When people talk of theatricality in art, typically they mean the notional ‘stage presence’ that Michael Fried ascribed to minimalist art in 1967, rather than the hot lights, heavy blackout curtains and uncomfortable seating of actual theatres. Other times, theatricality alludes to a sense of contrivance coupled with a frontal mode of address: a structural dynamic rather than a dramatic tone.
There are certain moments in ‘Per Proscenia’ – an exhibition of works made between 1969 and 1993 by three Los Angeles-based artists – when the particular textures and atmospherics of black-box theatres come very much to mind. Curator Jeanne Dreskin has brought together three artists previously unknown to me – Walter Askin, Elizabeth Bain and Sandra Vista – whose paintings, drawings, sculptures and mixed-media constructions all explicitly or implicitly emulate the formal conventions of the stage.
The exhibition is enjoyable, in large part, because it serves as a time capsule: a revealing insight into how these artists responded to their environments. According to the press release, Bain’s mixed-media reliefs and cut-paper constructions were partly inspired by the nighttime view of downtown Los Angeles from her studio window. Modestly sized pieces such as Construction for the Absolute 1 (1978) and Neon Riser (1980–81) are assembled from painted sections of wood in crepuscular shades of blue and brown, the former with tiny, twinkling LED lights set into one panel. They feel nothing like untidy cityscapes but, rather, the simplified, elemental forms of the postmodern urban design that was reshaping the plazas of downtown Los Angeles around that time. Between and behind the painted wooden shapes, Bain has backed the assemblages with ruched black fabric, implying that public urban space is as much a stage as any theatre.
What feels so redolent of the physical realities of the theatre in Bain’s work, as with one sculpture by Askin, is the way it flicks back and forth between projecting idealized, almost virtual apparitions – as a stage set might appear under bright lighting – and its actual materials, which are blocks of hand-painted wood, glued together nearly 40 years ago. To an extraordinary degree, the theatre demands – and rewards – the suspension of disbelief, if the audience is not distracted by the curtain’s disobedient fold, the crusted layers of black floor-paint or the drip of sweat curdling an actor’s makeup. In Askin’s marvellous Polyplanograph (1969–70), graphic vinyl decals depict a surrealist scene on stacked panels of cerise Perspex, held in place by a blue-painted wooden box that also illuminates the panels from within. Different layers of the image appear and disappear from various angles. Despite the strange brilliance of the glowing scene, however, it is impossible to escape reflections of one’s own stooping body in the Perspex or not to notice the glue and roundhead screws that hold the whole fantasy together.
The proscenium is not part of the stage itself but the frame that distinguishes the zone of the audience from that of the players. It both disappears from view and is omnipresent. In his figurative tableaux, Askin’s compositions are framed from within so comprehensively (shelves, door-frames, curtains) that when the proscenium appears – the wood frame around the canvas – it seems rather superfluous. In-vigorating in this context are Vista’s paintings on unstretched canvas, which curl away from the wall at the sides, themselves rather like curtains or hanging backdrops. In the superb Margarita Iowa (1985), an irregularly shaped field (let’s call it a stage) of pure pink is populated by forms halfway between furniture and bodies. Surrounding this stage is a blue area that evokes the kind of boldly patterned carpet you might find in a theatre: designed to tolerate chewing gum, drink spillages and heavy wear. Vista, who remains associated with the Pattern and Decoration movement, acknowledges the hierarchical distinctions between the auditorium and the stage, between pattern and purity.
‘Per Proscenia’ was on view at JOAN, Los Angeles, from 13 May until 24 June 2018.
Main image: Elizabeth Bain in 'Per Proscenia', 2018, installation view, JOAN, Los Angeles. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Paul Salveson