The Buffalo News
Date: Friday, March 12, 2004
By: BY BRUCE ADAMS – News Contributing Reviewer
Illustration: Jackson Mac Low’s “A Vocabularly for Sharon Belle Mattlin” offers a jumble of seemingly random words.
WHEN: Through March 21
WHERE: Burchfield-Penney Art Center, 1300 Elmwood Ave.
In the anarchistic frenzy of the 1960s and early 1970s, new art movements were sprouting up faster than hair on men’s faces. Pop, minimalism, conceptualism, feminist art, body art, arte povera, earth art and sound art, to name a few, burst onto the cultural scene about the same time as the Beatles, bell-bottoms and hallucinogenic drugs.
Not surprisingly, many art styles and new mediums introduced during this rebellious period had the goal of upsetting the art establishment and life in general.
In this spirit of cultural revolution, where social goals often took precedence over aesthetic ones, the art movement known as Fluxus was born.
Around the same time Fluxus was gaining momentum, Buffalo was emerging as a major center for experimental music and literature thanks to a handful of forward-thinking faculty members at the University at Buffalo. Writers and composers such as Dick Higgins, Jackson Mac Low, La Monte Young and John Cage lived in, or regularly visited, Western New York, making it a world-renowned hub for Fluxus activity.
Recent interest in the movement has seen Buffalo-based ensembles once again staging idiosyncratic performances and events under the Fluxus label. “Fluxus/Realization,” an exhibition of Fluxus works and related music realizations in the Burchfield-Penney Art Center, pays tribute to the artists, writers and composers, a number of them local, who contributed to this influential art movement.
Many of the items in this display of musical notations, graphics, text documents and related sundry materials straddle the line between art and artifact. For instance, Earl Brown’s graphic score, “4 Systems, for David Tudor on a Birthday, January 20, 1954” is a historically important music document that also operates as a visual composition.
Looking like a tiny minimalist drawing made up of varying lengths of black horizontal lines on white paper, it underscores the relationship between music and visual art. Brown graphically conceptualizes auditory sensations as a road map for musical performance. Written instructions state that it can be played either side up and and in any tempo. The viewer is left to imagine the performance that might result.
Associating art with music is not the exclusive domain of Fluxus artists. However, Fluxus artists often go beyond mere association. Renowned cellist Frances-Marie Uitti, for instance, once “performed” Robert Rauschenberg’s abstract-expressionist painting “Ace” in the Albright-Knox using the massive work as sheet music.
In the current exhibition, Higgins cuts out the middleman by creating art specifically designed for musical performance. His “Variations on a Natural Theme for Orchestra” is a musical score consisting of rows of music staffs superimposed by the faint image of a person lounging in an outdoor setting. The pale brown figure, made up of many fine horizontal lines, presumably guides the musical performance. Or maybe the performer simply draws inspiration from the pastoral images. It doesn’t matter. Higgins’ real intent is to challenge our conceptions of both music and art.
Literary works in the show also frequently take the form of visual art. Michael Basinski’s “Mata Hari Rides in on Elephants” is an amusing arrangement of collage, text and drawing, reminiscent of psychedelic poster art. Viewers in search of literal meaning among the densely composed sentence fragments and mock hieroglyphics will be disappointed. Basinski is too busy having fun.
Mac Low’s “A Vocabularly for Sharon Belle Mattlin” offers a jumble of seemingly random words that can presumably be “read” in any direction. Or you can simply appreciate the complex patterns that materialize while you stare at it.
Yoko Ono was a founder of Fluxus. Her printed verbal score, “Map Piece 2001: Draw Imaginary Maps of your Dreams” (that’s the whole text) anticipates the conceptual art of Sol Lewitt, Jenny Holzer and others.
Other interesting works include: “The Square Heads,” a mock album cover design and raucous lampoon of indie rock’s posturing and self-aggrandizing liner notes. Higgins’ poster “Some Poetry Intermedia” graphically and poetically delineates the Fluxus approach to performance.
The decision by curator Don Metz to omit from the label any mention of the medium of a work contributes to the impression that these are more historical pieces than art objects.
And of course, the problem with any static display of Fluxus material is that it lacks, well — flux. Metz addresses this by providing a selection of experimental music CDs and a videotape of the recent Fluxus-like Burchfield event, “24:48: A video/performance/installation.”
Still, safely preserved under glass, these objects feel incomplete. They cry out to be taken down and handled — to be part of an action.
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