Monday, May 11, 2015

Keeping the lights on

Photo from LACMA
Artist Chris Burden passed away Sunday, at his home in Topanga Canyon.

He was a noted, often controversial artist, a pioneer in the "performance art" genre. His most notorious piece was "Shoot,"  a work where he arranged to have himself shot in the arm. He also received attention for locking himself in a school locker for five days, and for impaling himself on a Volkswagen Beetle.

But that kind of shock stuff wasn't all he did. Chris Burden was fascinated with machinery and technology, and he created moving, functional sculptures that buzzed with kinetic energy, and that awed viewers with the outsized, gigantic scale of his vision.

One of Los Angeles's best loved work of public art is Burden's "Urban Light" at the LA County Museum of Art. In this piece, 202 cast iron street lights, beautifully restored, are assembled in rows that entice visitors to explore.

I was lucky enough to have met Chris Burden and his wife, artist Nancy Rubens. In 2005, we were invited to dinner at their home up on the Mesa, where Chris's studio and workshop were located. During that visit, he showed us the collection of antique street lights, and when he turned them on, up there under the evening sky, it was magical.

Also during that visit, he showed us the prototype of what would become another well-loved piece, "Metropolis II."  We were shown one of Nancy's works in progress, a sculpture made of wrecked airplane parts exquisitely balanced in a gravity-defying formation. I also discovered Afghan War Rugs, which Nancy collected, where images of war, weapons and destruction are woven into what first seem to be traditional textiles.

Chris Burden's most recent work, a flying dirigible titled "An Ode to Santos Dumont," will be unveiled at LACMA on May 18.

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