Freckled Gyres: Sculpture by Mowry Baden
This exhibition of the art of Mowry Baden spanned more than thirty years of work by one of Canada's most accomplished artists and Pomona College's most distinguished alumni. Its intent was to examine and celebrate the enduring legacy and far-reaching artistic vision of an extraordinary artist. "Freckled Gyres: Sculpture by Mowry Baden" presented a selection of the artist's "task-oriented" objects completed between 1969 and 2000, along with related drawings. Although it was possible to include only a small sampling of a very large body of work, the exhibition provided important insight into the nature of the artist's work.
A maker of objects whose interest lies in the physical and perceptual interaction between viewer and work of art, Mowry Baden constructs interactive pieces that incorporate bodily participation. The artist's seminal body-oriented works of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and his broader interest in the perceptual and interactive possibilities of art, were influential to generations of artists who were his students, including Kim Adams, Lewis Baltz, Michael Brewster, Chris Burden, Stephen Davis, and Jessica Stockholder. Since that time, he has exhibited in numerous solo and group shows. In 1998 alone, his work was seen in "Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object, 1949-1979," at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; a survey exhibition at Open Space Gallery, in Victoria, British Columbia; and at Otis Art Institute, Los Angeles.
The works that were included in the exhibition further explore the performative nature of Baden's work through a collaborative project undertaken with Pomona English Professor Steven C. Young. Two "transformative" sculptures, Prone Gyres and Freckled Gyres, which are at the heart of this venture, led two lives--as interactive sculptural objects during regular exhibition hours, and as central "props" for theatrical performances based on two short Sam Shepard plays as interpreted by Young. Over the last 15 years, Young has focused on productions of Samuel Beckett's shorter plays; in 1997-98, he designed and built a portable stage for Beckett performances that he took on tour throughout the western United States.
This exhibition represented the third occasion on which Baden and Young have collaborated. The first was a "mapping" project in 1976. In 1992, they worked together again on Wolf Tracker, a work included here. Both earlier collaborations resulted in projects that combined Baden's interest in object making with Young's textual explorations. This, however, was the first time the two have created individual works--within their respective fields of art and theater--and brought them together. Baden's overlapping interests in sculpture, architecture, and perceptual psychology, which reveal themselves in a concern with social and political as well as artistic issues, dovetail instructively with Young's concern for examining and transforming everyday actions, experiences, and dialogue through theatrical interpretations.
"Freckled Gyres: Sculpture by Mowry Baden" explored the artistic process from a variety of points of view. The exhibition addressed the nature of art; the artistic process as a solitary, individualistic pursuit; the role of working drawings; the populist, interactive potential of objects; and the role of collaboration in artistic practice. The exhibition also asked: How is art--the visual arts, theater, and music--altered by contact with another mind--of the collaborator, of the viewer? Does this interaction transform the way we see the work? Does it change our perceptions? By raising questions like these and encouraging us to see the potential of art's intersection with life, Mowry Baden demonstrates, on a fundamental level, the transformative power of art.
Essay by Steven C. Young
Mowry and I go back a long way, so it feels a bit belated that we should only now be collaborating on a combined theater and fine arts project. I first met Mowry when I came to Pomona College over thirty years ago. The details are a little hazy now, but I think Mowry had already been with the College for a little while when I arrived. Through him I met some interesting people, both students and teachers, over at the Art Department and began to run around with them. It was, you might say, an eye-opener. I remember one Saturday when Mowry asked if I'd join a work party at his house up on Eleventh Street in Claremont. He had a pokey little detached garage, the kind that often came along with those early tract houses, and he wanted to convert it into a studio. In particular, he needed more height, because he was making fairly large-scale sculptures back then. So he took a chain saw to the walls just above the door and sawed the roof free. He had rented some timber to build cribbing inside on the slab at each corner, and with a man on the jack at each crib, cranking away on command, we raised his roof. How high? Four feet, six feet, I don't remember now, but it seemed to be going way up in the air, and it swayed ever so slightly as it rose. I was amazed at the wide band of air (outside!) that was right there, between the walls and the roof, going all the way around the building. It seemed a shame that it had to be closed in again.
