquiz of LSE has described as “the shaky-shaky-boom-boom appeal of what we do, no matter how much concrete poetry and readymade Marxism we shovel in”). Muzquiz, who is from Tijuana, has also said, “I can see a border mentality in what I do. I’m not interested in defining things. . . . This natural disregard for origin has something to do with Tijuana in general.” This miscegenation of form—the strategic intermingling of lowbrow Latin pop references (Lopez-Crozet, a native of Buenos Aires via the San Francisco Art Institute, cites Sando, the Argentine Elvis, as a formative influence), French theory, Anglo middlebrow aspirations of taste and decorum, and self-conscious riffing on the art world—seems the perfect remix for the moment. Los Super Elegantes’ 2005 performance at Daniel Hug Gallery in LA’s Chinatown was titled The Technical Vocabulary of an Interior Decorator. The night was warm, the production was a mix of the raunchy, the homegrown, and the slightly pathetic, but it was absolutely fabulous.

The magic of the orchestra was beyond approach. When the first note would start not a sound could be heard from the audience, no matter how large the theater. They would be totally spellbound, hypnotized by the potion of loveliness they saw dancing in front of them, and the combination of sounds more delirious than anything ever heard. There was a French critic who had compared the orchestra to the roar of the minotaur in ancient lore. It was common knowledge the critic was bitter with the group because he had gone deaf as a result of the applause from the final curtain.
—Guy de Cointet, from Ethiopia, 1976

Connie Butler is the Robert Lehman Foundation chief curator of drawings at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.