Nancy Buchanan: Ethical Provocations (photo essay)

Audrey Chan

Reviews / 10.01.2012
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Nancy Buchanan, Please Sing Along, 1974, performance. The Woman's Building, Los Angeles (Photograph: Boris Sojka)

Nancy Buchanan is a key figure of the performance art scene and of the feminist art movement that emerged in Southern California during the 1970s. Her works have often positioned the audience as participants in a wider conversation on the gendered and defamilarised body, the perils of commercialised spectatorship and consequences of the increasing militarisation in contemporary society. There is an ethical core to Buchanan’s artistic practice, grounded in the observation of lived history. At the same time, a disarming element of ‘serious play’ characterises many of her performances, installations and works in image and text.

Audrey Chan interviewed Nancy Buchanan at her home and studio in the Mount Washington neighbourhood of Los Angeles. Here, the artist maps her trajectory in her own words, beginning with her education in the progressive and influential art programme at University of California-Irvine, alongside a selection of artworks from the past forty years.

Click through the numbers above to view the works and read Buchanan’s comments.

Buchanan’s works are currently featured in the ‘Pacific Standard Time exhibitions: Under the Big Black Sun at LA MOCA’s Geffen Contemporary (through February 13th 2012), Best Kept Secret: UCI and the Development of Contemporary Art in Southern California, 1964-1971 at the Laguna Art Museum (through 22nd January 2012), and L.A. RAW: Abject Expressionism in Los Angeles, 1945-1980, From Rico Lebrun to Paul McCarthy at the Pasadena Museum of California Art (22 January–20 May 2012). She is co-curator with Kathy Rae Huffman of Exchange and Evolution: Worldwide Video Long Beach 1974-1999 at the Long Beach Museum of Art (through 12February 2012). Pacific Standard Time is the Getty Foundation’s unprecedented initiative to present Los Angeles art made during the formative post-War period of 1945-1980 in an expansive series of exhibitions across Southern California.

Nancy Buchanan, portrait of the artist with her installation, 1971. F Space Gallery, Santa Ana, California. Photograph: Barbara T. Smith

UC Irvine (1965-1971)

‘The University of California at Irvine started out as two or three buildings on a bunch of dirt. But the Art Program always stressed what was going on at the moment, what the thinking about art was at the time. That was a challenge to adjust to as a young student, but once I had, it opened up a whole other way of thinking. I studied drawing with David Hockney and Vija Celmins. Hockney was a very good teacher; he tried to get us to see things differently and he’d set up problems for us. He would also do these things to shock older women who were coming back to complete their teaching degrees and majoring in art. Once he brought in erotic drawings for a book of poetry — he had taken the boy models from a local Californian physique magazine called Teenage Nudist. Vija had us go out and do happenings. She thought that what Allan Kaprow was doing was interesting.

When I was in graduate school, I was fortunate to work with Bob Irwin and Larry Bell, who were amazing in their enthusiasm and the permission they granted to all of us. Irwin would sit down and talk about the importance of the experience of something and that being the artwork. It was another way of being in the world and paying attention. He never tried to tell us what was good art. He just commented on what each person was doing and where they seemed to be going with it. Larry was the same; he was very supportive and they would take us to interesting places like their studios in Venice [California], where they were working with controlling light or where Larry had his coated glass pieces and his big Kinney vacuum-coating chamber. Irwin was involved in the famous Art and Technology’ exhibition at LACMA (1967-1971) and we went to some things in connection with that. We went to openings at Nick Wilder’s. We were younger peers and that was very liberating and very different from being a lowly student.’

Nancy Buchanan and Bob Walker, At Home, 1971, installation with shredded paper, staples, mixed media. F Space Gallery, Santa Ana, California. Photograph: Deris Jeanette

At Home (1971)

‘The group of students at UCI (University of California–Irvine) was very supportive. They included Barbara T. Smith, Bob Walker, Richard Newton, and Chris Burden. Chris got the idea of having our own space because the graduate gallery was really ugly and inadequate. So we paid one hundred dollars each to have a month in an industrial space in Santa Ana, and that was F Space.