In those days I had been spending a lot of time in libraries reading books, and books about books, and while I wasn't a complete novice at pounding nails, this was a revelation to me. That someone would not only imagine doing that to a garage, but actually do it, seemed astounding to me, and deeply instructive. As it happened, this was but an early lesson, for since then Mowry and I have worked together many times, and each time has been as deep a pleasure as the roof raising. Our friends are our teachers—it’s as simple, and as complicated, as that.
What I learned from Mowry over the years was complementary to all the great stuff I had been getting out of the books. It had to do with a kind of physical and visual engagement with the world—how the body moves through an environment, what happens, what we can notice about this movement if we pay close attention to it. Two things are important to me about this—first, that this engagement is a possible and rewarding experience in any situation. Yes, I have it when I experience Mowry’s work in the formal and set-apart space of the gallery, but I had it also when I was stretching fence with him out in a field up on my place in Washington State—drawing a long line on the curved earth, seeing what that line did and what side of it I was on. The second important thing about this great lesson was its instrumentality in the work I went on to do, as I began to see what might be done in the way of performing the plays I had been reading. I began to understand that theater is just a fancy word for the body speaking and moving in a special place, and that there were wonderful experiences to be had if I could practice the kind of close physical and visual attention I had so often seen Mowry give to his sculptures.
This project, though far from complete as I write this, has already been rewarding to me, thanks to Mowry, and I have no doubt there is more pleasure to come. Still, what we have in prospect here is some risky business out along the border where art, theater, and music meet. Mowry has altered two of his recent sculptures, turning them into set properties for Tongues and Savage/Love, two plays written by Sam Shepard and Joseph Chaiken. I will be performing the plays, in Mowry's exhibition space, with electronic music by Pomona Professor Tom Flaherty (and a percussionist to be named later). In short, we are for the first time working in each other's bailiwick, and so anticipate unforeseen pleasures and problem-solving opportunities. What has kept me going so far is a peculiar sense of the fit between the texts I'm working with and the experience of Mowry's sculpture, a feeling that the two speak to each other in an implicit way. For me, the sculpture involves physical movement that begins in the utterly pedestrian and everyday—looking, walking, sitting, lying down—physical experiences normally taken for granted, which the sculpture turns into something strange and important. Shepard and Chaiken, by the same token, offer remarkably pedestrian language—ordinary, cliché-ridden American talk that becomes strange and falls through a kind of linguistic trapdoor into a place of heightened consciousness where a great deal is at stake. Thus, both works do the same thing in their own terms. I'm betting that they can accommodate each other, and I look forward to finding out if I can trust my intuition this time around. These days, I’m feeling lucky most of the time.
Steven C. Young is Professor of English, Pomona College.
Mowry Baden Interview
Mowry Baden's Interview
Mowry Baden's artistic terrain is formed not with objects, but with the relationality of viewer to object. Invitations to participate, his works bring us into situations which self-reflexively foreground the impact of our tools on modes of experience. Interaction is solicited by the work's praxical or "task" orientation. A participant is confronted not with a work to contemplate, but with an invitation to engage in a task or an experiment, the goal of which is not immediately apparent. It may be that "task" is too Protestant a term, but neither "play" nor "experiment" seems quite right either, the first suggesting some vague Platonism and the second implying something free of consequence. Perhaps, here in the interview we can reflect on these concerns.
Horne: How about beginnings? You grew up in Southern California, father an architect, mother in real estate, and you studied at Stanford and Pomona. Your early studies in art were in painting, I think. So what took you from the optical realm of painting to the tactile space of sculpture?
Baden: I turned to sculpture to clarify painting problems. Then I added sculptural elements to the paintings, and finally gave up painting altogether.
Horne: It seems to me that teaching has always been an important dimension of your artistic practice, that there is something essential about the integration of your studio practice with teaching, something that has to do with the participatory/pedagogical aspect of your sculpture, and with its "populist" stance. Do you agree?
