Technicolor Dreams

Ahhhh, the ’70s — the decade when free love morphed into herpes simplex, when every young American seemingly had a coke spoon around their necks and a bottom drawer full of 8mm art porn films, when Barry Gibb’s hair was lush and plentiful.

It was also the first time America recognized its looming energy crisis, suffered the fallout of jungle warfare and realized that the Civil Rights Movement was the beginning — not the end — of a long struggle.

And it was all reflected in the visual art, music and filmmaking of the time. The Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville investigates the notorious decade with several new exhibits, lectures, even a screening of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” A bit odd, but not totally out of character, as the museum hosts “ReFocus: Art of the 1970s” as part of an ongoing series covering each decade from the ’60s into the ’80s and beyond.

Folio Weekly recently spoke to curator Ben Thompson about art, meaning and the cultural impact of era.

Folio Weekly: What spurred this focus on individual decades?

Ben Thompson: We sort of went back to the core of what is the mission of the institution. Our mission begins in 1960 — we focus on 1960 to the present — so we wanted to revisit the three decades right at the core of our mission. So we started off in January with 60-’69. The exhibition that we are [beginning] is 1970-’79. Then in the fall, we’ll enter the 1980s. For us, those really were pivotal decades for contemporary art.

F.W.: What is it about the movements of the early 20th century, and the ’50s and ’60s in particular, that inspired the photorealist painters of the ’70s?

B.T.: I think that many of [those] works were laying the foundation for works that came later, or opening new doors. In terms of photorealism — painting that is trying to emulate, as closely as possible, photography — much of photorealism came about because of camera technology. Consumers were gaining access to small, hand-held cameras that we could take snapshots with, so snapshots were becoming first material, feeding back into painting. And then they would work even further, connecting back to early paintings, in which the paintings would be gridded out, painted meticulously, square-by-square, in this grid, to maintain proportion and scale.

F.W.: Who are some of the artists represented in the photorealist portion of the exhibit?

B.T.: Robert Bechtle. There’s a great painting that’s on loan from Gibbes Museum of Art in South Carolina. Richard Estes’ car reflections. There’s Robert Cottingham, Mel Ramos. Many of the artists that were working in that style. For me, what encapsulates the ’70s starts in the ’60s. Artists were really pushing the envelope. One of the biggest developments to come out of the period is performance work. The body is art. The experience is art. It became less about the object and more about the idea or the concept.

F.W.: What is the most powerful aspect of ’70s art?

B.T.: There was a lot happening. The gay rights movement, feminism in full force, the Civil Rights movement — all reverberations that were still being felt in the ’70s. Economically, it was a dark time. The oil situation — the inner cities were bleak and dismal and crime-ridden. Many of the environments that these artists were existing in were really difficult. The artists at that time felt as if they didn’t have anything to lose. No boundaries.

F.W.: So what’s up with “The Rocky Horror Picture Show?” You know, in a museum and all …

B.T.: We wanted to involve some of the popular culture of the times, too. We have plenty of educational programming, but we also wanted it to be fun.

John E. C

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