So Bob Walker and I had a slot at F Space and we thought, “What are we going to do?” At the time, I had been interested in waste materials. Robert Morris taught at Irvine and did things with big pieces of industrial felt and I was aware of the scatter pieces he had done with raffia. One day we were driving around Santa Ana and I saw this paper recycling place with mounds and mounds of shredded newspaper and I said, “Whoa, that’s really gorgeous stuff.” So we went and got five tons of shredded newspaper and we put it in the gallery. It was about twelve inches deep, and then Bob stapled armfuls on the wall going up about ten or twelve feet high. And we called it At Home, like it was a big nest. One day when I sat in the show, a woman entered the gallery and burst out laughing, then began playing with the paper. She announced, “My husband is the Fire Inspector!” But she didn't have us shut down.’

Nancy Buchanan, Hair Piece, 1970, installation with poodle fur and human hair. UCI Graduate Gallery, Irvine, California. Photograph: Barbara T. Smith

Hair Piece (1970)

‘I then did a piece at Irvine thinking about similar things. I got poodle fur and human hair, which are also waste products but not disgusting like excrement – hair is kind of beautiful. I put poodle fur in the middle of a floor piece, so that it would have a different texture and colour. I invited people to go ahead and walk on it if they wanted to. The critic Barbara Rose, saw it and she said, “Oh my God, that’s the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen!” I found that visceral response really interesting. I hadn’t realised it would hit somebody that way because I had been thinking of subtle tones and textures.’

Nancy Buchanan and Bob Walker, Hair Transplant, 1972, performance. F Space Gallery in conjunction with 'The New Art in Orange County,' Newport Harbor Art Museum, Newport Beach, California (Photographs: Barbara T. Smith and Boris Sojka)

Hair Transplant (1972)

‘For several years, I worked with hair. And then I decided I had to use my own hair so I cut it off and transplanted it onto Bob Walker’s body in a piece called Hair Transplant (1972). He grew a moustache for my performance and I shaved off his moustache and his underarm, chest and pubic hair. Then I cut off my own hair, which I had dyed red and curled and replaced his missing hair with my own. There was no sound in the gallery until I cut my own long hair off – then a couple of people gasped. And I thought, my God, I just shaved a man's crotch with a razor and nobody thought anything about that.’

Nancy Buchanan, Please Sing Along, 1974, performance. The Woman's Building, Los Angeles (Photograph by Boris Sojka)

Please Sing Along (1974)

‘After I left Irvine, I became more interested in the social world. I didn’t want to be fragmented between a political and an artist self. Please Sing Along was performed at Grandview Gallery in the Woman’s Building and because it was the Woman’s Building, I thought about that context and that safe space. I thought about the fact that women had been objectified for such a very long time and regarded as beautiful objects; I thought men are beautiful, too. So Please Sing Along was about turning that upside-down, where I had two very attractive nude men perform a soft, gentle, but non-sexual dance with each other in which they could be admired.

Then a narrator came to a podium. He had a microphone and speaker and he started reading a text I had assembled that was a jumble of critical essays – largely arguments about essentialism and anti-essentialism, very dry. It didn’t really make any sense but sounded like it did. I had asked Barbara T. Smith, who was a friend of mine and had also gone to school at Irvine, to perform with me. We came out in karate suits and circled around karate mats; then we started pushing each other and finally had a very real fight until we were hurt and tired. Then we stood up and embraced and kissed and walked out and the performance ended when the narrator finished.’

Nancy Buchanan, Rock 'n' Roll Piece, 1974, black and white raffle photograph and performance. Gerard John Hayes Gallery, Los Angeles (Photograph: Marsha Red Adams)

Rock 'n' Roll Piece (1974)

Rock 'n' Roll Piece was performed at Gerard John Hayes Gallery in response to a trip to New York where my husband, Ransom [Rideout], and I went to Max’s Kansas City and we saw Ned Sublette performing cowboy Western songs. I thought, this is horrible, this desire to be a celebrity is really toxic and it doesn’t belong in the art world. But then I thought, if people want to be a star and put on that façade for fifteen minutes, even I can do that – though I’m tone deaf and can’t sing. So I devised a rock 'n' roll song with the band Blue Cheer (which was known as the loudest band in the world at one time). The song had about four notes, which I think I mastered – but I couldn’t hear myself so who knows?

