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SFMOMA exhibition Stage Presence shines spotlight on theatricality in Contemporary art
Charles Atlas, Hail the New Puritan, 1985–86; single-channel video with sound; courtesy of the Electronic Arts Intermix, Inc., New York; © Charles Atlas.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA.- The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art blurs the line between fine arts and performing arts with its new exhibition Stage Presence: Theatricality in Art and Media, on view July 14 through October 8, 2012. Organized by Curator of Media Arts Rudolf Frieling, the exhibition presents works in a variety of media and features a series of performances that explore the influence of theater, dance, and performance in contemporary art.

Stage Presence gathers three decades of works by 40 artists including some key works from the SFMOMA media arts collection, all of which embrace theatricality in contemporary art practice. Exuberant manifestations of the "stage" emerge, such as beauty pageants; a dance troupe in post-punk London; artists dressed as a bear and a rat walking through the Swiss Alps; and a family occupying in-store Ikea model rooms. Some of the works are humorous and camp, while others are critical and subversive.

The exhibition also features site-specific contributions to the exhibition including an "Official Welcome" by Andrea Fraser, a new version of the performance which will be produced for SFMOMA at the July 13 exhibition opening reception; and Janet Cardiff's participatory project The Telephone Call (2001), a commissioned audio and video walk through SFMOMA. Equipped with a small digital camcorder with stereo headphones, visitors can journey through the museum by aligning onscreen images with the actual physical space and listening to an extraordinary narrative collage that includes Cardiff's voice, fragments of recorded music, and the artist's footsteps. This will be the last opportunity before the museum's forthcoming expansion to experience the work with the current building still providing most of the original settings.

The media galleries on the fourth floor will double as a cinematic screening room and a live performance space designed by Bay Area artist Tucker Nichols. Using a decidedly low-tech approach and a movable wall for the entrance, Nichols created two wallpaper designs from blown-up drawings, which are loosely reminiscent of a curtain and theatrical ornaments. Curated by Frank Smigiel, associate curator of public programs, a rich series of live acts—performances by Rashaad Newsome and Margaret Tedesco among them—will take the stage three days a week, alternating with the daily video screening program.

All together the presentation foregrounds the contemporary investigation of theatrical elements in art, creating shifts in our perception of performers and audience, of place and time, and the processes of identification and alienation.

"Theater, performing arts, and time-based media, often regarded as the opposites of the fine arts in the past, have deeply affected contemporary art over the last few decades," says Frieling. "The theatrical in Stage Presence eschews the catharsis of traditional drama, the limiting legacies of 1970s body performance, and the traditional realms of theater and film for a fusion of genres and histories."

The exhibition traces the influence of the theatrical in contemporary art with cornerstone historic works like James Coleman's Photograph (1998-99), a combination of projected image, audio narration, and the still images of a theatrical rehearsal in an artistic format that owes as much to the art history of painting and tableaux vivants as to the genres of theater and film. General Idea's installation Cornucopia: Fragments from the Room of the Unknown Function in the Villa dei Misterei of The 1984 Miss General Idea Pavilion (1982–83) appropriates media formats and settings such as the beauty pageant combined with a critique of consumer culture and commercial display. Subversion, humor, and transgression play key roles in these works and are equally present in Hail the New Puritan (1985–86), a seminal video work by Charles Atlas that features the life and art of Michael Clark and his dance troupe in an exuberant post-punk London.

Atlas's document of a 1980s attitude of transgression is matched by a group of sculptural actors: Geoffrey Farmer, Tony Oursler, Peter Fischli and David Weiss. In The Right Way (1983), an early feature-length film by Fischli and Weiss, the artists, dressed as a bear and a rat, walk the scenery of the Swiss Alps while their philosophical conversation unfolds. Craigie Horsfield's impressively scaled tapestry, Via Gianturco, Naples, February 2010 (2011), depicts an audience at a 99 Posse rock concert in Naples, Italy. The artist's use of the ancient medium of tapestry points to the fundamental ways in which digital software is married today to the field of craft and art history, from the weaving of a pattern to the pixilation of a digital image. Artists such as George Legrady, Sam Taylor-Wood, and Catherine Wagner add unique perspectives on the photographic representation of a dramatic space.

A generation of younger artists from Mika Tajima to Guy Ben-Ner, Gerard Byrne, Sharon Hayes, and Carey Young revisit the variability of formats such as performance, lecture, and the interview. Hayes, for instance, uses the Symbionese Liberation Army's kidnapping of Patty Hearst in 1974 to "respeak" the four audio tapes in which Hearst addresses her parents on the subject of her kidnapping. Tajima reformats her 2009 SFMOMA-commissioned collaborative production Today Is Not A Dress Rehearsal in which the scholar and professor Judith Butler rehearses a lecture.

Stage Presence is dedicated to the memory of artists David Weiss, George Kuchar, and Mike Kelley. Kelley prominently anchors the show with a dance "choreographed in the manner of Martha Graham" in Test Room Containing Multiple Stimuli Known to Elicit Curiosity and Manipulatory Responses. The video features an eclectic mix of ambiguous props with references to modernist sculptures as well as scientific and psychological laboratory experiments.

Artists in the Exhibition
Charles Atlas, Gerard Byrne, Janet Cardiff, James Coleman, Geoffrey Farmer, Fischli/Weiss, Andrea Fraser, General Idea, Sharon Hayes, Craigie Horsfield, Mike Kelley, George Legrady, Tucker Nichols, Tony Oursler, Mika Tajima with Charles Atlas, Sam Taylor-Wood, Catherine Wagner, and Carey Young.

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