Low Life Slow Life, an exhibit curated by Paul McCarthy at the CCA Wattis Institute of Contemporary Arts is billed as showcasing “a wide range of artists and artworks related to memories from McCarthy’s career.” In this sense, the result is very true to its word. Vitrines filled with ephemera from McCarthy’s own collection are scattered throughout the Wattis’s downstairs gallery. Included are record albums by Karlheinz Stockhausen, coffee-table size books on Happenings, and other tidbits of the post 1950s, pre mid-1970s art world. A binder of plastic sleeved, loose-leaf Xerox copies contains an archive of images of canonical works by some of the mid-century’s most famous artists, along with related advertisements and exhibition announcements.
Both the vitrines and binder capture a very revealing glimpse into the mind of McCarthy. The influences that are often inferred in observations of his own work are made, almost too easily, concrete just by scanning through these visual notes. The slightly unfortunate outcome of this format, however, is that the majority of the materials in the show are not original artworks. Much of the work is presented as photographic reproductions, mounted and hung in a style not far from the displays in regional history museums. For example, a number of photographic documents of Yves Klein’s Leap into the Void (1960) adequately illustrate McCarthy’s connection to Klein’s history-making face-first jump off the roof of a Paris building. The small size of the reproductions of the now famous photographs, diminishes the intensity of a performance piece which marked the beginning of a new era of art practices. This feeling continues throughout the exhibit with the photographs of Yoko Ono during the performance of her Cut Piece in 1965 and Gutai group member Kazuo Shiraga crashing through a row of paper panels.
It seems, in the end, that the most authentically historical aspect of the exhibit could perhaps be the film screenings which McCarthy curated to accompany the exhibit -- a night of Stan Brackhage films, and one of Bruce Nauman’s, along with more screenings of artists ranging from Stan VanDerBeek to Yayoi Kusama, Bruce Conner to Yoko Ono. Unfortunately, only about half of these documents are presented in their original format--some are on film, while a number have been transferred to DVD.
Although an ambitious document of both the famous and the obscure stimuli on McCarthy’s career, the exhibit seems more like a prime example of curation out of control. The result, instead of that of a collection of works by artists admired by McCarthy, becomes a sort of artwork in itself, the curator’s statement overwhelming the work curated.
-- Ava Jancar
(*Images, from top to bottom: Paul McCarthy's Low Life Slow Life, February 7 - April 12, 2008; CCA Wattis Institute, Wally Hedrick, Christmas Tree, c. 1955, mixed media (artwork is no longer in existence), courtesy of Wally Hedrick Trust, Berkeley, CA. Paul McCarthy's Low Life Slow Life, February 7 - April 12, 2008; CCA Wattis Institute, Yves Klein, Un homme dans l'espace! Le peintre de l'espace se jette dans le vide!, 1960, photomontage: Harry Shunk, courtesy Yves Klein Archives, Paris. Paul McCarthy's Low Life Slow Life, February 7 - April 12, 2008; CCA Wattis Institute, Stan Brakhage, Dog Star Man, Part 2, 1963, film stills, courtesy of the Estate of Stan Brakhage and Fred Camper, www.fredcamper.com.)