Art Enthusiast Oak, “Lowell Darling: This is Your Life” at Krowswork, 3/1/2012
Coinciding with the Pacific Standard Time exhibition State of Mind at the Berkeley Art Museum which includes several works by the artist, “Lowell Darling: This is Your Life” at Krowswork reflects upon artist Lowell Darling’s life and work. Respecting Darling’s legacy as a conceptual artist, the exhibition executes a powerful retrospective through press clippings, news videos and ephemera, evincing that Darling’s greatest artistic achievements do not lie in tangible objects, but what artistic meanings and intentions were gleaned from the experiences and events that shaped his life.
The exhibition includes three particular highlights of Lowell Darling’s career. In the 1970s when Conceptual Art emerged, artists like Darling were challenging paradigms had been set in place for hundreds of years. The IRS refused to identify Darling as an artist because he made no physical work, which gave impetus for him to receive recognition from nearly every cultural magazine: “If enough newspapers, magazines and TV news broadcasters called me an artist, how could the government deny it? I set out to become a recognized artist, making News instead of objects. Appearing in the press but not in galleries. They always called me an Artist.” The project came to a definitive end when Art in America identified him as an artist; the cover of that issue is on view at the exhibition. Also chronicled is Darling’s 1978 run for governor against Jerry Brown, and his Fat City School of Finds Art that offered free Master’s degrees and PhDs to art students.
In this retrospective, the gallery screens two important films that bookend his life. For the very first time, the 1973 interview of Darling by curator and publisher Willoughby Sharp, co-founder of the influential Avalanche magazine is on view. Within a few minutes of watching the film it becomes evident perhaps nothing in Darling’s life is without artistic intent. Even a pen falling to the floor is part of the performance between the two. The second film is a poignant documentary of one of Darling’s newest and personal projects, Tomb of the Unborn Soldier. At first the project was made in purely artistic intentions in response to the Bosnian War occurring at the time of its inception: “The stones [of the tomb] are reminders that wars begin over disputes created before the soldiers who die in them are born.” Yet, after his nephew’s unexpected death in Croatia, he became inexorably woven into the fabric of the project; Darling says, “Adam died over problems that were left unsolved before he was born, another unborn soldier.” This is only one of many instances of chance or perhaps fate which have led Darling along his artistic path, illustrating his life will always be as an artist.
“Lowell Darling: This is Your Life” is at Krowswork until March 24
SF GATE, Lowell Darling still loves to poke at politics, but he's a 'normal' artist now, by Jesse Hamlin, 8/24/2004
Lowell Darling has performed a number of memorably outlandish acts in his noted career as a comic conceptualist operating in the public sphere.He's the media-wise artist who stitched up sections of the San Andreas Fault to contain earthquakes, nailed down cities to stop them from flying off the face of the earth, and poked giant needles into the ground -- he called it urban acupuncture -- to remedy drought, pollution and other pressing problems. A onetime employee of global visionary Buckminster Fuller, Darling's amusing, environmentally conscious actions delighted the press, which gave him a good ride nationally in the 1970s.
The capper came in '78, when he put on a colorful primary campaign to unseat California Gov. Jerry Brown, known for his own eccentricities and offbeat ideas. Among other things, Darling promised, if elected, to invest in psychic-powered cars, do away with parking tickets -- because of the energy shortage, he reasoned, "we should encourage people to park rather than drive" -- freeze highway construction and use the money to pay Californians to be themselves (Jerry Brown would still run the state), and give everybody Wednesdays off. He got about 62,000 votes, a remarkable achievement, even in a nut-brained state like ours.
"I think I got the drunk and nearsighted vote. My name was right below Brown's on the ballot," says Darling, whose political and other "pro-bono public art," as he calls it, is the focus of "Lowell Darling: Artist or Politician?," a mini-retrospective on view at the Sonoma State University Library Art Gallery.
A pleasing little show of ephemera, video clips and photographs documenting Darling's public performances, as well as some of the more aesthetically oriented objects from his continuing "Hollywood Archaeology" series, it's the opening act in an election-season series about the political process called "It Matters! Engage. Participate. Vote."
The Sonoma State program is also presenting journalists, academics and political satirists like Will Durst. Darling's 35-year engagement in civic affairs made him a prime candidate (he speaks about his work Sept. 10).
Years before he ran for governor, Darling dueled with federal bureaucrats, exchanged letters with elected officials and cooked up public performances that, as curator Darren Sargent puts it, used the media as their medium.
"I always wanted to surprise myself," says Darling, 62, a compact guy with gleeful blue eyes and longish gray hair sprouting from mid-dome. A five- star talker with a talent for the tangential anecdote, he lives in the tiny Sonoma County burg of Camp Meeker, where he makes drawings in the woods and hangs with his two teenage daughters.
"I decided to run for governor and see what would happen," says Darling, perusing the old wire-service dispatches and color photos on the gallery walls. "Everything I did was always to see what would happen. It's still that way. Now I make art like a normal artist, and I don't know what it's going to look like until it's done."
A native of Jacksonville, Ill., Darling quit making objects like a "normal" artist in 1969 while studying art at Southern Illinois University.
