Draw It with Your Eyes Closed:
The Art of the Art Assignment
Academic assignments are the daily bread of college life. Compelled to follow the mold of higher learning, art schools also feel bound to structure their studio programs in this manner. Especially at the undergrad level, art professors use assignments for the dual purposes of assessment and support. Naturally art students tend to interpret these practical assignments to make it more their own, while demonstrating a level of panache that sets them apart. To stand out and be noticed – this is your first assignment as a freshman.
A “progressive-thinking” program was created out on the West Coast in the early 1970s at U.C.L.A. It was the first of its kind, and two artists of unknown celebrity would head it. The New Genres department was added to the traditional fields of drawing, sculpture, and painting. Students were required to study performance based work and nontraditional genres to get their Bachelors of Art. Video and performance art had been taken into history, and now it would be taught and studied.
The person U.C.L.A. recruited to head the program was Time magazine’s cover artist Chris Burden. Burden had someone shoot him in the arm as a work of art, which earned him the famous Times magazine headline: “The Shot Heard Around the World.” He recruited Paul McCarthy, another performance artist who was living with his family in Denver. With 50 cents in his pocket, McCarthy recalls, he happily took the job. Flash forward 25 years to my first year at art school and New Genres functioning just like any other department in the Arts Department.
It was another perfect L.A. afternoon and I was at orientation for the U.C.L.A. arts department with my mother. I had just been accepted and would attend the following year. While we waited to board the elevator in Dixon Hall to check out the painting facilities, I spied a white letter-sized piece of paper posted on an information board. The header on the paper read “Public Performance Today In The Sculpture Garden.” Underneath the tag line it specified: “Today, I will eat a one inch by one inch square piece of human flesh in the Murphy Sculpture Garden. Please join me”. At this point I realized my mother was reading the same piece of paper. We both laughed awkwardly, trying to conceal our shock at what we had just seen. The doors of the elevator opened and we boarded it in silence, hoping to see a paintbrush or a clown painting.
Riding up in the elevator thoughts raced through my head: “Was another art student really going to eat someone’s flesh?” “Is this what they call performance or contemporary art?” “Did I want to see this (YES), with my mother (NO)?” “Was this really art?” “Where is this Murphy Sculpture Garden anyways?” “Could this count as credit towards an assignment in class?”
My father, divorced from my mother since I was five, joined us for lunch. At the restaurant, they talked about the flesh performance as a form of small talk for divorcées. We all made the typical jokes that people make encountering something outside of their comfort zone. “I bet it tastes like chicken.” “Where do you get flesh anyway – Med School?” “$16,000 dollars a year to eat human flesh?” “Is this Modern Art?”
I can remember thinking in High School that rendering an “exact” image of reality was my greatest goal or desire as a young visual artist. It was like magic or alchemy to make people believe in the lie of mimetic art. I would be as passionate as Van Gogh, as tight as Michael Parks, and radical as Picasso. I would train hard, and learn technically how to be the best draftsman. I would learn how to create Masterpieces in art school. I would take the required classes and complete all the assignments and get the highest grades. Step-by-step, I would follow the rules…. This was the way to be an artist. Now, all I could think about was that piece of paper, and what it meant. The amazing part was we never went to see the cannibal of our lunch conversation in action; we never even made it to the sculpture garden, yet the myth of this piece of paper and its unseen flesh-eating performance would be brought up by my family more than any portrait I could ever make at art school.
My first assignment for Beginning New Genres was to record a performance in front of a Hi-eight video camera. The work was to be a maximum of 10 minutes in duration, but could be “whatever you want.” Before I tell my story of 10 minutes of fame, I want to digress and tell some of the other performances that Paul had experienced in his tenure as UCLA professor, told to me by him.
- A young student whom I picture with curly hair and a slightly chubby build decided she would use paint to cover her entire body, and then just dance. About halfway through the jig, she started to gag and vomit. Eventually she fell over. Paul for the sake of art wasn’t sure whether to intervene or not, but finally decided to ask her if she was okay and what type of body paint had she used? “Body paint?” she replied, “I used floor stain. My dad’s a carpenter.”
- A tall young student was into Yves Klein and his void. He had practiced his performance daily for weeks. “Simple gestures, make great art,” he would repeat in his head to inspire his leap of faith. His plan was to jump out the second story window of the arts building and grab the strong horizontal branch of the tree just there and swing in the air, landing on the ground, the branch breaking the momentum of his fall. Multiple times he had practiced this feat alone. The day the class was gathered to bear witness would be no different. Except the tree branch was blocking some one’s view who had influence with the landscapers, and so this time there was no branch to break his fall and the only thing that broke were both his legs, in front of an astonished audience.