Baden: At first the interactive work was anything but "populist." I used my own body to test the works. Later, I looked for ways to make the work accessible to people who were bigger or smaller than me. That seemed to open things up a lot. For one thing, a dialogue could ensue between people. After trying the work yourself, you could watch your friend deal with it, but you couldn't get into her body to know what the experience there was really like. You could talk with her about it, hear and offer testimony about it. Maybe narrow the gap. Maybe broaden it. For me, that's what teaching is, the simple act of listening carefully, speaking clearly, and savoring disagreements.
Horne: What does it mean to call your works sculpture?
Baden: They may not look like most sculpture, but that's not the important thing. Beckett's plays, for example, barely qualified as theatre, and there were many who saw the Blin production of Waiting for Godot who said it couldn't be thought of as theatre. There are plenty of people who'll say that Gordon Matta Clark was not an architect, but it turns out he was one of the century's best.
Bob Perlman would say:
"As long as there's even one category there's room for improvement and nothing else, all the way to the top, everybody has that right. If one pyramid gets too crowded, start your own." (from "The View from the Dollar Bill," in Face Value, p. 23)
Is cinema or painting or theatre or dance a better category? Architecture may come closest. Truly great buildings give precision to the visitor's movements-enough precision to make anyone who might enter feel the emergence of an unfamiliar and destabilizing body within themselves.
Of course this is all hindsight, but in retrospect, sculpture is the only cultural norm that would come close to a fit, given my peculiar needs and skills and the habits of the time.
Horne: I guess there is a more obvious question here, and that is: Why did you adopt an object-oriented practice, rather than taking on ephemerality, either in the direction of the social context, as Michael Asher did, or through an explicit integration into the architectural space, like Robert Irwin, for example?
Baden: I've been less puritanical of late and have allowed greater material particularity in the work. An odd turn for a practice dedicated to decentering vision.
It's not that the object and the gallery go away, but rather that their allure and particularity deteriorate as the viewer enters the object and rides her body into and through an experience that is visceral, internal, and sensorially cross-circuited. Call it a crisis that dislodges the object's anchor. Maybe it's not ephemeral in the true sense of the term, but it's certainly elusive and brief.
When the crisis is over, we take up where we left off; we rediscover the gallery and find it and the object alien or familiar, substantiated or rendered suspect.
Horne: What about the sciences and architecture, which show up frequently in your work?
Baden: My father was an architect, and so the business was in the home, and I got a long look at the hard side of it. Maybe my father's life was one that I was unwilling to repeat; though of course we do repeat our parents' lives in many other ways. Frank Baden was hugely generous with his time where his children were concerned. It seemed that the most interesting thing in his life was some project we were doing with his help. He taught me most of what I know about making things. He showed me how to model in clay, how to draw and make watercolors, how to use all of the tools in his large shop, how to lay out information in plan and elevation. He knew a lot about conceptualizing and building things and wanted to share it all. When it was clear that he'd taught me all he knew, say about portraiture, he hired an artist-friend to carry on where he left off. My mother wanted me to be a doctor, like her father. I was sorry to disappoint her, but she took some consolation in the fact that I spent so much of my time teaching, and she saw an affinity there with the healing arts.
And science. So much art betrays a casual dalliance with science. My soft spot is for perceptual psychology-the gestalt version (American branch). It's now pretty much in the dustbin, having been replaced by neurophysiology and cognitive science. Nonetheless, I remain convinced that the perceptual lode still bears ore and will be mined for generations to come, particularly by artists who never need to explain how the brain works anyway.
Horne: Your sculptures are usually free-standing objects that suggest mundane pieces of equipment, from the early seat belts pieces up to Freckled Gyres, 1999, which incorporates an ordinary domestic chair. And although there is the possibility of bodily interaction with the work, it is also possible to walk up to one of your sculptures and look at it in the conventional way, finding it interesting or not. How would you describe the connection between the visual/formal aspect of your works and their relationship to the conceptual tradition?
