By Tony Oursler
Published in Art Forum, July. 1, 2008
My personal cosmology of Conceptualism starts with snakes: David Askevold's Kepler's Music of the Spheres Played by Six Snakes, 1971-74, to be exact. As a student at CalArts in 1977, a time when the art department was known for its Conceptual slant-in retrospect, this could have been the last gasp of the last American "ism"-I heard Askevold lecture on the work. Even when conveyed only in slides and audio, Kepler's Music of the Spheres struck me as a stunning installation; it mixes elements of performance, music, and homemade apparatus, featuring suspended live snakes that play a number of specially tuned string instruments with ball bearings. The work's struggle between ideas and physicality, slithering back and forth, was a vivid example of Conceptualism and its possible future. It's a Rube Goldberg contraption that aims to shed light on the larger system of the universe, evoking both transcendence and disturbance, a combination that I would come to recognize in many of Askevold's works.
Askevold was born in Montana in 1940 and studied anthropology and art at the state university before moving to New York to attend the Brooklyn Museum Art School. There he was introduced to the work of Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, and Cy Twombly, as well as an idea about artmaking that was going around at the time: "It didn't matter how it was made," Askevold would say later, "if you liked the concept behind it." It was at the Kansas City Art Institute in 1967 that Askevold met Gerald Ferguson, a Halifax artist, and the following year they both joined the faculty of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. Askevold was at the center of NSCAD's legendary transformation into an innovative, bridge-burning art school. Although hired to teach sculpture, he became well known for his Projects class, in which he invited artists-Dan Graham, Robert Smithson, Lawrence Weiner, and Lucy Lippard, among others-to submit ideas that would be created collaboratively by students. (Graham, Vito Acconci, and Dennis Oppenheim took over his class while Askevold traveled around Europe for exhibitions.) In 1975, he was drawn into the sun-drenched vortex of Los Angeles when he was invited to teach at the University of California, Irvine, to take the place of Bas Jan Ader, who had been lost at sea. Askevold stayed in Los Angeles for ?ve years, and he became an important ?gure in the Conceptual scene of Southern California, exhibiting and teaching at various schools. I ?rst met him during his yearlong residency at CalArts, when I enrolled in one of his classes. Each week he would give written assignments that, as I remember, were more poems than instructions. My ?rst collaboration with Askevold was musical. At the time, I was in a band/performance group, the Poetics, with Mike Kelley and John Miller, among others. Knowing of our project, Askevold asked me to sing a song he had written, called "Searing Gum," which had something to do with a catastrophic event emanating from the sky: "Searing gum, hits village, why our town? / Shoot all, shoot all, shoot all the dogs in town!" We played music together, recorded a number of sessions, and became good friends, keeping in touch as we both migrated east-he eventually back to Halifax and me to New York.
Another early work of Askevold's that haunted me was The Ghost of Hank Williams, 1979. In the Conceptual tradition of art production, such as that of Bruce Nauman or Sol LeWitt, the piece was sketched and dated, an idea on paper to be fabricated at a future date. Williams had died in 1953 at age twenty-nine, a burned-out, drug-addicted star-his last single, "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive," went to number one on the charts posthumously-and Askevold was fascinated by the singer's lilting voice and band of Drifting Cowboys. The installation piece would feature an interlacement of looping systems: Infrared video cameras, microphones, speakers, and motorized still cameras would sweep the room, and dry ice would hang from the ceiling, pouring a mist onto a stagelike platform, while "Ramblin' Man" played on a sound system and a "caller" repeated "Hank, Hank, Hank . . . ." Here and elsewhere, Askevold used everyday subject matter, materials, and media, and transformed them into something inexplicable, oblique, and evocative. The dry ice, for instance, suggested nothing so much as a block of the stuff cooling beer on a hot day at the ranch. Here in the dark room, it would cascade visions, so that the ?gure of a country-and-western singer could invoke something hidden, submerged, or latent in our culture.
The drawing was exhibited in Los Angeles, but the actual installation was never shown publicly. Still, a work can be important even when we know it only through documentation or word of mouth. I know that for me, over time, these works took shape in my imagination and offered a model, a standard to emulate. In many ways, Snakes and Hank are prototypical of the art that would be produced later by my generation and the following one. Askevold described and practiced a multimedia approach to installation that was a unique combination of sound, language, video, and theatrical immersive elements. These projects trace ideas of game theory in personal structures, referencing wild combinations of art history, rock music, and the tabloid press, to name just a few in?uences. Askevold's position in art history is mercurial, hard to pin down, but for me he is a missing link: a Conceptualist whose approach to light and language connects him, via Brion Gysin, to the previous generation. His in?uence is clear in the eclectic installation work of Jim Shaw and of Mike Kelley, who was also a student, friend, and collaborator; his approach to the spatial connectivity of ideas is a harbinger of the scatter works of Cady Noland; and I see echoes of Askevold in later generations, such as the hermetic cosmology of Matthew Barney and Thomas Hirschhorn. While many Conceptualists fractured and deconstructed the classic popular forms of ?lm and image, a strategy that led to numerous wonderful endgames, few artists attempted to ?nd a way forward with a new narrative approach. For his part, Askevold used video's mimetic ability to engage viewers psychologically, masterfully mixing language, sound, and image to mysterious effect. Horror movie, mental-health documentary, soap opera, psychological tests-these genres come to mind when pondering the videos, as do adjectives such as ambient and lush. Reading critical essays and reviews about these works, I've noticed a common thread of vexation: Peggy Gale, for example, wrote of the 1982 video Rhea, "When I tried to describe it afterwards to myself I found it hard to locate the relevant facts, or even to remember precisely what had taken place." Askevold was interested in trance, hypnosis, and altered consciousness-he recognized that the medium of video was intrinsically mind-altering, and, it seems, he managed to transmit this state to the viewer.
