There are few places where history disappears faster than downtown Los Angeles.
Even the exact location of the original pueblo, to which this quarter owes its claim to being the city's oldest, has been lost to memory. It's known, at least, that Governor de Neve's original plans for the land called for streets running north-south and east-west, in keeping with the grid that has come to typify the megalopolis grown around the site in the 230 years since its founding. Yet the present-day streets of downtown lie slanted some thirty-eight degrees off of cardinal directions, a transformation unexplained by the historical record as it exists today. Among the most intriguing speculations offered to account for the change is the theory that the shift took place gradually, almost subliminally, as the original settlements were destroyed and rebuilt in the wake of earthquakes and floods.
If this is true, it would add a sedimentary depth to the disorientation experienced by many who try to navigate downtown's serpentine streets, themselves evolved, in any case, through just such a process of seismic clearing and radically transformative reconstruction. Take, for instance, the stretch of Main Street between 5th and 6th, marking part of the eastern border of Skid Row. In 1959, a full decade before Stonewall made gay rights a national issue, this block was witness to America's first act of queer resistance to police oppression on a mass scale, when the hustlers and transsexuals who made Cooper's Doughnuts a nightly haunt got sick of LAPD harassment and fought back. Where Stonewall today enjoys National Historical Landmark status, however, those looking to connect with LA's vanguard role in the struggle that that bar has come to symbolize will search in vain. The site where Cooper's, long since demolished, once stood is currently tenanted by a parking garage.
Taken as a whole, the story serves as a reminder that the unique character of Los Angeles has developed not only from the energies of revolution and innovation it's proven capable of harboring, but from the ongoing and evenly pitted conflict of these with those of erasure and forgetting, as well. At present, the point has a particular, if narrower, relevance, as LA gears up for Pacific Standard Time, a sprawling celebration of the emergence of its art scene. Where the event's website summarizes the course of the decades it encompasses as a “birth,” it's worthwhile to recall that few things happen here with such neat linearity. More often than not, things happen and then vanish, only to reappear, ghost-like and at the distance of some years, recognizable but somehow changed, ready to embark on the first or thousandth of an unknowable number of afterlives.
It's this dynamic, as it unfolds both in the city of Los Angeles and in his own practice as a performance artist, that Richard Newton deftly explores in his exhibition at the Jancar Gallery in Chinatown. Proposing its own conjunctions of transsexualism and transience, the show, which focuses mainly on the artist's work from the seventies, likewise runs the risk that befell the Cooper's Doughnuts riot, arriving too soon (a month ahead of the official start of Pacific Standard Time) for its message to be properly received. Nonetheless, Newton makes an eloquent case for the close relationship of LA art-making and failure, a case that's all the more important the more those who seek to enshrine the city as an art capital try to overlook it.
Photo courtesy spiritresurrection.org
Representative in this regard is Get under the table, don't look at the windows, 1980. For this piece, Newton rented a room for a night in the El Dorado residential hotel in downtown LA. (The building still exists.) Once there, visible to the audience only through as wide a crack in the door as the chain-lock allowed, he began to discuss things like friendship, the concept of infinity, and nuclear war survival strategies with a coterie of stuffed animals, drinking heavily and growing increasingly frustrated with their incomprehension.
In part a parody of Joseph Beuys's seminal How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, 1965, Newton's inversions are telling. Where Beuys's performance emphasizes the private space created between himself and the hare, his words withheld from the spectators viewing the action from outside the gallery's locked door, Newton's calls attention to the permeability of his cheap hotel room, where his own monologue could be clearly heard through the cracked-open door and thin walls. This audibility, in turn, compounds the failure of his attempt to communicate; drained of Beuys's shamanic ambitions, Newton expresses a distinctly urban desperation made acute by its forgettability. The only written documentation of the performance is not a transcription of what he said—who cares?—but rather the check that paid for the room.
This last feature, in particular, has taken on a new and probably unanticipated significance in the wake of the increasing institutional acceptance of performance as a serious art form, where documentation, often the sole form of payment an emerging artist receives in exchange for the privilege of using a gallery space, has literally been elevated to the status of currency. Usually taking the form of a video recording, this matter-of-fact approach, with its dubiously careerist undertones, sidesteps the very issue that Newton addresses so successfully both in Get under the table, don't look at the windows and throughout his exhibition. Void of the specificities of space, time, and presence integral to performance as such, he reminds us that documentation deserves to be consciously handled as an independent object, productive of potentially related but necessarily distinct interpretations.
Photo courtesy the Jancar Gallery
Even more radical in this regard is The Man Who Could Eat Glass, also 1980, which took place in the American Hotel in the downtown arts district. Here, photographs depicting Newton in various poses in a room filled with cathode ray tubes and stacks of sliced bread go entirely unexplained by the accompanying text, which consists mainly of an extended transcription of a neighbor's ravings. As such, the rant enacts the erasure of Newton's own actions at the same time as it links this disappearance to their shared precarity in the space they occupy—as the speaker never tires of reminding us, “each and every one of you has got to leave.”
Given the current vogue for vapid reenactments of earlier performances, this is perhaps the most urgently needed advice that Newton's exhibition, on the cusp of Pacific Standard Time, has to offer. The theme is key to the show's centerpiece, Smell a Vagina, 2011. Originally a performance in which viewers, entering one at a time into a room filled with red curtains and plush chairs, were invited to fulfill the promise extended by the title, the work takes on a different and, to my mind, richer significance as an installation, with the eponymous organ conspicuously absent from display. In this form, one experiences a queasy conflict between the warm, womb-like space, complete with a woman's voice seductively entreating visitors to linger over soothing music, and the crass hucksterism of the title, making it painfully clear that we're seeing the vestiges of a show that's long since packed up. As such, Smell a Vagina seems to address the evanescence of the art experience, those few minutes or hours given over to perusing a gallery or museum, shown to be no less single-minded or goal-driven than time spent trawling peep-shows for the eros of their indeterminacy. Whether we find what we're looking for or not, Newton reminds us we can't stay; regardless of where we go when we leave, forwards or backwards, we have to move on.