DAVID ASKEVOLD CULTURAL GEOGRAPHIES AND OTHER WORKS
[First published for the catalogue as "Biographical Sketch and Video Notes" (with David Askevold) for the exhibition at Prince Edward Island's Confederation Centre Art Gallery & Museum in 1999, 69-78.]
David Askevold studied art and anthropology at the University of Montana. To pay for his tuition he sold his landscape paintings of Arizona's Superstition Mountains. He also ran a small pottery gallery, selling retail ceramics made by his fellow students, who studied under Montana artists/ceramicists Rudi Audio and Jim Leedy.
The artist has never described himself according to the media he uses, but in conversation about his youth he makes enough references to painting to make one think that it was once his major preoccupation. In his early Montana years he developed an interest in first generation European abstract painters such as Kandinsky. Indeed, Kandinsky's book Toward the Spiritual in Art helped form Askevold's disposition as an artist. (Some of Askevold's California work from the 1970s could well be described as theosophical.) The artist read Toward the Spiritual in Art as "the Bible of abstract art." Contemporary American Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock and Willem De Kooning were also important to him, and De Kooning is still one of Askevold's favourite painters.
In 1963 he won a Max Beckmann Scholarship to study painting for a year at the Brooklyn Museum School of Art in New York, an honour which was shared yearly by only ten other students from across the States. A Greyhound bus took him to a cheap flat in Brooklyn, where he lived from 1963-66. After completing the program he got a job in the Museum of Modern Art book store, and moved to Manhattan. From this vantage he saw "the new 1960s drug culture" begin to take shape. He attended many New York art events and panel discussions which included Ad Reinhardt, Donald Judd, Andy Warhol and others. Sometimes these panels were interrupted by protesters, including opponents of the Vietnam War. The Pop artists James Rosenquist and Claes Oldenberg greatly impressed Askevold at the time. (Indeed, the influence of Rosenquist can be seen later in some of Askevold's graphic art.)
In 1966 he enrolled at the Kansas City Art Institute to complete a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, this time not with a painting fellowship but with one for sculpture based on "Judd-like" fabricated aluminum works, made after striking a deal with Alco Aluminum to get free materials.
Slides of Askevold's early work reveal a strong sense of design in both bright hard edge paintings and minimalist sculptures, the latter of which were step-like interrogations of sculpture/base issues.
In Kansas City, where Halifax artist Gerald Ferguson was teaching, he studied drawing and painting as well as sculpture, receiving his degree in 1968, the year after Ferguson moved to the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design to become, in Askevold's words, the "master planner" of a new radical curriculum. Askevold went to Halifax for a interview in 1967 and joined the faculty in 1968 on the understanding that he and the artist Patrick Kelly would be sculpture instructors.
"We were seen as invasionary Americans," says Askevold of the controversy that greeted the school's reinvention. Askevold's philosophy of education was based on his reaction to the "tenured deadwood" he had encountered in his own life as a student, 'the sheep concept of corralling' in art education in which students are encouraged to emulate the style of their teachers."
Askevold's first Halifax stint lasted from 1968-1974, during which he initiated the famous "Projects Class." Accounts of his Projects Class put Askevold close to the centre of the bridge-burning project which made the Nova Scotia school perhaps the "best art school in North America," as Les Levine was put it in a 1973 Art in America article.
The NSCAD Projects Classes were highly unorthodox. Askevold commissioned New York based conceptual artists to send written instructions for works in which the students would collaborate. In the Fall of 1969, Robert Barry proposed that the students get together and "decide on a single common idea. The idea can be of any nature, simple or complex..." Sol LeWitt presented a "to do" list for the class which included: '1. A work that uses the idea of error 2. A work that uses the idea of incompleteness 3. A work that uses the idea of infinity....' Robert Smithson suggested a work that would involve mud being dumped over a cliff. Lawrence Weiner asked students to "remove" some unspecified thing Halfway Between the Equator and the North Pole."
