I've long had an attraction to conceptual art without fully understanding what it is that draws me to it. So when I saw that a local art gallery, Cardwell Jimmerson, was putting on a show called "San Diego and the Origins of Conceptual Art in California," I thought it would be a good opportunity to explore my reactions to this form of art.
According to the Tate Online Glossary, the term conceptual art "came into use in the late 1960s to describe a wide range of types of art that no longer took the form of a conventional art object." That broad definition encompasses happenings and other event-based works, installations and unconventional art objects.
Once inside Cardwell Jimmerson, the Cute Little Red-Headed Girlfriend and I found many types of art on display, including video, audio, photography and mixed media. I was drawn to the displays that combined words and imagery, such as "The Double Articulation of Disneyland," a combination of 36 captioned black-and-white photos documenting a trip to Disneyland, which were displayed along with 36 typescript pages of philosopher Louis Marin's essay "Disneyland: A Degenerate Utopia."
The photos show artist Fred Lonidier on a trip to Disneyland with friends. The focus of their trip was to document corporate presence at Disneyland and the ways that corporate messages were deployed throughout the attractions. For example, in the photo shown here of Main Street, U.S.A., the artist muses "Corporate possession of public myths must be natural to this public."
The Cute Little Red-Headed Girlfriend was interested in "North American Waitress" by Martha Rosler, from the "Know Your Servant Series #1." This work consisted of images of waitresses in typical uniforms along with printed instructions and training information on how waitresses should act. The photography in "North American Waitress" and "The Double Articulation of Disneyland" dated these pieces, yet the underlying "concept" of these works was remarkably relevant to the present.
Another work that seemed especially timely was Phel Steinmetz's "Oil, Profit, Control" from 1973. This hardbound book contained original photography of abandoned gas stations and related imagery from the 70s oil crisis, along with clippings documenting the oil companies' manipulation of the markets for their own profit.
Seeing this show made me realize that I like conceptual art that has a political aspect to it. The definition of conceptual art that I found at ArtLex emphasizes the political and especially noncommercial leanings of the movement: "Art that is intended to convey an idea or a concept to the perceiver, rejecting the creation or appreciation of a traditional art object such as a painting or a sculpture as a precious commodity."
However, resisting commercialism doesn't necessarily mean giving up on beauty, or on the art object itself. I was deeply impressed by the display of "Book of Lagoons," by ecological artists Helen and Newton Harrison. This awesome work on the life of lagoons represents to me what a concept or an idea looks like as a developed art form. You can find links to large .pdfs containing the complete "Book of Lagoons" here.