This is Performance Art

Review by Brian Getnick


The cover of This is Performance Art features a woman pinned to a wall by an ironing board. Her long hair is draped over her face and her arms are slack. The image, “On Board is a parody of Charles Ray’s iconic Plank Piece II” (1973), a photograph of the artist propped up against a wall with a piece of wood. Ray’s joke was on minimalism. Brimfield’s joke is on us for assuming, as I did, that This Is Performance Art is yet another authoritative compendium on the subject. It is instead a collection of conceptual gags, on the level of whoopee cushions and hand buzzers, that skewer iconic representations of performance art and the über-serious discourse that surrounds it.


In Brimfield’s universe, farcical renderings of critics function both as material for performance scores and as modes of critical address. Rosalind Krauss makes an appearance as a hyper-enthusiastic tabloid journalist who raves about Joseph Beuys’ “How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare” (1965) as if he was a ventriloquist. In this passage Krause marvels at how Beuys reveals the tragicomedy of puppetry: a performance meant to breath life into a dead, mute thing.


So he shuffles to the stage with his head like, coated in gold leaf and honey, dragging a large trunk and with one foot strapped to a ski. So far, so normal, right? Then he takes his seat, opens up the trunk and pulls out his dummy just like always, but it’s a freakin’ dead hare and he’s just mumbling at it.


By casting Krauss as the hyperbolic writer prepared to laugh but shocked to feel something more Brimfield cracks open the possibility of understanding “How to Explain PIctures…” through its mechanics. Brimfield imagines that a set of learned skills, namely puppetry, can be attributed to the power of the artist’s work. It is this demystification that allows Brimfield to playfully challenge the notion put forward by writer Peggy Phelan that “performance’s life exists only in the present.” An assertion which re-mystifies the ephemera left behind from performances made by artists and that is almost never applied to documentation of comedians, magicians, or any other performers classified as entertainers.

For Brimfield, mutating the legend of “How to Explain Pictures…” is not only acceptable, but perhaps necessary in order to widen what the field of performance art can be. And it needs to be wide if it is to include the artists, dancers, comics and the occasional local marching band she casts together for her revue-ish send ups of live art from the last century. She is one of a number of artists (including Mike Kelley, Asher Hartman, Spartacus Chetwynd and the Liverpool collective The Kazimier) who use comedy, low-brow entertainment and aspects of theater as both source material and as a formal structure to hang other, often darker, subconscious concerns. The catalog is both Brimfield’s variety act universe and a critical discourse which, with jokes, cracks, caricatures, pastiches, and outright mockery lovingly applied, helps the show to go on.


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Mel Brimfield, This is Performance Art (Black Dog, 2011)
Images: Cover of This is Performance Art, Joseph Beuys, How to Explain PIctures to a Dead Hare, 1965, Edgar Bergen with Charley McCarthy, 1970