Art is No Burden: Cypress College Honors Late Artist

Scenes from Artists on Edge

On May 15, 2015, the world lost Chris Burden, an important artist known for his shocking performance art pieces. He was a profound influence on many artists and his passing was a great loss to the community. Cypress College had the honor of hosting an art exhibition in his memory.

Artists on Edge is an exhibit showcasing the works of artists who have been influenced by Burden, along with displaying a piece of Burden’s most famous performance art pieces, TV Hijack.

Acclaimed curator Mat Gleason, who owns an art gallery in Chinatown called Coagula Curatorial, assembled the show. He thought a gallery dedicated to Burden was more than fitting.

“I was offered a chance to curate a show for Cypress College, and so I thought about some possibilities,” he said. “And I thought that the death of Chris Burden was a big story.”

“I noticed you never really see art in the mainstream culture, but when Chris Burden died, he was on the nightly news.”

Gleason was also lucky enough to be lent famous (and rare) pieces to be showcased at the gallery. “We got really lucky because we planned so far ahead,” he said.

“ . . .The artworks that are in the show that were lent are very rare, and the videos of Chris Burden in the show, there’s a whole room of videos,” he continued. “There’s already been one Chris Burden scholar who came here who said, ‘I’ve never seen some of these,’ and that’s lent by a museum.”

Gleason invited many artists to have their works on display in the show. Kelly Barrie’s piece, entitled High and Dry Study,  was a series of “giant photos that look like paintings, but hybrids between drawing and photography.”

“Loosely based on giant concrete aqueduct pipes that were built in the late 60s/early 70s that became skateboard meccas for kids in Southern California,” he said. “It’s part of an ongoing series of investigations into sort of transgressive places that are appropriated and not necessarily dictated and where kids are free to carve out and form to their own identity formation.”

Barrie (website) said he was looking at these places from a historical standpoint, where those places are and whether or not they are still around. “I think a lot of them have disappeared, but a lot of it is by chance depending on what government programs are going on. . .it’s just part of a series that I keep pursuing.”

He expressed sadness over the death of Burden.

“I’ve been a huge fan of Chris, sad to have lost him.”

Michael Arata is another artist who contributed a piece to the gallery entitled: a paper towel dispenser, with each sheet covered in his own artwork.

“It started in like 1991 probably and has been continually recycled, or refilled I should say, the drawings because originally they were disposable drawings,” he said, “but since I got tired of redrawing disposable drawings for everybody and stamping them and refolding them and putting them back in, they’re two bucks each because that’s how much parking is here.”

The piece hasn’t been submitted to any other gallery according to him, but it’s been in more interesting places.

“It’s been in a lot of art gallery bathrooms, which makes sense where it should be. So when people go to dry their hands, they pull out a drawing and go, ‘What the hell is this?’”

Arata’s inspiration for the piece, entitled U Disposable Drawings/Disposable income, according to him, was “divine intervention.” He combined ideas that don’t belong together, and that one wouldn’t usually find together. “There’s a sense of surprise to it, but also fun,” he said. “It has a derogatory connotation where it turns art into something disposable where everybody thinks it’s precious, so it kind of goes against the grain.”

The grain, he described, is “the whole system and monetary establishment that follows it now, the commercialization.”

Another artist, Kiel Johnson (website), has a special connection to Cypress College: he created a short film entitled Cypress Valley, which incorporated robots made of cardboard at a prom, courtesy of himself and Cypress College students in 2013. He said that the energy from the project has been unmatched.

“I bonded with a group of kids here and we’ve had one of the best collaborative experiences I’ve ever had and the school made it happen,” he said. “Cypress College rules! It’s like a little jewel, a tiny school with a great art department.”

His piece, entitled Everyone I Know Sits Down, is a collection of drawings of chairs on a large board. He recalled how he’s done many catalogue-like drawings, everything from sunshines to yoga poses. However, he started to think it was “kind of boring.”

“I wanna start getting the imagery in a more personal way you know? For this one and for some others I’ve done, I’ve started crowd sourcing meaning I just asked all my friends for chairs,” he said. “For this one, I just said, ‘Send me the chair you spend the most time in. Send me the chair—you know, everybody, you’ve got a chair when you get home.’ Everybody’s got that chair that’s just yours you know?”

He explained that one might keep a chair until one is old, or get rid of it and replace it with a new one. However, everyone has a chair “that’s kind of yours.”