Askevold reached maturity as an artist and art educator with the NSCAD Projects Class just before he began to make video art in 1970. His "image text stuff" or "story art" developed its fractured narratives from the clipped, recipe-like style which conceptual art had made popular in the late-1960s. Like Askevold, artists such as Bill Beckley and John Baldessari also made "story art" at this time.
Even today he often begins a project with instructions to himself which resemble the verbal outlines of Projects Class projects. But instead of literally following his own recipe for art when he makes a work, he encourages slips of meaning and reference to pile up on the verbal program until it becomes buried within a video tape or a photo/text work.
In much of Askevold's video art, documentary video footage is either raw or edited to look raw so that, as his verbal program is followed, no attempt is made to assiduously "corral" the material into a set of fixed meanings.
In 1972 he took a sabbatical in England and made a series of connections with European galleries through the assistance and encouragement of the Dutch artist Jan Dibbets. He became associated with several gallery owners who shared shows and artists, including Dibbets's associates in Amsterdam; Jack Wendler in London; Paul Maenz in Cologne; Yvonne Lambert in Paris; and Francoise Lambert in Milan. Some of these dealers had been artists, and according to Askevold their sympathy for artists was evident in their business dealings. Artists were not exclusively represented by one gallery. Some dealers, like Wendler, were wealthy enough to support experimental art without sales or commissions.
Although he was only in Europe for ten months in 1972-73, Askevold managed to show and travel a great deal. He was not back in Halifax long before the road called him again. "I had the opportunity to go to California, were my brother lived. I started doing some of my image/text pieces there."
Resigning to his peripatetic impulses, Askevold quit NSCAD in 1974. He had gotten a B grant from the federal government-funded Canada Council, and he moved to Boutilier's Point, a small community on Nova Scotia's South Shore. No sooner was he settled, however, than "out of the blue" he got a letter from the art department at Irvine, California asking him to teach. The artist Michael Asher had shown Irvine students the April 1975 edition of a German publication called Extra which was exclusively devoted to Askevold's work. It was the custom, according to Askevold, for Irvine students to vote on nominations for instructors, and he was selected to inherit the position of Bas Jan Ader, who had recently gone missing at sea.
The Irvine appointment was a marker of Askevold's growing reputation. By 1976, Rosalind Krauss, the editor of the newly launched journal October, was making Askevold's work emblematic of the art of the 1970s in "Notes on the Index, Seventies Art in America" Askevold was among only three artists who had work illustrated in this article.
At the 1977 Documenta exhibition at Kassel Askevold showed Muse Extracts, a 13 part photo text piece of ghost-like photographic reflections of the artist's head and torso taken at a pond near Crystal Crescent Beach in Nova Scotia.
In 1980, the Van Abbe Museum in Holland held a solo exhibition of Askevold's work.
The artist gained a number of sessional and full time teaching positions between 1976 and 1980 at the University of California, Irvine; the California Institute of Art at Valencia; and the Art Centre College of Design in Pasedena. In 1973, at the California Institute of the Arts (Cal Arts), he was a part-time sessional replacement for John Baldessari; in 1977-78 he taught there again, but as a full time sessional instructor.
Driving the fifty miles between Irvine and Los Angeles three or four days a week while listening to Southern California radio talk shows, immersed Askevold in California's late-70s therapeutic pop culture. This culture was to profoundly influence the content of many of the artist's California works. Askevold's cool, almost anthropological distance from the subject matter is evident in the work. One is reminded that Askevold once studied anthropology when one watches him questioning a woman in Very Soon You Will, 1977, ruminating on shrunken heads in Bliss D.F.2, 1977, or listening to his art student collaborator free-associate in John Todd and His Songs, 1977.
He took a job in Toronto as a sabbatical replacement at York University in 1981. After that he moved back to the United States again for a one-year appointment as a visiting artist in media arts in Minneapolis. A 1985 collaboration with students there resulted in an oddity in Askevold's ouevre -- his only music video to date -- a tape of two songs by the rock and roll band Husker Dü.