Baden: In its early stages, some people saw my practice as part of the conceptualist agenda. The seat belts, for example, have almost no allure as objects. They lie in a pathetic pile on the floor without a trace of the heroic. They can only gain scale, size, significance, and psychological "mass" when worn and tested. By ordinary people. Is that a conceptualist preoccupation? That a proposition belonging ordinarily in one context loses its customary authority when it is introduced into another?
Horne: Your work could be considered along with the work of other artists such as Lygia Clark, Michael Asher, or Robert Irwin, who also moved away from the building of "interesting objects" into the social dynamics of place and visibility, into ephemerality, yet with some ambitions similar to yours and rejecting, as you do, the "stand back and look at it" principle. I wonder if this is where your works belong within the great trajectory of "conceptual" art or "dematerialized" art?
Baden: I have a lot of empathy for Asher's work and am plain amazed at the richness and complexity of many of his early pieces. The one I know best is the work he made at Pomona College, which I helped build. In 1970, he made two interconnected triangular gallery spaces. He removed the gallery doors, thereby opening the piece to 24-hour access. Walls, ceiling, and floor were painted white. The illumination came principally from daylight or, at night, from nearby streetlights. The visual experience was not unlike "whiteout" in dense fog. Acoustically, the inner triangular room resonated with existing sounds coming through the open gallery doors from points up to half a mile away. Curious, isn't it? This practice with so much and, at the same time, so little materiality.
As for Lygia Clark, it seems to me that removing herself from the art arena liberated her. Her practice could then focus on individuals, her unusual openness allowing her to see how an interaction with an object could reach deep into a troubled mind and make revelations possible. From what little I've seen of her work, the material consequences were slight. As inconsequential as a plastic bag filled with water and held in the hand.
Horne: There is a real tangle here, between different understandings of illusion, permanence, and the "autonomy of art." There are many defenses of "illusion" in art, and generally, they tend to argue for the isolation of art and against its integration into the realms of technics, commerce, and entertainment. Defenders of minimalism construe autonomy in other ways, but perhaps you have another take?
Baden: This question set me to thinking about early modernism. And I thought about Mallarmé. Charles Rosen said about him that "His poems may be said to detach themselves partially from the literary tradition that made them possible-at least they appeal over the head of that tradition to manifest themselves as part of the language itself, but a language purified of the ordinary slipshod meanings it has in life, cleansed of the daily need simply to communicate. 'To give a purer sense to the words of the tribe' is perhaps the most often quoted line of Mallarmé." Apparently, what Mallarmé said in an earlier version of this poem was, "To give too pure a sense" (we are indebted to some indefatigable scholar for this gem). My take is that Mallarmé, yes, wants to outrun instrumental language, and at the same time, yes, wants to say that the task is too great and even a little ridiculous.
Horne: The status of your works as "equipment" is interestingly ambiguous because of their simultaneous allegiance to the autonomous status of art. The real is the permanent, the illusory is the temporal. You intervene into this proposition with your devices, sculptures that can self-reflexively help us untangle this mess. Isn't it paradoxical that you use "machines" to deconstruct our cultural appetite for illusion, this appetite understood as a consequence of our technology's drive to put the flux of life on permanent hold?
Baden: First a note about my material fabrications. Everything I do in the studio, I do in the simplest and most uncomplicated way; it's all at a pygmy level (no Boeing 747 is being assembled in the studio, and no DNA-mapping apparatus is being applied there to a single cell). We are artists, after all, and work best at our lofty ambitions with modest means
For the other part of the question, about technology writ large: To know what our neighbor knows takes some doing. Reading the same newspapers and fitting our bodies to the same machines gives some comfort, but the isolation persists. Freckled Gyres is a machine and it does produce a spectacle. See, however, that people try to explain to one another what happens inside the spectacle and inside their own bodies. This is more than a distraction. On a good day, the machine's authority dwindles. Only the impulse to tell the way through a crisis remains.
Stephen Horne is an artist and writer who lives in Canada and France. He teaches an annual course in Media Arts at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. His writings are regularly published in Third Text, Art Press, and Parachute.