- A very skinny, butch girl with short blonde hair gathered the class for her 10-minute performance. She began to strip amid awkward smiles and snickers. Slowly she undressed down to the last two under garments, then abruptly produced a razor blade she had been hiding in her mouth. Removing the item quickly from her gullet she drew a line down her delicate inner arm with the silver blade, and walked to the wall to make a mark of blood ending the performance. Unfortunately she had cut much deeper than intended (brand new razor) and hit an artery. The mark turned into a spurt and the audience became part of the painting.
- Close up video shot of curly white fur and the sound of saliva, hard to make out, but it could be the back of a poodle’s head licking something. The “performance” goes on for a while and a soft female’s voice is saying something to the poodle. Finally the camera angle widens to reveal the mise en scene. The very quiet art student who always sat next to you smiling and saying nothing has put peanut butter between her legs and allowed her white poodle named Tiger to clean up the mess.
- In my class there was a very angry girl, she hated everything and everyone, she was not happy with Paul and thought New Genres was stupid, but none of the class suspected this. She took the camera with her out into the sculpture garden to film her 10-minute work. Pushing the red button, she recorded her piece and then finished by pushing it again. Actually she had hit the button twice and recorded nothing. Instead, the camera was recording on her walk back to Beginning New Genres class, swinging in her hand. She went through the entire class of ten students, person by person, the T.A., and finally Paul. She revealed her true thoughts about us in the most explicit manner. I can’t remember what she said about me. I’m not sure if I was even in this class, but I remember it that way.
Just like I remember seeing Spiderman’s dick. When I was a very young boy I was forced to meet Spiderman at a car show in Arizona. My father thought I would be happy because he was my favorite superhero. The thing is, you should never meet your idols. This actor that the car show hired to play Spiderman was seven-foot tall and going commando in his outfit. At the time a picture was snapped and I was recorded shaking Spidey’s hand while staring at his crotch. The enormous baby’s arm the man had for a dick in his red and blue suit had transfixed me. Spiderman had a huge dick. Like I said, never meet your hero, or his dick.
For my 10-minute video assignment, I went shopping. I got this image in my head of Spiderman making and eating grilled cheese sandwiches in front of the camera. I’m not sure why. I had buried the memory of meeting him as child, but this idea seemed a way to interpret the assignment and stand out from the other students.
I went down to Hollywood boulevard and entered this giant costume shop. There I looked for an adult’s Spiderman outfit. After about 20 minutes of wandering the aisles I only found the children’s sized Spiderman suit. I saw every other major superhero in stock, but no adult Spidey to be found. So I asked a woman behind the counter. She told to me that the copyright on Spiderman by Marvel comics had banned the production of adult costumes and not until next year would the ban be lifted. This was only because the movie with Tobey McGuire was about to come out.
So I was out of luck, she said. I bought the toddler-sized suit anyways, and dropped the grilled cheese sandwiches from the bit. I had an assignment to complete and I thought the fat guy in the little suit routine would work just fine. The teacher assistant in Paul’s class was very attractive. Of course she was in charge of running the camera and the makeshift lighting that would be the extent of our crew for my video piece. I stripped down to my white briefs (unfortunately I had not switched over to boxers yet) and the T.A. smiled at my nervousness and underwear. Quickly, I donned my Spiderman costume tailored for an eleven-year old pulling the stretchy blue and red material over my shins, putting the mask on my head with the eyeholes at my cheeks. Unbelievably, the costume stretched up and over my entire body. I am not a little guy, I am 6’2” and weigh around 190 pounds, and so this was truly amazing, even for Spiderman. I got the costume on, really squeezed at the seams, and then I went for the zipper up the back squirming to force it closed. Imagine a fish dangling on a hook; just freshly pulled from the lake. This was my choreography. Almost simultaneously as I closed the zipper in the back the fabric ripped in every joint seam. The noise was really loud, along with the roar of laughter from the T.A. There I stood motionless. Picture a full frame shot of me, in a ripped eleven year-old’s Halloween costume, blind. I looked like a hobo transvestite trick-or-treating in front of a hot graduate student. That’s when I remembered the car show, meeting my hero, and the lost childhood I was trying to regain. I guess the assignment was a success.
Jay Batlle 2011