Santa Barbara

“Dialogue/Discourse/Research”

Santa Barbara Museum of Art

“Dialogue/Discourse/Research’’ gathers six people—David Antin, Eleanor Antin, Helen and Newton Harrison, Fred Lonidier, and Barbara Strasen. Despite a rhetorical attempt to consider the six allied by a post-modernist attitude, in that ”they recognize that there is no domain of human investigation that can not also be the province of the visual artist," the evidence as shown here supports no such alliance. Mr. Antin, as a poet, hardly qualifies as a visual artist—his contribution to the exhibition is a transcript of a recitation he made at the museum. Similarly, Strasen’s work is really not post-anything, but standard illustration. Her extravagant titles (Octopus Empathy: Contemplating Its Own Mortality Through The Eyes Of Its Enemies, for example) are insufficient to lift this work out of its place as minor graphic accomplishment, or, as in the case of a batch of painted plates, pretty handicraft.

What then is common to the remainder of the work shown? To Eleanor Antin’s painted cut-outs, props for her performances as an imaginary ballerina with the Ballets Russes, some related sketches for costumes and sets, and a videotape of her as a waif in the Little Match Girl Ballerina? To Lonidier’s documentary photographs and texts of various injuries to workers and their frustrated attempts at compensation from employers? To the Harrisons’ large-scale collages of aerial maps, photographs, and handwritten texts offering solutions to the continuing pollution problems of California’s Salton Sea? Besides a certain awkwardness with their media, which must be a deliberate acknowledgment of their scorn for “style” as it was known among the formalists of yesteryear, very little.

Eleanor Antin is best in her slapstick performances, real and video-recorded, of imagined incidents in the lives of her other selves: a ballerina, a king, a nurse, and a black movie star. From what I have seen she puts on some first-class amateur vaudeville, all swagger and bravura, which is attractive as psychic therapy. But the rest—the constructions, the drawings, the writing—is marginal.

In a supplementary text about Lonidier in the catalogue Allen Sekula poses the crucial question faced with the “art” of Lonidier and the Harrisons, asking, “How do we produce an art that elicits dialogue rather than uncritical pseudopolitical affirmation?” Conceding Lonidier’s accuracy as an investigative reporter and the Harrisons’ claim to scientific validity, dialogue further requires an informed and interested correspondent. But their insistence on an esthetic context for their work, be it gallery or museum, precludes reaching that audience, thus diminishing its power as catalyst. Curious social realism, this, too shy to have much real impact.

Richard Armstrong