Not to be outdone by last year's CCA centennial survey at the Oakland Museum, the Berkeley Art Museum is currently offering a vanity exhibition of its own. Assembled by BAM's Elizabeth Thomas, MATRIX/REDUX is a self-curated look at the Museum's acclaimed program of a similar name.
Begun in 1978 by then BAM director, James Elliot, the MATRIX program was a way to present -- almost immediately -- work from rising or influential contemporary artists. The idea was revolutionary for its time. In the late '70s it took most museums a few years of planning to mount exhibitions of art. MATRIX shows could be up and running in a few months.
Nowadays, MATRIX is the norm, and any museum of modern art worth its nettle has a similar project space program of its own.
MATRIX/REDUX, the show, is a grab bag of work from about a quarter of the artists seen in the more than 220 exhibitions. I say grab bag because, well, outside of the obvious connection of folks once featured in MATRIX there isn't really anything connecting the work. Tossed around the Museum's numerous bays are fine examples of pieces from Richard Misrach, Ed Rushca, Julie Mehretu, Robert Bechtle and Louise Bourgeois.
Midway through a trudge into the show, a realization arose -- contemporary art before Clinton (Bill, that is) was a lot funnier. I'm not saying the art world of the '70s and '80s was a laugh riot, but it certainly had more jokers in it than it does now.
1986 appears to have been the year that contemporary art visited the Friars Club. Even though that was the year that Columbia blew up, Chernobyl melted down and we bombed the hell out of Libya, work created in 1986 by three artists in the show oscillates between cynical and funny.
Lutz Bacher's collaged photos (found news pictures with a cartoon caption balloon added by the artist) had me laughing out loud. Alongside Johnny Carson berating Ed McMahon for brown-nosing, Bacher has Henry Kissinger announcing to Gerald Ford, "seen one president, seen them all."
Not to be outdone, Adrian Piper's My Calling (Card) #2 is equally smug in its smart-assness. Offset printed on card stock and slightly larger than a business card, the piece goes like this "dear friend, I am not here to pick anyone up, or to be picked up... I am here alone because I want to be here ALONE."
And Raymond Pettibon, the bon vivant of punk rock art, offered a charmingly simple pen and ink drawing of a pair of glazed over eyes staring into space, scratched in underneath the word "drugs."
It's not that art isn't occasionally funny now. Sure, Paul Kos's Pilot Butte from '06, a digital broadcast of a real life grassy pasture onto a lushly painted monochrome canvas, could easily be read as a hilarious comment on Bay Area field painters. But I would much rather put my money down on Zoe Leonard's 1990 Frontal View, an upskirt photo of a model in a Geoffrey Beene fashion show. It's as if Andrew Dice Clay grabbed a camera and headed for the runway.
Part one of MATRIX/REDUX is up now through May 18, 2008. Some of the pieces will removed and the rest will remain on view through July 20.