Askevold was also passionate about photography, to which he turned throughout his life, constantly coding and decoding images in a way that was demanding for audiences. His early works were presented in large grids or rows, often accompanied by his own dense texts. These celebrated pictures from the mid-1970s are far from the clean, clear, Conceptual icons we are familiar with; they are full of multiple exposures, re?ections, burns, and blurs. The works elude categorization, but they contain hints of protopunk and some connection to the Boston School of artists. His texts are not elucidations, instead serving to lead you further into a maze of mental constructs. For example, the shadowy series "The Ambit: Nine Clauses and Their Allocations" of 1975 states: "Its resolution is dependent upon an identity which has helped to form this presence but has never recommended or conceived its present condition/extention."
Askevold's photographs sometimes resemble ?lm storyboards or strips, charting the trajectory of a hallucinogenic event-like a visit to the state fair gone awry. Using a technique similar to that of Richard Prince, Askevold rephotographed found images, and the results made their way into his compositions. While parts of his work levitate with remote ephemeral beauty, he would often anchor them with a graphic suture of popcultural appropriation. By 2000, Askevold was collecting pictures from everywhere, cataloguing them for a grand project with serious implications for image construction in the Internet age-something particularly evident in Askevold's "Pilescapes," 1999-2001 (shown at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions in 2001) based on inter-juxtapositions within a massive collection of pop-cultural images. Here he was working with lensless photography in Photoshop, a logical progression for an artist who had been manipulating images optically in the darkroom for more than twenty-?ve years. Rendered in bright synthetic colors and minute detail, these works are shocking in their intensity, and disorienting at ?rst because there is no obvious perspectival viewpoint: The images can be read with equal clarity from up close, giving a micro sense, and from afar, on a macro level. This organization of information mirrors the scaling and unfolding of the new kind of visual space offered by the Internet. Askevold intended "Pilescapes" to be shown in shared, very public spaces, installed as murals in parking lots and building lobbies. In 2003, Askevold started showing in New York again, starting with an installation at CANADA, Two Hanks. He had revised his earlier work to address not only Hank Williams but also Hank Snow-another, very different country-and-western singer-creating an American cowboy phantasmagoria. From the droning tones of Askevold's voice as he bloodied his ?ngers on his guitar to the vaporizing of the dry ice, the experience was cathartic. The work had been a ghost for me, as much of art history is for artists. Now I was seeing the masterwork ?rsthand-and it went beyond even what I had imagined. The Great Plains materialized on the Bowery.
Last year, Askevold and I began e-mailing each other pictures and messages; slowly, over a few months, we found ourselves in a formal collaborative project. We experimented with simultaneity, making work at the same time while in different locations-he in Halifax, me in Manhattan or wherever I happened to be. To initiate a working session he would concoct the perfect parameters, suggesting: "start at 12 am, friday 13th, draw with eyes closed while listening to the movie sound track (Aliens 2), then take photos of objects given to you by family members, later try to shoot short video clips." So went the collaboration, for more than six months, full of amazing collisions, as we traded images back and forth, digitally layering, printing, and drawing onto scans; the resulting pictures and videos stretched and tested my imagination. He ended one e-mail on October 15, 2007, "logic and nonsense shaken up in the same bag, xo": what followed were two mirror images of retouched photographs. None of this work has been exhibited yet, but it will eventually be organized in a chronological installation.
David's deep understanding of abstraction and pictorial space, which he often combined, is present throughout his work. It makes for spectacular, shape-shifting photographic and moving images: Stains or blobs resolve into images and back again, leaving one unsure of what the artist exactly pictures and what is a result of the mind. Recent neurology studies illuminate the tendency of the human brain to organize "noise" into images. Visual parts of the brain see possible patterns and ?ll in the blanks to complete them; this recognition is thought to underlie reasoning and perception. Perhaps Askevold will someday be seen as having found a way to invade the very fabric of our reason.
Tony Oursler is an artist based in New York.