“So I thought that would be an interesting way to build this image and so when I look at those chairs I see Whitney, and Steve, and Paul and Karina, you know? I see my mom’s chair; I see a chair I used to sit in when I was little. It’s just more personal that way and it makes it fun to draw too, like here’s my ex-girlfriend’s chair.”

Social media was a huge help with his piece, according to Johnson. The comments he had gotten when putting these drawings online made it fun for him. “It feels like I’m not alone, like I’m doing it all together with a team, you know?”

“Not only does it make the process fun for me but the end result, people wanna come see because their chair is in it. Just trying to get everyone wrapped up in the project.”

Burden’s worth ethic had an impact on Johnson, who had a studio partner who was also an assistant at Burden’s studio.

“I know the work ethic and factory style like, lets get done and make it happen, this is fun but also a job, this has to happen,” he said. “I love thinking of art as a blue-collar job, and that’s what Burden is to me; he’s like a blue-collar worker bee and I like that a lot. I’ve been a fan of all of his projects, and we work with a lot of the same materials.”

“He had some really beautiful pieces that were kinetic; certain elements move. There’s an element of my work that I try to include that’s often inspired by his work.”

Burden was an artist who influenced many, and left his mark on not only the artists at the gallery, but on the art world overall.

Many artists see Chris Burden as someone to admire and his work shows that although he pushes boundaries, it leaves an impression on people and their artwork. His influence has stayed with artists, whether or not some have purposely made pieces because of it.

“I think Chris Burden would be totally cool with that because I don’t think Chris Burden wants to be a hundred percent likeable, he’s an asshole, it’s in his work,” artist Christy Roberts-Berkowitz (website) stated.

“Burden’s work, I think, was the perfect bridge for me between the life I actually lived, the reality I lived, and the concept or art being a place to escape. . .I’m always surprised how much of an emotional connection to his work I have and every new thing I try to do seems to relate back to Burden even when I’m not conscious of it.”

Her piece, entitled Good Enough, was originally a 2013 performance for Coagula Curatorial. “I had gotten to a point where I felt that the type of art that I was making had to shift, and I felt like I was drinking my own Kool-Aid and believing too much about my work being good enough,” she said.

This performance was a farewell, according to Roberts-Berkowitz, a farewell to putting herself in dangerous situations for her art performances. “So the plan was that I was going to drink my own Kool-Aid, that it’s good enough, and then I was going to throw it up and reject it.”

She didn’t get halfway through the performance, however, when the curator had stopped her.

“I guess there was a doctor in the audience, so there was concern,” she said. “If you ingest more than four quartz of liquid in a single sitting, your cells will absorb the liquid and swell, and you will die. There was a very fine line and I felt like I was going to be straddling it and I was willing to take the risk but I was stopped beforehand.”

She did attempt to throw up a bit, but it wasn’t working, so she simply walked away. “And ‘Mozart’s Requiem’ was playing also,” she recounted.

Roberts-Berkowitz first saw Burden’s work while she was an undergrad. The piece, entitled Shoot, was a video of Burden himself getting shot in the arm by a friend.

“I still get surprised how much that impacted me and I think I wanted that,” she said.

Burden’s work influenced many artists, and his death impacted many as well. Gleason remarked on how Burden was an artist who pushed boundaries, and who went as far as he could with his artwork.

“That’s why the show’s called Artists on Edge, because Chris Burden was an artist who pushed, when he would do something he would find a way to push it all the way.”

Cypress College Art Gallery Facebook Page

Kelly Barrie's High and Dry Study. Photo by Derrick Coleman

Kelly Barrie’s High and Dry Study. Photo by Derrick Coleman

Christy Roberts-Berkowitz's Good Enough. Photo by Derrick Coleman

Christy Roberts-Berkowitz’s Good Enough. Photo by Derrick Coleman

Michael Arata's U Disposable Drawings/Disposable income. Photo by Derrick Coleman

Michael Arata’s U Disposable Drawings/Disposable income. Photo by Derrick Coleman

Kiel Johnson's Everyone I Know Sits Down. Photo by Derrick Coleman

Kiel Johnson’s Everyone I Know Sits Down. Photo by Derrick Coleman

Professor Paul Paiment and art technician Kirk Pickler observe Burden's piece. Photo by Ian Holmes

Professor Paul Paiment and art technician Kirk Pickler observe Burden’s piece. Photo by Ian Holmes

Students grab a bite to eat. Photo by Ian Holmes

Students grab a bite to eat. Photo by Ian Holmes

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