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Cutting Up the Beat

George Herms: THE ARTIST’S LIFE, REDCAT February 3, 2011 – February 5, 2011 –

“Loving everyone. Knowing nothing.” —George Herms, on himself

In this joyously messy, shambling show, jazz fan and beat generation icon George Herms put together a happening/opera, framing his assemblage art with an all-star ensemble of L.A.’s jazz legends, the Bobby Bradford Mo’tet and  the Theo Saunders Group. Herms tuned in to the audience with bat-like radar, waiting for the last program to cease its rattling and the last guy to stop chattering to his girlfriend, then announced that we had just experienced The Afterparty (listed as the first piece in the program) in the lobby beforehand. Indeed, I reflected, my lobby experience had been really fun and party-like, running into old friends and being de-recognized by some people who had slipped my mind entirely. Then George lined up the (nearly all-male) ensemble of instrumentalists for intros that are usually saved for after a couple of sets and named this, his second piece,  “Curtain Call”. During “Darkness”, we were requested to turn on our cell phones in order to make some noise (as luck would have it mine was programmed for silence.)

“Opera” was used loosely–there was a soprano, Diana Briscoe, who didn’t really find a groove that night–but the jazz was tight. It was easy to be carried away by  solos from the likes of Vinny Golia, Azar Lawrence, Chuck Manning or Don Preston. Coltrane and  Monk, of course, had something to do with this. The show also channelled some of the spirit of L.A. jazz genius and musical bodhisattva Horace Tapscott (Herms listed him in the dedication) whose brilliant free jazz narrative experiments were as breathtakingly intense as they were heartbreakingly secret (largely unrecorded). Herms being the quintissential fanatic, the energy feedback loop only amplified the prodigious muscianship onstage.

Surrounding himself with this kind of heat, Herms stayed cool and in control. A huge video projection played across the back of the stage, its camera focussed on Herms’ handicrafts. He stamped letterforms on paper plates and tossed them out into the audience, made different shapes with cut up photographs, and used as interstitials slides of old work. During “Trane Cycle” stagehands rolled out a large rust bitten spiral staircase which was set dangling in clockwise motion upstage and used as a percussion instrument as Herms whacked it with short lengths of 2 by 4s. Later in the show he tethered it with an ungainly wired up mass of glittery trash and chicken wire. A giant beaten up metal buoy hung like a beautiful dead thing stage left. In the final act, Herms traipsed across stage encased in a giant triangular-shaped assemblage, putting the intrepid Briscoe at risk of sudden impalement. As a crescendo, the wiry Herms ran around the theater with two fists full of  demented pompoms devised from Venetian blind slats which made a delightful clamor as he shook them. Then Herms wriggled into a harness and had himself hoisted far above the stage, where he dangled for a while in the spotlight. It was a sort of grownup art kindergarten, to the tune of ultra-sophisticated sounds, and Herms revelled in his angst-less-ness most of the time. He did set aside a part of the show (“Facing Death”) for reflecting wistfully on friends and loved ones who had died; without any great sentiment or attempt at ‘wisdom’. Herms left us us only the faintest and most delicate brushstrokes of an abiding loneliness and anxious confusion.

This was not a show steeped in art theory. The Beats, as Herms has been known to say, were truly  “conservative” in hewing to romantic values of Beauty, Truth, Art, and anti-materialism. They were about undercutting Eisenhower America: a squaresville that nurtured burdgeoning consumerism, eschewed sincerity and embraced status, and tossed out any idea that threatened its zeal for comfort, conformity and conventionalism.  Appropriately, Herms went to junkyards and picked up trash to make art that recognizes a certain equality of form related to Zen philosphical ideas, but also has a gently political, anti-bourgeois slant.

The Beat generation was dissipating even as Herms came of age. It had had a good long run, starting in the late forties and extending into the early sixties, linked to a fast-evolving flow of jazz music. Even though the Beats emerged from the shadow of the Bomb, radical political analysis was never their bag. The Beats were into spiritual liberation, the liberation of the word (Ginsberg, Burroughs, Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Philip Lamantia and on), the alteration of consciousness, shifting frames of reference, exploring eastern thought–particularly Zen–getting high, and freeing the “self” from the strictures of straight life. The way history went down, with the Vietnam War, the draft, Civil Rights, and the Black Power movement, assassinations, conspiracies, riots, bloodied heads and students killed; the Beats were bound to become obsolete. The more trenchant and radical groups like Weathermen, Yippies, and  the Situationists (who were around even before the Beats and who attacked the Beats on the grounds of their slack political analysis) saw their relevance and visibility rise. It became more urgently necessary, given the challenges of civil rights, the draft, and the brutal realities of war and protest, for art to expose the underlayment of social repression in the very institutions of art and the academy, as well as commerce and the “apolitical” realm of entertainment.

There is an interesting interview with Herms on netropolitan.org where he speaks ruefully about his associate Ed Keinholtz, an artist who framed his work in the context of social protest and who cultivated a bad boy image to his advantage. His implication is clear, that Keinholtz was better at marketing, and so was able to take the kind of work that Herms was doing and build an art-star career out of it. “I owe it all to you”, Herms quotes Keinholz as telling him when they were alone together and nobody was listening.

Herms’ intentional playfulness and studied lack of rigor are all about staying open and free–terms that seem utterly anachronistic to an uptight urban art culture–but are singularly appropriate to reconsider in this ironic world we inhabit. Of course, the greatest irony is that this very enjoyable evening of music and happening by a cool, maverick artist is presented by Roy and Ed Disney Redcat theater, as part of “Pacific Standard Time”, a series presented by the Getty about the birth of the L.A. Art scene, and it’s sponsored by Bank of America.

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