At CCA's Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, work by current graduate fine arts students occupies the two ground-floor galleries in an expansive exhibition inspired by John Baldessari's teaching notes. Provided with 109 prompts to choose from, the artists created 65 separate and diverse works for John Baldessari: Class Assignments, (Optional), ranging from video and sound pieces to scuptures, paintings, and one-night only performances.
Drawn from a course Baldessari taught at CalArts in the 1970s titled "Post Studio Art," the Wattis exhibition resembles an enormous class pin-up. The walls of both galleries are covered floor to ceiling with both artwork and stretched canvases of various sizes printed with each of the directives. Dark canvases denote completed assignments; light canvases remain unrealized.
The overall result is visual overload. Instead of wall labels, viewers are given another list of the 109 assignments. This provides the artists' names and the titles of their work, linking pieces to their corresponding prompt. With so much text on the walls and in your hands (some of the assignments are full paragraphs), it seems necessary to make these connections. As a result, many of the works do no feel complete until you've identified their companion text and followed the progression from Baldessari's original idea to finished interpretation.
If you can't link an object to an assignment, you may not be able to figure out who made it, an unfortunate situation that adds to the chaos. One mysterious piece was a strange but formal letter from a supposed city employee, Scott Elster, to the registry of the International Time Capsule Society. Is this Byron Peters' Untitled, as I eventually deduced? The exhibition materials gave me no way of knowing for sure.
Megan Lavelle, Long DistanceOther pieces that stood out were compelling without relying on Baldessari's assignments for explanation. These include Megan Lavelle's Long Distance, an arrangement of a worn seascape print, a conch shell, and a cell phone placed specimen-like under a glass dome. "PICK UP & LISTEN" reads the small label in front of the shell. A corresponding label in front of the phone encourages you to call a specific number and leave a message. Obliging, I heard the sound of seagulls coming from under the glass (the phone's ring) and then listened to crashing waves (the voicemail greeting) before leaving my message. The charming multi-sensory experience was complete, no further reading necessary.
In Cara Levine's We Have Lift Off, the artist attempts to convince her dog to jump through a circular hoop on top of Bernal Hill. The dramatic setting and the futility of her efforts make for a particularly funny sequence of events. Baldessari asks "What kind of art can be done with real animals?" Levine responds to the question and its tone, creating a lighthearted, amusing and infinitely watchable short video.
Elizabeth Eicher and Hèléne Schlumberger, Praise DuelI also particularly enjoyed Elizabeth Eicher and Hèléne Schlumberger's Praise Duel. Two television monitors face each other showing two sets of hands isolated against black backgrounds. The hands gesture back and forth just as a viewer can only see one monitor at a time, mimicking a tennis-match of silent conversation.
Many of the works exude Baldessari's playful sense humor, including those mentioned above. Providing the artists with a cut and dry starting point for the production of new work, Baldessari's assignments obviate the often harsh "whys" of MFA critiques. This freedom, however visible in the joyful execution of the art, is then unfortunately contradicted and undermined by the heavy-handed installation. Instead of presenting a slickly professional Wattis show (an example of which is upstairs in the 101 Collection: Route 3 exhibition), John Baldessari: Class Assignments, (Optional) opts for overcrowding and over explanation, drowning out proof that Baldessari's assignments can still provide fodder for innovative art making, even 40 years later.
John Baldessari: Class Assignments, (Optional) is on view at the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts through March 31, 2012. For more information visit wattis.org.