His Robert Arneson-influenced ceramic pieces -- adorned with clay sex organs and little heads, they were "baby machines" that commented on overpopulation -- were shown in galleries. But because none sold, the Internal Revenue Servicedisallowed the $870 deduction Darling took for supplies, saying he wasn't an artist because he hadn't sold any art. That ticked him off but good.
"I didn't like the idea that I wasn't an artist because I hadn't sold anything," says Darling, who set out to prove the IRS wrong: He'd make an art of ideas that wasn't for sale.
Conceptual art, earth works and other ephemeral forms were coming into vogue at the time. Darling decided that "My art would be like me. It would come and go, like the evening news."
He hit on the idea of nailing down cities, which he said were in danger of taking off due to the centrifugal force of the earth. He scored a pile of publicity when he hammered tenpenny nails around the perimeter of his college town of Carbondale.
He'd written the mayor of Carbondale about his cockamamie plan and received an earnest reply. That got him started writing the "crank" letters that became a prime ingredient in his gently anarchistic art (he was a charter member of the mail-art school of conceptualism).
"I realized that anytime you write someone, they'll write you back, politicians more than anyone," says Darling, who eventually won his IRS appeal and got his $870, plus interest. His friend Don Novello, the comedic writer and performer (Father Guido Sarducci), asked for and received Darling's blessings when he began writing crank letters in the guise of Lazlo Toth, pen pal to dictators, corporate bosses and other big shots.
This show at Sonoma State includes the letter Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley sent to Darling thanking him for his letter "regarding your symbolic acupuncture of the city of Los Angeles. I'm sorry I missed the accompanying ceremony. It sounds like an interesting gesture."
Darling had moved to L.A. in the early '70s, and, after a brief stint teaching at the Otis Arts Institute, set up shop in a Hollywood studio sandwiched between the Woody Woodpecker studio and a dildo factory (the factory owner claimed to have X-rated footage of Hitler and Eva Braun, but Darling says he had no desire to see it).
At the same time he was doing performance pieces such as stitching the San Andreas Fault with rawhide -- he declines to say exactly where because of the terrorist threat -- Darling made prints and videos using bits of discarded film and other Tinsel town detritus he found on the streets (two of his "Hollywood Archaeology" videos, one with a soundtrack by Tom Waits, the other scored by Les Claypool, can be found on the Web).
Darling made a modest living showing slides and speaking at colleges, where he freely bestowed diplomas from his Fat School of Finds Arts.
"It was like being a low-paid touring rock star," says Darling, who nailed down London and other locales and worked with local artists on acupuncture rituals to deal with everything from Vancouver's heroin epidemic to the sewage stink in Port Costa. It began raining three days after Darling poked giant wood needles into the bone-dry ground at the San Bernardino County desert town of Needles in '78.
"Here's the weird thing," the artist says. "I would say something totally absurd, and then I would go to any lengths to do it."
After nearly a decade in the trenches, Darling opted to close his public performance career with a bang-up finale: a run for governor.
He campaigned around California in a black-and-pink '56 Plymouth Plaza, shaking hands with a stuffed white glove affixed to a stick so that his real hand wouldn't be scrunched by overzealous voters (he'd read that JFK had suffered serious hand pain on the campaign trail). He also used a set of big red lips-on-a-stick to kiss babies. Artists like San Francisco conceptualist Tom Marioni put on lively fund-raisers for Darling, who recalls driving across the Golden Gate Bridge to some campaign event carrying a couple of young women and a half pound of pot.
Those were sunnier, more indulgent days, the post-Vietnam, pre-AIDS period when the rules were in flux and people were game for Darling's brand of playful satire. Michael Moore's slashing style seems better suited to these darker, dangerous times.
"It was a different era. The atmosphere was more open and inclusive," Darling says. "Now we have one that's more divisive and paranoid.
"Things have become much more serious. Although everything I did was serious, there was a lot of frivolity and a lot of play. Even the governor got into the play; my picture was hanging in Jerry Brown's office. Brown had a sense of humor. He didn't feel threatened. I think Bush and people like him feel threatened, and they make everything feel threatening."
Twenty years later, Darling, who was elected to his local Sonoma school board in the '90s -- "I don't think Bill Clinton or any of those guys have really seen in-your-face politics unless they've served on the board of a small school district," he says -- was so bored by George Bush and Al Gore that he flirted with the idea of running for president in 2000. But campaign finance rules had become so complicated and legally encumbering, he passed. A campaign finance lawyer warned him that his plan to use campaign contributions to get matching funds, and then give the donors back their money and half of the matching funds, would not amuse election officials.
Instead, Darling cooked up a piece encouraging everybody else to run for president. He requested filing papers from every state and placed them in pouches in galleries along with a copy machine. Visitors could copy the forms, fill them in and mail them off. The piece is on display at Sonoma State, with fresh forms for those who wish to file for the 2008 primaries. (Darling was in Berlin last summer, around the time Arnold Schwarzenegger was storming Sacramento, enlisting Europeans to run for president because "American politics is too important to be left in the hands of Americans.")
He hopes his work will show young people that it's possible to do what you want, that "you can speak out, express yourself." But the problems we face today, Darling says, "are so severe that they can't be satirized as playfully as they could in a more playful time. There's nothing funny about George Bush or the world situation right now."