Askevold returned to Halifax in the summer of 1985 as a sessional instructor in intermedia at the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design "around the clock" with little time for art making. In Halifax he also began to do what he calls "industrial work" for the first time. The work he did for the Communications Division of the Department of Fisheries has been most important for his recent art; his 1993 contribution to the John Murchie curated Terra Firma exhibition at the Art Gallery at Mount Saint Vincent University was based on the videos and photographs of his fisheries department work.
Although he has shown steadily throughout his career, and has always managed to make on average at least "a tape a year," Askevold stepped up the pace of his art making in the 1990s, producing a great deal of new work, some of it with the assistance of his partner Norma Ready. Meanwhile, his older work has begun to appear in retrospective exhibitions of all sorts, for example, in Jan Peacock's NSCAD video retrospective, currently travelling across Canada; in a recent Art Metropole exhibition; and in an exhibition curated by Ann Goldstein at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles called 1965-1975 Reconsidering the Object of Art.
An indication of Askevold's continuing status as a mentoring presence -- even something of a cult figure -- amongst many younger artists was the inclusion of a collaborative piece in a 1992 mid-career exhibition of Mike Kelley's work at the Whitney Museum in New York. If Rosilind Krauss's 1976 article made Askevold's work emblematic of the art of the 1970s, Kelley's inclusion of Poltergeist (1979) in his retrospective attests to Askevold's continuing relevance to a new generation of artists.
ASKEVOLD + VIDEO
Jan Peacock's exhibition of 5 1/2 hours of video art made between the years 1972 and 1982 at Dalhousie At Gallery traced an era of Halifax video art which began at NSCAD in 1969 [Stacey/Wylie 84]. As she explains in her catalogue essay in Corpus Loquendi: Body for Speaking:
The "birth" of video art has become a kind of folk tale familiar to all video artists: in New York in 1965, the Fluxus artist Nam Jun Paik bought the first Sony Portapak -- the first on North American soil, and the first portable video equipment ever to fall into the hands of an artist. The story goes that Paik recorded his way downtown in a taxicab, shooting out the window, then played back the tape when he arrived at the Cafe A Go Go in Greenwich Village. This was the first "video art."
Video art has been television's "other" for thirty years, and many video artists see their work as a revenge on television. Askevold. however, does not parody television in his work any more than he celebrates it. His work simply resists the easy readings and narrative conventions of traditional television.
Video art may no longer be television's creative conscience. Perhaps we can date the first era of video art between its inception in 1965 and its eclipse in the early 1990s, when the breakup of mainstream media permitted an expanded video art discourse. The thirty years between 1965 and 1995 was an era in which video art predicted what television would become after the network monopolies were smashed, home video machines had proliferated, and the Internet caught fire. The expansion of cable and community channels over the past twenty years, not to mention the incorporation of the fractured narratives of video art in advertising and music videos, has established new possibilities, even if traditional television -- network television -- still tends to "corral" every complexity behind a fence of accessibility. (It is encouraging to note, for example, that Askevold's 1/4 Moon, (1986-87) has appeared on TV Ontario.)
An Askevold tape is often a loosely directed documentation of unscripted material. In many works, the artist's verbal premises serve as an enigmatic description of the result. In Rhea, 1982, for example, models are hired to portray models being hired to appear in a video production:
Rhea opens and closes with a wandering spotlight in a dark interior. Faces appear against vague landscapes, or without settings, to speak the names of others. A panning movement links the faces, allowing them to combine in essence, then in form. -- David Askevold, Red Rider
Familiar television conventions such as the voice over, the close-up, and the interview are used in Askevold videos -- everything except special effects -- but he makes them strange and distant and difficult because these conventions are not put to the traditional ends of television, that is, they are not drama, nor are they comedy, nor do they document newsworthy events. Neither do they resemble home videos. In conversation, Askevold gives the impression that he discovers the work as it is being made. It is also clear that he intends the work to unfold against a viewer's intuitions and moment-to-moment expectations. The earlier work could be best characterized as being video-based investigative activity -- it has a scientistic cast. Increasingly, however, the philosophical, investigative and literalist inclinations of conceptual art have taken a baroque -- I would use the term "existentialist" -- turn in tapes such as Don't Eat Crow (1995). Don't Eat Crow is intimately human and emotionally fraught -- the opposite of early works such as Fill (1970) and Learning About Cars and Chocolates (1972). Teaching at Irvine in the 1970s Askevold had become critical of "formulated and "dryly simplistic" conceptual art strategies: "When you start doing it as a style, then you lose what it is all about," he told me, adding "When conceptual art is bad it is probably worse than bad painting."
