A computer scanner and a pioneering feminist performance artist

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We think it’s our minds that make us human, but it’s really our hands.

Hands, with their judiciously placed opposable thumbs, enabled humanity’s biological ancestors to better grasp surfaces, manipulate objects, and wield tools.

The hands occupy a preponderant place in the first works of art of humanity: cave paintings, scattered around the world, including one of the oldest in Indonesia, is believed to be nearly 50,000 years old. In the Peruvian Andes, a temple structure at Kotosh, a pre-ceramic archaeological site that dates from 2000 to 1800 BC, features a frieze of two delicately crossed hands.

The hands appear in countless artist studies (Leonardo da Vinci produced extraordinary ones) and in iconic finished works, such as the powerful and oversized right hand of Michelangelo’s sculpture of “David”, ready to go. shoot down Goliath.

The hands, in their various poses, can be used to symbolize power, rejection, friendship, and love. Even in our post-industrial era, there remains something laden with a work that bears the mark of the hand of the artist.

These are the artist’s hands that appear in “Signifier 2”, 2016, by Barbara T. Smith, which is currently on view in a group show at the Cirrus Gallery in downtown Los Angeles. “Holy Squash: Jibz Cameron, Jackie Rines, Barbara T. Smith” was curated by independent critic and curator William J. Simmons and juxtaposes the work of three Los Angeles feminist artists who engage the body in vulnerable, humorous and delusional ways . The name of the show is inspired by a 1971 performance by Smith called “Celebration of the Holy Squash,” who created a religious relic from leftover food.

“Signify 2” is one of a series of works in which Smith scans fragments of his own body on a flatbed scanner, then presents the resulting images as large-scale inkjet prints. These are ghostly, yet elegant – capturing the smudges and paper texture of her aging skin, fingers crooked with arthritis, knuckles turned white by the pressure of the scanner glass. Surrounding her fingers is an ocean cloudy black.

Artist Barbara T. Smith, who helped turn Los Angeles into a center of performance art, in 2011.

(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

The underrated Smith was a key player in the Southern California art scene in the late 1960s and 1970s. She and a group of UC Irvine graduate students, including Chris Burden and Nancy Buchanan , created the F-Space Experimental Gallery in Santa Ana, where Burden staged his infamous performance piece, “Shoot”. Smith also staged works there, such as “Ritual Meal,” from 1969, in which guests donned surgical scrubs and ate an oddly elaborate meal – a plate of cottage cheese with a single chili pepper, hearts of chicken boiled in red wine – as images of the cosmos and a beating heart were projected into space.

F-Space was the site where she produced a small prototype version of her “Field Piece” installation, which was then shown in its entirety for the first time at the Cirrus Gallery in 1971. This work, produced with a team of designers and engineers, consisted of over 180 translucent resin rods, each nearly 10 feet high, through which viewers would wander like ants in the sci-fi grass. The “blades” were designed to become different shades of orange, pink, yellow and purple when participants triggered the delicate wiring underfoot. During the opening event, these participants were naked.

A surviving fragment of the installation was shown as part of “State of Mind: New California Art Circa 1970” at the Orange County Museum of Art in 2011 (as part of the first wave of Pacific Standard Time exhibitions funded by the Getty Foundation and held in Southern California).

The artist has deployed the technology in other curious ways as well. In the mid-1960s, she rented a Xerox machine and began making images of her body juxtaposed with various objects. It was a series born out of rejection.

“I had this idea for a large lithograph, so I went to this lithography studio called Gemini and I said, I would like to do a lithograph at your place and they kind of smiled indulgently, ‘Well , we usually don’t have anyone working here unless they have a gallery, ”she told cultural newspaper The White Review in 2017.“ I realized what was going on and I was right. furious. I thought, well, lithography is not a printing medium of our time, it’s from the 19th century, it’s already in the past. So what is the printing medium of our time? and I thought they were working machines. ”

The most recent works, created on a flatbed scanner in Cirrus’ studio (the gallery is also a print studio), take the idea of ​​the Xerox and bring it up to date. In fact, a work from the new series “Signifier 1”, 2016, which also features his hands, includes a scan of one of those early Xeroxed images.

The scans stopped me dead in my tracks because of how Smith is able to disentangle so much human grace from such cold technology, but also how they record aging – in particular, by a woman. . This is a topic that Smith has touched on in the past. In the 1981 play “Birthdaze”, she revisited her inner states (psychological and erotic) in a performance that marked her 50th birthday. This work included a tantric ritual and a motorbike. (Making me realize that my 50th birthday party, in retrospect, may have missed it.)

Women, for centuries, have been the subject of art – a subject shaped by the male gaze. Their perceptions of their own bodies, especially as they get older, are much less covered. Smith’s scans reminded me of the drawings New York painter Ida Applebroog made of her own genitals when she turned 40. There was something loving and honest about them. Just as there is a tender honesty in Smith’s images of his own hands: hands that have spent a lifetime creating and that still reveal a vibrancy.

“Holy Squash: Jibz Cameron, Jackie Rines, Barbara T. Smith”

Or: Cirrus Gallery, 2011 S. Santa Fe Ave., Downtown Los Angeles
When: Until January 8; the gallery respects the usual hours, with the exception of New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, when it will be closed.
Info: cirrusgallery.com

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