Bodies of work
Visiting artist challenges stereotypes with film/performance
‘I’ve always loved the body-obsessed culture [in Los Angeles], somehow ‘healthy’ and perverse simultaneously. A strangely tuned high-pitched instrument of culture, that I’ve found if you can run it through some kind of filter, a pleasant tune will emerge.”
That’s Nao Bustamente, a Los Angeles-based artist and art professor writing on her website about body issues in her chosen hometown. And for her traveling Body Vulnerable Body Protected show, it’s Bustamante’s own body that’s often featured throughout her extensive history of experimental works, filtered through a compilation of films and videos of performances now on display at Chico State’s Jacki Headley University Art Gallery.
Bustamante’s art brings together a variety of media—performance art, video installation, visual art, film and the written word—and she achieves her vision with a hearty dose of good-humored punk aesthetic and the edgy exuberance of a self-consciously artistic and confrontational exhibitionism. For the Chico State show, four moving pictures are projected on the back wall of the gallery in front of a set of chairs in a mini-theater configuration and another dozen play on a flat screen TV in front of a couch. The pieces range chronologically from a five-minute performance of “The Frigid Bride” (1991) to “Reveal” (2014), a longer “filmformance” piece created to accompany a live performance.
As the show’s title suggests, in many of the works, the artist’s body is at the fore. Whether it’s having white men atone for centuries of oppression of indigenous peoples by taking a knee in front of her and eating from her strap-on burrito in “Indigurrito” (1992), or her portraying a dead Brazilian actress via a “memorial reel” in “Reveal.” Without its live component, the latter delivers a wordless patchwork narrative featuring Bustamante in various vulnerable situations: precariously walking uphill on an icy street, reading a saddening/infuriating letter; pulling a burning dinner from the oven; gazing out from a steamy shower door; being menacingly escorted up stairs by a man; precariously climbing a step ladder in high heels to place the star at the top of a Christmas tree; placidly pruning orchids in a greenhouse.
One of the more impressive of the works projected on the big screen/wall is the 19-minute “Tableau” (2013), a more traditionally narrative short film not necessarily in line with the exhibit’s theme. It recounts the struggles of a man named J.T. (played by queer filmmaker Joshua Thorsen) trying to create an apocalyptic sci-fi film while contending with, and ultimately collaborating with, his pesky 15-year-old next door neighbor, Chelsea, and her best friend, Gina.
Opening with a beautifully sensual shot of J.T. floating on his back down a river, the story alternates between J.T.’s life situation—e.g., the girls taunting his vociferously barking poodles—and scenes from his movie, which involve the girls and poodles in post-apocalyptic ceremonial regalia. It’s hilarious and poignant. The scene of what appears to be Chelsea’s screen test, as the young actress demonstrates her emotional range, from “pain” to “sexy,” is awesome in its interplay of those elements—picture Woody Allen as a conscientious teenage girl and you sort of get the picture.
Well worth the time to explore, Bustamente’s wide range of fun and socially conscious work invites much contemplation and is subject to many interpretations. The artist herself will be in town tonight (Oct. 12, Ayres Hall, room 106) for a talk, which will be followed by a reception in the gallery.