Once established as an art form, video became a speciality in the art world:
Gone from the scene were artists who occasionally picked up a video camera, but whose more recognized work was carried out in other media. What had emerged in Halifax, across Canada and internationally, was an area of artistic production with its own specialised interests, language, institutions and practitioners. -- Jan Peacock
If, as Peacock suggests, by the 1980s many artists had come to see themselves as specialists in one medium, Askevold has not. He still claims no specialty, no style, and no one way of working. However much his main medium is video, he continues to use photography, drawing and text, and to assemble the lot in art gallery installations without claiming to be a specialist in any media.
The artist's Dada/Fluxus attitude can frustrate his viewers and critics. Robin Metcalfe spoke of the "bafflement and rage" provoked in the audience by Askevold's Fill (1970) and Rhea (1982) at a 1988 Atlantic Canadian film festival called The 7th Wave Seminar. Askevold, that is to say, offers no straightforward explanation for what he does. Silver Donald Cameron:
An interview with Askevold is a strange experience, though not an unpleasant one. He is cordial and co-operative. He talks easily, and you do not immediately realize that the questions he is answering are not exactly the ones you asked. As time goes by, your questions grow longer; his answers grow shorter and more oblique. By the end of your visit he has faded away, leaving -- like the Cheshire Cat -- an enigmatic smile hanging in the air.
It is amusing to see how often Askevold's work is made into an emblem of difficulty, as if difficulty were a substance in the art, or the only way to characterize it short of an exhaustive commentary on its content:
"David Askevold works with photos and texts which seem to pursue a logic unknown to our scheme of things." -- Silvana Sinisi, "Some Artists," Data 16/17, Summer 1975
"A scramble of diverse visual and verbal references, his work forbids the linear reading of ABC conceptualists." -- Art Forum, March 1974, p.74
"David Askevold's work presents a number of demanding problems for those who are interested in understanding the sources and 'reasons' for art productions." -- Frederick Dolan, "Structures Ambiguity Makes..." (unpublished manuscript) 1976, p.30
[and, the same critic, over ten years later...]
"One of the most persistent reactions to Askevold's work is the extreme difficulty one experiences trying to state what has happened in a given tape." -- Frederick Dolan, Vanguard magazine, Feb/March 1988.
"Like the mysticism of the symbolists, Askevold's ambiguity is a rhetorical and schizophrenic one; born as a critique of materialism, it defines itself through its opposition. And like their mysticism, it suggests an alternative enlightenment but also insists on and reifies the mysterious as proof of its claims." -- Howard Singerman. "David Askevold: Dialog in Oppositions," Artweek, February 14, 1981
"When I tried to describe [Rhea] afterwards to myself I found it hard to locate the relevant facts, or even to remember precisely what had taken place." -- Peggy Gale, "The problem of Description" in Vidéo, Artexte, 1986 p.185 (This passage was also quoted by Dolan in Vanguard)
Like Peggy Gale, the notes and drawings I made while watching Askevold's tapes never quite added up to a conventional narrative. Even with notes, remembering a tape as an ordered sequence of shots is difficult. One comes away instead with a series of mostly banal images and fragments, as if remembered from a dream. The mnemonic devices by which we usually remember stories are often absent from Askevold's work, and so the sequences must be learned by rote, as it were, the way one can learn to sing in a language the sense of which one does not understand. The melody helps, but only a little. Askevold's tapes do not provide a viewer with the comforting narrative structures of traditional television, nor does he provide us with the overdetermined banality and familiar faces of home videos.
