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The Cowboy Way 



Forum for Contemporary Art

There is something rather disquieting about walking into the first-floor gallery at the Forum for Contemporary Art to see Larry Krone's exhibit To All the Girls I've Loved Before, but it's difficult to say just what it is. On the surface, nothing seems too disturbing: A few festive-looking handmade cowboy outfits hang forlornly on dressmaker's dummies. A cactus-wood lamp stands on a little shelf.

There is art on the walls, too, hundreds of little panes of glass, meticulously attached with metal pins. And each little pane frames a word from a song, formed in childlike cursive writing -- in the artist's hair.

It seems painfully appropriate for lyrics to songs like "Always on My Mind," "I Told You So" and even "Margaritaville" to be written out in this way. These songs are, after all, about pain and love, about the heart- and gut-wrenching realization that you didn't do what you should have done; that someone who says, "I told you so," might be right; and that it just could be your own damn fault.

Krone delves head-first into this melancholy arena, and the result is totally absorbing, if slightly unnerving. It's as if we have been given the chance to peek into very personal, even embarrassingly sentimental, corners of Krone's private life. These look like the works of a penitent who has sewn his own hair shirt, in the form of mantras of self-flagellation: "I'm sorry," "I keep pretending I don't love you anymore," "Leave me if you need to."

Of course, the suggestions of pain and the self-flagellation idea might apply more perfectly had Krone collected his hair by yanking out individual strands, as I first assumed. He doesn't; he gets the hair from the shower drain. But no matter. The individual hair-words still possess the quality of precious relics, with all the vulnerability and pain they suggest.

And there is something quite beautiful in the thought of Krone's devotion, the hours of time spent spelling out songs that are so often dismissed as schlocky, sappy or just plain bad. Krone identifies the real value in these songs -- the fact that they unabashedly reveal sentiments lots of us share but aren't allowed to wear on our sleeves.

The cowboy outfits are likewise handmade in an awkward and sweetly childlike manner. Working from patterns for fancy cowboy shirts and cowgirl dresses, Krone brings together materials such as shiny lame and fringe, laying them over denim (not tough, thick denim, mind you, but that weird kind of denim that looks and feels more like polyester and was reserved for "dressing up" among the kids I grew up with in Arizona).

Lucky viewers got to see these outfits in action during the Nov. 28 performance of Love Can Build a Bridge, an extravaganza featuring Krone and friends singing a selection of country hits to the accompaniment of Krone's ukelele. I had feared that the performance would come off as a mocking sendup of country giants like Dolly Parton and Randy Travis. And to be truthful, I think some of the usual black-clad art hipsters who attended were hoping for the chance to revel in more kitsch.

But to his credit, Krone didn't allow Love Can Build a Bridge to turn into a kitsch-fest. Krone's voice (and his command of the ukelele) possesses all of the innocence and vulnerability of his handiwork with hair, and his performance of songs such as Merle Haggard's "Shopping for Dresses" and Dolly Parton's "Coat of Many Colors" was so spare and serious that you couldn't help being drawn in.

Now that the gala performance is over, we are left with To All the Girls I've Loved Before, the exhibit, and that strangely painful and voyeuristic feeling that the art works produce. The "hair pieces," the Western cactus lamp, the country songs and the cowboy outfits all look like byproducts of a long and arduous search for authenticity, in love, in emotion, in country music.

I may be completely wrong. They could just as easily be sophisticated attempts to mimic these effects, to dismantle the idea of authenticity itself and the role it plays in the country genre. But what a letdown that would be! It's so much more fun to sing along with Larry and have a good cry.

Speaking of critical dismantlings, John Kelleher has put a rather solid one together for the Forum for Contemporary Art's Project Room, in the form of a video/sound installation titled Proximity, Interface. Continuous Power. By overlaying various video images on changing soundtracks, Kelleher attempts to address what he calls the "battle between what things should look like and what they should mean."

Simple juxtapositions are powerful things. We are trained to find associations between things that are next to one another (look at any ad for the most obvious example of this). Kelleher manipulates layers of disparate sounds and images, giving us an opportunity to watch our brains in action, making meaning.

The best moments in these tape loops are the jarring juxtapositions: an ad for Disney World's Animal Kingdom Park overlaid with the sounds of police sirens; a Louis Armstrong performance overdubbed with the milquetoast song "Edelweiss."

These juxtapositions could stand perfectly well on their own. Unfortunately, irritating onscreen messages about things like fetishism, spectacles, simulacra and mass media interrupt the video. These messages seem obvious, not to mention very tired. Anyone who has gotten this far doesn't need these things spelled out.

More successful, and very strongly recommended, is the other exhibit at the Forum, Action/Performance and the Photograph. Curated by Californian Craig Krull in 1993, this comprehensive collection of photographs documents the development of action and performance art from the late 1950s-1970s.

Because of their temporal nature, most art "actions" and performances exist for us exclusively in the form of photographs. But this exhibit reveals that photography serves more than a merely documentary purpose in action and performance art. Photos become stop-action icons themselves, suggesting the temporality of the performance while contradicting it. By nature, these photographs are contradictions: They embody something that now no longer exists.

This is nowhere better illustrated than in the Harry Shunk photograph of Yves Klein's "Leap into the Void" from 1960, that heart-stopping image of Klein appearing to fall face-first from a building onto a Paris street. The photo catches Klein in midair. We are left to imagine the "before" and the consequences of the "after" of a performance that itself has already passed into the void.

More conventional photo-documentation is also included in this exhibit, including a Hans Namuth photograph of the painter Jackson Pollock in action and a photograph from Chris Burden's 1971 performance "Shoot," in which the artist was shot in the arm by a friend using a rifle. (Ah, the '70s.)

Several groundbreaking feminist performances of the 1970s are also represented, including Hannah Wilke's "So Help Me Hannah" (1978-84), Eleanor Antin's Carving: A Traditional Sculpture (1972), and works by Carolee Schneemann.

This exhibit is one of the best historical surveys of conceptual art I have seen. It is an absolute must-see for anyone interested in contemporary art and theory.

All three exhibits are up at the Forum for Contemporary Art until Jan. 9.

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More by Ivy Schroeder

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