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Los Angeles
Wallace Berman, Robert Heinecken
Armory Center for the Arts
145 N. Raymond Ave., Pasadena, CA 91103
October 3, 2011 - January 22, 2012

by Jared Baxter

It seems appropriate, if almost certainly fortuitous, that at this early though nonetheless media-saturated stage of the election season the Pasadena Armory should choose to foreground the linguistic element of Wallace Berman and Robert Heinecken's work of the 60s and 70s, presented here in dialogue with each other for the first time. Although the show's title specifically references glossolalia, its three subdivisions—Code, Narrative, and Gesture—emphasize the two artists' shared attentions to the rhetoric of the visual image, arresting post-war consumerism's deluge of implicitly and explicitly politicized photographs in ways that themselves have more to do with the rhythmic lock-step of stump speeches than the more anarchic cries of the soul in religious ecstasy.

Take, for instance, Berman's characteristic motif of the period, an image of a hand holding a portable radio, culled from an ad, in which the front panel is removed and replaced by a photograph, a gesture repeated and varied dozens of times across expansive but rigidly gridded compositions. The exhibition curators call our attention to the metaphysical element in these works, typically expressed by Hebrew letters flecking the right hand corners of certain panels, which we are assured add up to mere nonsense, a pseudo-divine idiolect influenced by Berman's study of the Kabbalah and its attention to meanings latent in the numerical values corresponding to the Hebrew alphabet.

To my mind, however, these pieces are not engaged in a search for a transcendent reality above and beyond sensory perception, but rather call our attention to the semiological leveling induced by the in-built linguistic character of mechanically reproduced images, a kind of profane incantation in which a photograph of the cosmos occupies the same compositional and affective space as a photograph of a girl's crossed legs or a ballistic missile. The Hebrew letters, whatever their more esoteric connotations, in this sense work to problematize the viewer's experience of “reading” these images—unsure whether the narrative order implied by their repetitive organization is meant to be read from right to left or left to right, one's attempt to extract meaning is frustrated, leading not to illumination but rather the overwhelmed stupefaction of the holy fool.

Robert Heinecken, (from) Are You Rea, 1964-68, Offset lithographs from a portfolio of 25 Various sizes, in 16 x 20 in frames. Collection Sam Mellon and Julie Deamer-Mellon, Los Angeles, California

By contrast, the tensions in Heinecken's work develop as a form of antagonism to its structure, his compositions voluptuously exceeding their orderly subdivisions. In one such work, the structure of a strip of film negatives at once divides and unites an impossibly eroticized body, devoid of any coherence except the sensuous continuity of its form, composed of a series of partially glimpsed erogenous zones. In another, the series Are You Rea, 1964-68, in which both sides of pages culled from popular magazines are made simultaneously visible, one feels compelled to decode which curve belongs to which image, the mundane content of advertising and everyday reportage transformed into an orgiastic visual puzzle.

Indeed, the sheer sensuous and formal pleasure to be had from Heinecken's work almost makes one wish he had been less anxious to emphasize its political dimensions. However vital his explicit critiques of consumer culture may have been at the time, their relevance seems lost in a world in which such forms of protest have been reintegrated into commercially successful enterprises, such as Shepard Fairey's noxious “Obey” brand. Likewise, a piece in which he printed an image of a Cambodian soldier holding decapitated heads onto the pages of magazines that he then planted in dentists' waiting rooms seems to miss the mark—after all, isn't the everyday way in which such images actually do circulate in contemporary media itself the death of witnessing that neutralizes our response to atrocity by bringing into being the proper distance to a statistic, special effect, or, in this case, shock tactic? 

Yet this piece nonetheless interests me as a loose form of correspondence, to the extent that its concern is less with the art object itself than with its circulation, referring less to itself than to its addressee. As such, it resonates with the inclusion of some of Berman's letters in the Armory show, as well as broader undercurrents in Pacific Standard Time in general. What interests me in these works is their marginality. Insufficient unto themselves, of only slight use in illuminating the historical contexts of the artists who produce them, they draw from non-productive states—Berman writes of getting high after putting his kids to bed, and a letter on display in LACMA's recent Asco retrospective writes of the deadening cumulation of weeks in which the author has been unable to make work. Even the futility of Heinecken's attempt at protest (I doubt, in fact, that he himself expected his gesture to radicalize its unwitting audience) falls, I believe, into this domain.

The significance of the persistence of these artifacts, in the wake of the glut of Bank of America and Getty dollars expended on this present canonization of Southern California's aesthetic riches, lies in their existence as traces of activity having little to do with that of productive accomplishment, attesting instead to the distance between creative cultures and the forces that alchemize these into cultural value. In this light, the Armory show's greatest curatorial strength is that it aims to be a portrait of a friendship, both because and in spite of the fact that the dialogue between Berman and Heinecken has been lost to the past, their voices given over to the ecstasy of forgetting.

Jared Baxter

Top Image: Wallace Berman, Untitled #126, 1964, Single negative photographic image 6 1/2 x 7 in. Courtesy Estate of Wallace Berman and Michael Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles.

Posted by Jared Baxter on 1/17/12

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Wonderful, very interesting work!

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