This is where the novice viewer may part company with the art world insider. People who have seen a lot of art tend to feel that if a message is too telegraphically conveyed, or if an older form is unknowingly repeated, then the art is not very interesting. In contrast, Askevold's uniquely nuanced ambiguities provide no old precedents for experiencing the work.
Askevold's work demands that its audience construct its a posteriori sense. Going ever back to the loose verbal premises upon which an Askevold work is built reveals how the documentary nature of the work -- the empirical content of a tape -- fulfills, resists, encodes, or amplifies that verbal program. Part of the pleasure of Askevold's work happens as an attempt is made to square the vicissitudes of a tape's content with the putative scheme, even if that scheme appears to go deliberately off-track the moment the artist's video camera is turned on.
Contemporary artists may wrongly assume that a viewer is capable of constructing new responses to new work without bracketing those responses themselves as a routinized reflex to avant-garde visual art. Perhaps the idea that the viewer should participate in the construction of a work's meaning has itself become a tired convention. If the ubiquity of video cameras and the changing nature of television have brought the first era of video art to some kind of historical closure, perhaps new responses to art may have also reached an historical limit in many of art's audiences. I would argue, however, that a consciousness of these historical limits does not make experiencing work like Askevold's any less challenging.
Gregory Battcock. New Artists Video. New York: Dutton, 1978
AA Bronson. From Sea to Shining Sea. Toronto: The Power Plant, 1987
Silver Donald Cameron. Terra Firma. Halifax: Art Gallery Mount Saint Vincent University, 1993, p.5
Frederick Dolan and Peggy Gale. David Askevold. Eindhoven: The Van Abbe Museum, 1981
Lucy R. Lippard. Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972. New York: Praeger, 1973
Kynaston L. McShine. Information New York:Museum of Modern Art, 1970
Annette Michelson, Rosalind Krauss, Douglas Crimp and Joan Copjec. October, The First Decade, 1976-1986, Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1987
Jan Peacock. Corpus Loquendi Body for Speaking. Halifax: Dalhousie Art Gallery, 1994
Christina Ritchie. David Askevold: Double Agent. Toronto:Art Metropole, 1994
Alan Sondheim. "David Askevold: Four Selections" in Individuals: Post-Movement Art in America. New York: Dutton, 1977, pp.85-103
Robert Stacey and Liz Wylie. Eighty/Twenty, 100 Years of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, Halifax: The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, 1988
David Askevold Works Cited in this Essay:
Fill, 1970 - Black and white, mono, 8 minutes, Halifax, Nova Scotia
Learning about Cars and Chocolates, 1972 (with Jack Wendler) - Black and white, mono, 30 minutes, London, England
The Ambit, Part I, 1975 - photographs with text
Very Soon You Will, 1977 - colour, mono, 28 minutes (assisted by the University of California, Irvine, Ca.)
Bliss D.F.2, 1977 - colour, stereo, 16 minutes (assisted by the Long Beach Museum of Art, Long Beach, Ca. and the Foundation for art Resources, Los Angeles, Ca.)
Rhea, 1982 - colour, stereo, 6 minutes 50 seconds (assisted by the Ontario Arts Council; production, Trinity Square Video; Post Production, Charles Street Video, Toronto, Canada)
Makes No Sense at All & Love is All Around, 1985 - colour, Stereo, 4 minutes, 10 seconds (a music video for Husker Du, a Minneapolis-based band; Askevold was co-director, co-camera and co-editor)
1/4 Moon, 1986 - colour, stereo, 8 minutes, 30 seconds (assisted by Canada Council; production and post-production at the Centre for Art tapes, Halifax)
Once Upon a Time in the East, 1993 - installation of video, photographs and a map at the Mount Saint Vincent University Art Gallery as part of the group exhibition Terra Firma
Don't Eat Crow, 1995 - colour, stereo, 28 minutes, 30 seconds (production at Saint Mary's University Creativity Lab, Halifax; on-line editing at the Centre for Art Tapes, Halifax)