Clifford Owens

Contemporary Arts Museum Houston

Through April 3
by Chelsea Beck

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      Clifford Owens
      Photographs with an Audience (New York) (detail)
      2008-09
      18 x 20 inches
      Courtesy the artist and On Stellar Rays, New York

      View Gallery

      Perspectives 173: Clifford Owens at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston kicked off with a riveting, socially sticky performance at the opening called Photographs with an Audience, an ongoing project by the artist that engages the audience in the live construction of a series of group portraits. The performance began with a loaded question: “Do you trust me?” Then Owens popped the Veuve Clicquot. An hour later members of the audience were naked, touching and posing. When the Veuve ran out we began to drink the cheap stuff. A sequence of increasingly intimate confessions, propositions and confrontations had brought Owens to tears. Together we had profiled ourselves: anxious, divorced, immigrants, fathers, friends and Mexicans, among other things.

      As one attendee told Owens at the artist lecture the following night, “It was like we were giving years’ worth of therapy for free.” Free for Owens perhaps, because he paid no money to the participants, but there is certainly a psychic debt being paid by the artist in order to activate these scenarios. Owens fearlessly choreographs the slippages that occur between our real-time identity (his unfolding identity, with his art dealer and recent gut in tow, as an artist, male, black, father, increasingly tipsy, late for dinner…) and the rigid construction and consumption of a single moment suspended in time by the photographic medium. The friction between the live experience of an event and the mediation of it is exposed with varying degrees of success and sensitivity in the work on view at Owens’ first museum show.

      Politics and Emotion (Gregg Bordowitz), 2006, begins with Bordowitz, the artist, activist, and Owens’ former professor, describing his own experience at one of Owens’ performances. With a screaming red background and a steady close-up on Bordowitz's concerned face, it's a video you want to look away from. The viewer listens to this critique while in a room full of work that may or may not suffer from the same pitfalls. Bordowitz explains that humans are born with hang-ups: the job of the artist is to uncover and play in those pre-conscious emotional and physical states we experienced in our infancy. He goes on to describe a past performance in which the artist seemed to vacillate between states of anger and vulnerability.

      Perhaps he’s referring to one of the iterations of Performance with an Audience documented in the exhibition, but the photographs, arranged in esoteric configurations, do not show this wide range of emotions. In fact, they are quite dry, functioning more as formal arrangements of bodies and color. Mostly, Owens appears stone-faced, composed, unblinking, legs shoulder-width apart, ready to be documented in perpetuity. The participants take their cues from him and the camera.

      Things get even messier and meatier when Owens collaborates with iconic performance artists in series such as Studio Visits, an ongoing project performed at the Studio Museum in 2005 and at Skowhegan in 2004. In the video featuring Carolee Schneemann, there is a three-way power struggle between the two artists and the camera that is belied by the servile action being performed. Schneemann rubs Owens down with lotion and avoids the camera, hiding in plain view, yet Owens’ reverence for his collaborator and his awareness of his place in the performance art constellation ekes out through his body language and poker face. Despite Schneemann’s subservient actions, it is she who dominates Owens. As in many works on display, Owens directs himself in a submissive role.

      Furthering the performance art lineage, Owens re-performs work by influential African-American performance artists, such as Lick Piece by Benjamin Patterson (the original is on view in Patterson’s CAMH retrospective upstairs). Owens’ work participates in this history while simultaneously furthering a critical discourse of its documentation and reception. As the artist pointed out repeatedly during the opening weekend events, his dealer was present and works were available. Performance is a business after all––and business is performance. It’s a rare treat to have an artist publicly measure his own insecurities and bravado as well as those of his audience, while agilely slipping from irony to sincerity within a few simple gestures.

      Chelsea Beck recently co-curated Weasel at Inman Gallery Annex. She lives and works in Houston, TX.

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