John White was teaching performance art at UC Irvine in 1983 when one of his students, a skinhead with a swastika tattooed to his scalp, announced that for his final project he wanted to suspend himself above the audience with a rope and pee on them.
White said no.
“OK,” the student said, “what about colored piss?”
“This is an audience I’ve cultivated over seven or eight years, and I’m not going to put them at risk,” White told him.
The day of the performance, the student arrived with hundreds of needles, pins and clips —“$100 worth of stationery goods” — clamped onto his face, clothes and skin, so confining he could barely move.
“It was quite exciting. He came right up to the audience and he sat there. And guess what?” White says, his eyes gleaming. “He peed in his pants. The audience went absolutely bananas.”
White, who will celebrate his 71st birthday May 10, was an active member of Los Angeles’ performance art scene until his retirement in 1986 (to focus on his abstract paintings and drawings). During his 25-year career, he made a name by putting his spectators first. Calling an audience “a frame around an artwork,” he has rejected brands of performance art that alienate or aggress viewers in favor of a style characterized by humor, accessibility and intimacy.
On May 10, he will emerge briefly from retirement for two back-to-back performances honoring the opening of the new Sylvia White Gallery on Main Street, owned by his wife. Joining him will be Pamela Casey and Steven Nagler, members of the SHRIMPS performance group and White’s old friends, who have worked with him since the ’60s.
Seven days before the opening, the gallery is still under construction. Workmen are drilling, building stairs and lugging heavy bags. The room where the performance — titled “Wall Dialogue” — will take place looks rougher still: unfinished concrete, exposed pipes and fluorescent lighting define the venue, the smallest space in the 5,000 square-foot gallery.
But White, who never plans a piece until he has seen the performance area, clearly relishes the imperfection. He points out with delight the cracks, leaks and stains from which he draws his inspiration, as though greeting old friends. He dislikes comparisons of performance art to theater, whose artificiality he believes is epitomized by use of costumes, characters and staging that set actors apart. Rather, White craves authenticity.
“I hope that people come to my performance,” he says, “and know who I really am.”
His style borders on minimalist, with lowtech lighting and simple props. A good piece is not too long, educational without being condescending, and may involve audience participation. At his first public performance in Del Mar in the ’60s, White asked participants to lie down on a bed of newspapers as a second group covered them with a layer of crumpled papers. One young man became so well hidden he fell asleep, so that even White was startled when an audience member later cried out, “My friend’s in there!”
Those surprising, organic moments are what White strives for. He loves revealing “process,” inviting an audience to participate in the evolving nature of a work rather than presenting them with a finished, polished product. And he so resists introducing a foreign element like a camera that much of his life’s work is poorly documented — Saturday’s performance will be filmed, but only at Sylvia’s insistence.
White hesitates to reveal too much about the upcoming performance, but says that the first part lasts about 25 minutes. The second half, which will take place in the front gallery, will be shorter and performed by Steven Nagler. The piece incorporates music, a few jokes, some political and cultural allusions; a question and answer session will follow.
Though performance art has a reputation for courting obscurity, White’s work has personal meaning, often incorporating realistic ideas and autobiographical memories that first arose during painting sessions. The newspaper piece was sparked by his habit of shielding his eyes from overhead light while napping at the brewery where he worked nights. A stack of stones appearing in the May 80 performance was inspired by the day laborers near White’s home who perch on these improvised stools while waiting for work.
White has also managed to avoid the medium’s preoccupation with self-destruction — as a teacher, his student contract prohibited knives and guns in the classroom — in favor of a more tempered approach.
“Rather than risking my body, I’d take a risk with certain conceptual ideas … You make form out of your fantasy and weird ideas.”
Sylvia promises that his reemergence Saturday will be “John’s night.” A timeline of his work will adorn the gallery’s otherwise snowy white walls, and guests are invited to a champagne and cake reception between the 7 and 9 p.m. performances.
White seems to appreciate the temporary hubbub, but his purpose is clear: to perform the “ritual” that will inaugurate his wife’s new venture.
“It’s kind of like a blessing to the space,” he says.
The Sylvia White Gallery is located at 1783 Main St., Ventura, 643-8300. For more information, visit www.sylviawhite.com.