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Issue 101 September 2006 RSS

Tomorrowland: CalArts in Moving Pictures

Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA

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When Walt and Roy Disney founded the California Institute for the Arts in 1961, creating the first US institution to offer graduate and undergraduate degrees in visual and performing arts, they could hardly have anticipated the array of moving images that would emerge. Daunting though ‘Tomorrow-
land: CalArts in Moving Pictures’ must have been to organize – the series of screenings included over 37 programmes – the wealth of ground-breaking films and videos produced at CalArts made this retrospective long overdue. The animated selections were predictably strong, including works by future Pixar stars such as John Lasseter and an early iteration of the Powerpuff Girls by Craig McCracken, but provocative Conceptual, Post-Studio, Feminist, Queer, documentary, narrative and experimental films were also abundantly represented.

Despite the animation programme’s fame, in the art world CalArts is more often associated with 1970s’ alumni such as James Welling, Matt Mullican and Jack Goldstein. The Curator of ‘Tomorrowland’, Joshua Siegel, decided to tackle the series after seeing Tony Oursler’s eye-poppingly inventive Life of Phillis (1979), in which the artist brilliantly transferred his obsession with painting into video. Originally shown episodically in the lunch-room, this psychosexual melodrama starring a plastic doll evokes instances of filmic illusion ranging from proto-cinematic devices to Georges Méliès, German Expressionism and Alfred Hitchcock. The evening of films entitled ‘World premieres’ included a hilarious Oursler in which human feet approach a variety of shoes then scuttle away, whimpering – a tape the artist had forgotten until recently – and a Welling exploration of the properties of video only previously seen by a handful of CalArts denizens. Many were thrilled with video’s ease and affordability (the Sony Portapak became available in 1965) and were exposed to video as a non-filmic medium in classes led by artists such as John Baldessari and Wolfgang Stoerchle. Baldessari’s open-ended approach is legendary: he started with the idea that art cannot be taught and coined the term ‘Post-Studio Art’ because, having recently burnt his own paintings, he wanted to teach students who weren’t making things with their hands.

Although the CalArts ‘mafia’ is remembered as largely male, more neglected works by women artists included Suzanne Lacy’s faux cooking show Learn Where the Meat Comes From (1976), a feminist tour de force. Political engagement persists in newer works such as Travis Wilkerson’s An Injury to One (2002), a ruminative essay film tying the murder of labour agitator Frank Little to an ecological disaster in Butte, Montana. With avant-gardists like James Benning on the staff, it’s hardly surprising to see intriguing experimental films such as Naomi Uman’s Removed (1999), in which the artist bleached female bodies from porn footage, or Robert Fenz’s luminous black and white Meditations on Revolution, Part III: Soledad (2001), shot in New York and Mexico.

Some former art students recall antagonism between the art and film departments in the early years but also remember benefiting from access to equipment and cinema studies classes. Within the art department competitiveness could be rampant. Such intensity had its rewards – CalArts became crucial to Los Angeles’s growing importance in the American art scene. Oursler remarked that before he went West he thought that in California ‘everyone got a van and became losers or something’. He was hardly the only one to change his mind.

Kristin M. Jones

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First published in
Issue 101, September 2006

by Kristin M. Jones

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