by Mark Van Proyen
“Avalanche” published their last number in the Summer of 1976. The previous Spring, the inaugural issue of “October” came out, so we can easily indentify that three-month overlap as representing a momentous transfer of emphasis (read: power) from the cult of the artist to that of the theoretician. Even in those heady days, this was truly synonymous with the cult of the curator – much more so than it was with the cult of the critic.
Yes, “Avalanche” was not exactly an artist-run publication (unless you consider its founding editor Willoughby Sharpe a kind of con artist), but it was very much an artist-centered publication, meaning that, within its “galley without walls,” the normal objects of its attention were artists who were imagined to be cult figures, rather than the producers of something deemed worthy of special attention. Oddly, in that first issue of October, founding editor Rosalind Krauss managed to call Sharpe’s bluff in an essay that she wrote, “Video: The Esthetics of Narcissism,” which was a not-so-tacit castigation of the “Avalanche” project, giving Sharpe & Associates no subsequent choice but to fold like a lawn chair. Art world politics can be a bitch.
So, with a keen grasp of the obvious, we can that was then and this is now the entire situation. Confusion ensues when we are asked to nostalgically return to yesteryear’s valorization of conceptual film and/or video practices, and then seek out a deserving sub-40 artist whose work in some way connects to that older tradition. After all, in that post-“Documenta V” moment, almost all of the artists who were featured in “Avalanche” had already gained a major market share of the “Artforum”-powered limelight, even if almost all of them were well under 40.
Now the art world’s limelight is much larger and far more diffuse, meaning that we are burdened by a very different fetish-to-spectacle ratio that was the case during Gerald Ford’s by Mark Van Proyen short stay in the White House. The new moment is characterized by an omnipresent dilution of artistic production, creating a much vaster field of action, but one with very little depth, and for that reason, one that sustains very little interest.
So get this: I am pretty sure that the producers of the television program “Portlandia” are all under 40, and their recent episode about conceptual art that is now all the rage on YouTube (rightfully so, I might add) shows us everything that we need to know about how the theory, practice and physical execution of 1970s conceptual art has been extended into the present moment. But even though I like the idea of being cynical enough to say in print that those producers should receive the accolade sought by this section’s query, I am not going to go there. Instead, I will play the part of an earnest Huckleberry who takes the question seriously.
Enter Susan Husky, who showed at the Wendi Norris gallery last November and December. Her show was titled, “Shovels, Physiocrats and the Light-footed Heavy Souls,” its centerpiece being two films featuring people living “off of the grid,” as parts of intentional, ecologically-oriented communities. One of these films, “Wash”, (2012, 71 minutes) featured people bathing in captured rainwater. These people were neither naked (i.e. vulnerable) nor erotically idealized as being nude; instead, they simply adopted a businesslike attitude to the task of caring for the body in water that looked uncomfortably cold.
Husky treated her subjects with a light albeit deadpan videographic touch that wryly contrasted the theatrical/anti-theatrical character of the ‘70s body art that was often celebrated in “Avalanche”. Part of the reason for this is that for Husky and others of her generation, video is no big deal; while for many “Avalanche”-featured artists, it had all of the novelty of new fangled technology. Because of that new comfort level, the bathers in Husky’s film seem not so much oblivious to the condition of voyeuristic surveillance that they inhabit, but rather, simply and indifferently acclimated to it; accepting it as a normal and materially concrete fact rather than an occasion for narcissistic shenanigans or puritanical shame.
This article was selected from Issue 13 of SFAQ.