Performance: Barry Markowitz at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, January 15.


Here was an accident worth having. I won't attempt art criticism, just description and reflection.

Barry Markowitz (not the film visualist of that name) is a Los Angeles visual and performance artist who's been exhibiting since the 1970s and teaches at Cal State L.A. Some of our friends know him and like his work, so Deb and I attended his latest performance piece, "How I Learned To Draw," which had little to do with metal or jazz, although his son did play jazz-inflected trumpet in it, and there was recorded sound made by a cymbal, which is another metallic instrument. Hi Richard, Louise, Gloria, John, Ewa, Howard -- good to see ya there.

Motion projections morphed on the walls -- a mallet scraping a cymbal; shifting perspectives of organic shapes; close-ups of facial parts; superimpositions of Markowitz with colored liquids dripping over his head. A wide-screen monitor flickered with fiery abstractions. The cymbal droned gratingly; the muted trumpet blew soulfully.

Markowitz, a big man in a white shirt, strolled out and offered semi-random, semi-real reminiscences about his New York youth. We weren't supposed to follow the story precisely, because distractions were built into the show -- two audience members carrying on a cell-phone conversation; the music drowning Markowitz's spiel; a man in a portable doorway climbing and banging around the prop as it was dragged on ropes by another man, mule-style, across the rear of the space.

Markowitz lay on the floor beside the trumpeter with his head under a chair and talked to the bottom of the chair as both gentlemen executed slow synchronized arm movements. Markowitz decided he wanted his month's growth of beard shaved, so he sat while the trumpeter/son/barber buzzed him with a clipper. The barber cut Markowitz's neck, which spurted a profuse stream of blood all down his shirt, Markowitz meanwhile uttering mild complaints about "feeling lighter." The combination of red blood, white shirt and blue jeans, he said, was not meant to signify anything. The blood was mopped up with paper towels, which one previous phone conversationalist placed in plastic bags and ran across a pulley to the other previous phone conversationalist, who labeled them with several names from the audience. Those audience members later had pictures taken with Markowitz, his cohorts and the paper towels soaked with the fruit of his wound.

Markowitz talked about a warm orange glow in his parents' apartment, a glow that turned out to be the adjacent building ablaze, with a woman screaming in the opposite fourth-story window. He talked about the childhood liver problems that led him to be placed in a hospital ward where everyone else died. He recalled a dream he had there wherein the black Baby Jesus pissed on his face, an event after which Markowitz began to draw compulsively. He figured that the baby knew how to draw, and pissed the knowledge into the sick future artist's brain.

Markowitz climbed into a clear plastic container atop a low table and stood there talking while one of the door-prop assistants pissed onto his feet, kind of a reverse anointment. He climbed out onto a terrycloth towel and wrapped up the performance. We had learned how an artist might discover his calling.

The performance had a nice musical rhythm to it, one absurdity flowing into the next with natural casualness. The story unfolded the way life does: strange shocks arriving in the midst of a busy environment where no immediate sense of drama imposes itself. But then you look back on it. And the drama is there, all right.