Beyond the Beatles, Dylan, mini skirts, hippies, pop art and idiotic military adventures in Asia that became hopeless quagmires, the 1960s also gave us the less heralded yet enduring aesthetic movements known as conceptualism and process art. Conceptual art stressed ideas over such traditional devices as formal composition and painterly representation. Process art similarly emphasized non-traditional approaches including the use of unorthodox methods, materials and circumstances.
But not all processes are intentional, nor are circumstances necessarily chosen by the artist, or even known to the artist for that matter. Or so Los Angeles artist Arnold Mesches found out when he learned that the FBI had been spying on him for decades. He decided to use the Freedom of Information Act to obtain copies of the relevant documents and what came to light was appalling but at times also intriguing as he learned which of his friends, students, neighbors and even lovers had actually been FBI informants. It was all there in copies of official documents that resembled something Orwell or Kafka might have cooked up in a fit of paranoia.
But those reams of official paper also possessed a sort of beauty, he thought. Those big black blobs where the too-sensitive portions had been blacked out were abstractly expressionistic in their suggestion of brush strokes a la Franz Kline or Mark Rothko. So he incorporated them in a series of collages that combine the FBI's record of the minutest details of his life with photos and drawings depicting the epochal events of those times, going back to his first protests against the excesses of the McCarthy era in the late 1940s. Over the years the feds never got anything on Mesches, now 82, beyond mere protest activity, yet they continued to spy on him until well into the 1970s. The resulting collages, which he calls "illuminated manuscripts," were sparked in part by recent federal crackdowns in the wake of 9/11. Grouped as an installation, they convey something of the mind-boggling scale and pettiness of those taxpayer-financed surveillance records, which Mesches deftly subverts by transforming them into collaborative works of art, thus co-opting the feds and becoming "subversive" in ways the FBI never imagined.
For Robin Levy, being a human female is a concept as well as a process in which aging and child bearing play defining roles. Her elegantly minimal Confronting Our Bodies installation is made up of works created over the past decade that explore passages in her own life while sometimes utilizing her mother as counterpoint. One largish digital color photograph depicts what at first appears to be a woman's legs viewed frontally from the lower thighs to the feet. But, although they are similarly shaped, the leg on the left is tanner and firmer than the leg on the right, a discrepancy explained by the title, In Vein #1 (Mother and Daughter). In Vein #3 makes such differences graphically clear via the web of varicose veins that help distinguish the older leg from the younger. Other Mother and Daughter pairings include a series of similarly matched feet cast in plaster and finished to resemble alabaster.
More mysterious is Modest Impressions, a large sheet of lead mounted on the wall with a chain swing hanging in front. Marked by odd indentations, it is suggestive, but of what? Of swinging -- as a process employed by an artist to make minimalist sculpture with the aid of knee-pads. Yet more mysterious is a large free-form golden bowl hanging from the ceiling. Suggesting an antique ritual object, it is revealed by its title, Vessel (Gold Leaf Belly) as a body casting dating from pregnancy. Similarly, some delicate cloth pouches in a wooden drawer titled Erogenous Zones (Ears, Nose, Toes, Muslin Coverings) refer to "reclaiming" her body after pregnancy. All of this is quite personal, and Levy excels at the delicate touch. Her Take It Or Leave It series of cast plaster breasts is also personal, yet this and related works allude to the extent that the breast has become a consumer commodity in America, a subject of cosmetic manipulations and "wardrobe malfunctions" that are about as public as something so personal can get. And it is this odd nexus of the personal and the impersonal that Levy's autobiographical efforts explore with near-scientific detachment.
- Wicked web: The varicose veins of Robin Levy's In Vein #3 makes clear the graphic differences between the older and younger subjects of her work.