In the late 1960s when a recent art-school graduate, Bruce Nauman began to
explore issues relating to the practice of artmaking and to the role of the artist.
Performances that put his own body under duress paralleled those that demanded
as much of paid performers or of spectators: compare the physically exhausting
Slow Angle Walk (Beckett Walk) (1968) with Body Pressure (1974), exacting
mental exercises in which, respectively, an actor and viewers are required
through intense concentration to try to suffuse themselves into the architecture
of the room. Sometimes these works were orchestrated for the camera in the
studio, to become later single-monitor video pieces; sometimes they were
choreographed for a gallery or museum situation.
More recently, in the multiscreen projection Mapping the Studio I (Fat Chance John Cage) (2001), Nauman has returned to these themes. Over the course of the summer of 2000 he set up an infrared camera in multiple positions in his studio to track the nocturnal activities of mice, moths, and other sundry creatures. Edited down to some six hours per projector, the footage in the resulting installation offers a wryly elliptical take on the mundanities of daily studio activity, as replete with languor as with moments of visionary insight.
First constructed as a prop for an early video piece, Performance Corrido (1969) eventually became an autonomous work, which soon spawned numerous progeny. Some related pieces, such as the Nick Wilder corridor (1970), incorporate surveillance cameras and closed-circuit video systems that function like electronic mirrors. Both these virtual mirrors and the real mirrors Nauman used elsewhere allow spectators to see places that they might not imagine they would be able to see. A strange, frustrating sense of dislocation is engendered by denying physical access to what can be seen.
Although Nauman posited in his early work a notion of the artist as visionary or seer-the revealer of "mystic truths"-his conception subsequently darkened into a more authoritarian and implacable paradigm, as evidenced in a series of neon works he made in the 1980s. The terse texts and violent images found in such works as White Anger, Red Danger, Yellow Peril, Black Death (both from 1985) relentlessly assault the viewer. Occasionally, as evidenced in South America Circle (1981), his abiding preoccupation with issues of power as they pertain to the realm of the aesthetic-to the relation between artist, artwork, and beholder- expands to take on wider political reference.
The compass of Nauman’s humor is as broad as his imagination is protean. Idiomatic expressions in the form of both verbal and visual signs have long interested him. Among his key early works is a sculpture titled From Hand to Mouth (1967), which depicts just that: a cast of the relevant parts of a person’s body. In the 1980s, the expression "better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick" seems to have prompted several works in neon. Whereas Double Poke in the Eye II (1985) verges on the slapstick, White Anger, Red Danger, Yellow Peril, Black Death assumes the guise of signage for a still-timely message whose humor is characteristically mordant.