A friend took headshot photos of me with a long blond wig and false eyelashes and I signed them on the front, numbered them on the back, and sold them as raffle tickets for $5 each. At the performance, I performed with Blue Cheer and the song was called “Union Oil Company’s Annual Report to Its Shareholders” as it was entirely composed from the shareholders’ report from that year. I was blindfolded and drew the winning tickets and I announced that the winners had each won four shares of Union Oil stock, which I had inherited from my family. I sat down at a little table and had blood drawn and I signed the stocks with the blood and gave them to the winners.’

Nancy Buchanan, Tar Baby, 1976, performance. The Floating Wall, Santa Ana, California (Photo by Ransom Rideout)

Tar Baby (1976)

‘Tar Baby was, in my mind, an attempt to address objectification of other human beings before there was much dialogue about the “other.” This piece was conceived as a live performance and then I redid it for video. Originally, it was like an operation. There was a surgeon in a mask and gown. He proceeded to cover my body from my neck to my feet with a substance that looked like tar. There was audio of a surgeon’s account of an angiogram procedure; he was describing it to medical students. The patient he describes is a Mexican-American woman but she’s treated as though she’s an object and she’s awake during the procedure. Clifford Mabra, who performed as the surgeon, is black. In the second part of the original piece, he changed his gloves and he had a big box of bright coloured feathers. He covers me with all these brilliant feathers – with long ones along my arms. And the audio for part two was a man with a very distinct British accent reading the black dialect of the Joel Chandler Harris Tar Baby story, an African American folktale dating from 1877. At the very end, Cliff stepped back and said, “You may now view the body.” As people passed me, instead of being an object, I tried to make eye contact with each person. It was the making and the breaking of a human being as object.’

Nancy Buchanan, Fallout from the Nuclear Family, 1982. Installation view (with Benny Powell), Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York (Photograph: Ransom Rideout)

Fallout from the Nuclear Family (1978-1980)

'My father [nuclear physicist Louis N. Ridenour, Jr.] had been Dean of the Graduate School at the University of Illinois [at Urbana-Champaign] and then he was asked to take a job as the first Chief Scientist for the Air Force at the Pentagon. While we were living in Washington, DC, I got tuberculosis at the same time that the whole anti-Communist “red” thing was heating up and the university became a very unpleasant environment. Lockheed [the airplane manufacturer] had been courting my father to work with them because he had been on a lot of studies after the war with think tanks like RAND and they really wanted him working on missiles in space. Finally he gave in and went to work at Lockheed. Just after the war, he and a number of his colleagues spoke out about how there’s no defense against atomic weapons and that they shouldn’t be left in the hands of individual governments, not even the United States. That conversation was quickly squashed, “atom spies” were named, and it became very uncomfortable for people to speak out.

My father died very suddenly and unexpectedly when I was thirteen. My sister once asked him why and how he could continue to work on these things, these weapon systems. He said, “Oh well, man just needs war. He’d get real bored without it.” He had become cynical. He’d given up his faith and his idealism.

My family had boxes of old papers and my grandmother had my father’s childhood papers. My mother died when I was eighteen, so then my sister and I had her papers. So finally around 1978, I thought I should look at these things because I didn’t know who my father really was. I started going through the boxes. First I made a book about my mother, who had left a cache of papers. She had wanted to write poetry and I think she was absolutely miserable being a wife and a mother. I looked through her pitiful group of papers and I made peace with her. I had a technique for juxtaposing her words with just the photos and papers that were left. That gave me the courage to look at my father’s papers and devise a system for dealing with them because there was so much material from his birth to his death. He always thought of himself as very patriotic, so I did interviews with people that knew him and talked to my sister and thought about my own memories. All of those fragments, those deep, personal things were excerpted on blue tissue paper. I also typed excerpts from the history of the times on red paper, to highlight the fact that here’s a person who lived through these really important turning points in American history: World War II, the development of atomic weapons, the anti-Communist crusade, the development of computers… Instead of seeing these ten books as being about one person, you can see how one person’s life is affected by huge forces converging at the time.'

Nancy Buchanan, National Mortality Consciousness Day, 1982, image and text. Published in Heresies: A Feminist Publication on Art & Politics, Vol. 4, No. 2, Issue 14.

National Mortality Consciousness Day (1982)

'National Mortality Consciousness Day was an image that I made at the Women’s Graphics Center as a poster and as a page in Heresies journal. Taking place on the ides of March, it points out that we’re all just vulnerable creatures. So if the heads of corporations lived everyday knowing they could die at any moment, wouldn’t they want to be more a part of humanity than consider themselves above it?'