Off the Wall

updated 07/14/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/14/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Lynn Hershman pretended to be someone else for four years. Michael Peppe stutters, burps, does birdcalls and sings Gershwin, TV jingles and Gregorian chants, all in one minute flat. Mark Pauline stages battles between fire-spouting machines decorated with dead animals.

It may come as no great surprise that these unusual people live in San Francisco, the country's most tolerant city. They are all working in a thriving young medium called performance art. Devised by creative types who aren't content to specialize, performance art incorporates dance, comedy, cabaret, opera, filmmaking, video, painting and anything else that fascinates the artist. The result can be amateurish, brilliant, outrageous or deadly dull. But the offbeat mix gives a needed poke to tired art styles and delights hip fans who will sit through anything as long as it's different. After almost two decades of obscurity, this year performance art is threatening to go—dast one use the word?—mainstream. Last April, Laurie Anderson, the medium's biggest star, released her first performance movie, Home of the Brave, in which she sings, accompanied by high-and low-tech sound-and-light effects. And sign of signs, even Hollywood promotes the art form: Daryl Hannah plays a performance artist in Legal Eagles.

Though New York City is home to many of performance art's biggest stars, San Franciscans consider their town the capital of the genre and its spawning ground; they surely have the most performance artists per capita. More than a hundred individuals in the Bay Area create performance art, and countless more contribute to works that require volunteer players. One crowd specializes in the grotesque; another creates surreal versions of vaudeville; still another uses technological advances to make lavish, operatic sound-and-light shows. In Rare-area, which drew 30,000 viewers worldwide, George Coates projected magnified architectural images on blinds and curtains to create stunning optical illusions: Live performers seemed to float among the images as they sang incomprehensible verses in the best operatic style.

Sculptor Tom Marioni helped launch San Francisco's performance art scene in 1970 when he opened the Museum of Conceptual Art, which exhibits live art exclusively. The early performances were fairly abstract: Paul Kos amplified the sound of two melting ice blocks. But soon painters and sculptors began to stretch the limits of their work by performing jointly with dancers, actors and musicians. By 1980 a performance-art program was offered at the San Francisco Art Institute. Today the most lively and probably biggest outlet for all this action is the Art Motel, a flophouse bought by lawyer-photographer Mark Rennie, who runs a nightclub downstairs and pays artists or even wild-minded laymen $50 to $70 a night to check into the six guest rooms upstairs. Each guest is expected to redecorate his or her room and somehow entertain the 1,500 weekly visitors who, usually after midnight, stop by to peek through the open doors and windows. Three people in clown suits filled one room with popcorn. On another night, an artist posing as a therapist transcribed the fantasies of volunteers onto the walls.

"Some performance art is silly," concedes Alan Finneran, himself a practitioner. "But out of this environment comes a lot of excitement and good work." Even establishment America is beginning to agree. Last year's convention of the American Institute of Architects, a group not particularly avant-garde, ended with Ellen Sebastian's Building Images, in which elderly women did a striptease in a fountain surrounded by skateboarders rigged with fluorescent lights. In some places, they'd call that a nightmare. In San Francisco, it came off merely as a little bit light show, a little bit tableau vivant, a little bit comedy, a little bit social statement. In short, performance art.

Chris Hardman and Laura Farabough started the innovative Snake Theater performance group in 1972. Though they now run separate troupes, Hardman, 36, and Farabough, 37, still create the wackiest works in San Francisco. Farabough's Nightfire Theater uses the city as its backdrop. The group has performed symbolic plays in a locker room, a swimming pool and a waterfront bar, where the drinkers took roles. Under Construction drew audiences into a tiny, paper-walled room in a warehouse. After a limo smashed down the walls, the audience watched actors in a forklift and crane careen around a 20-foot replica of the Cheops pyramid. Twenty video screens showed the action from varied angles.

Hardman's Antenna Theater gets the crowd even closer to the action by putting a tape deck and earphones on viewers as they interact with his strikingly sculpted sets. In 1982's Artery, hour-long tapes led audience members one by one through a seven-room maze in a dark warehouse, with clues to a murder mystery around every corner. Hardman used 60 actors and 300 volunteers at the 1985 San Francisco Fair to stage Fair Play, which recreated an LSD trip, the 1906 earthquake and 22 other events.

Hardman, who has worked as a juggler, fire-eater and fun-house designer, first trained as a sculptor, and Farabough began as a painter. "A studio artist is a very lonely animal," says Hardman. "So I decided to animate my art and make it perform." Now that nearly 10,000 people have donned headphones at Fair Play, he is less lonely.

Fred Curchack, got up as a detective in a trench coat and false mustache, stands largely unnoticed in the lobby before his latest show, Inquest for Freddy Chickan, but his presence soon becomes commanding. Curchack begins his piece by repeating conversations he overheard in the lobby. He then plays six other roles, including a German-Japanese erotic dancer and a Zeus figure (above). Curchack, 38, uses mime, puppetry, masks, ventriloquism, optical illusions and comedy to advance his plot, a sort of mystery-romance parody. He also controls the lighting and sound system and, with two $2.50 flashlights, Bic lighters and a mesh curtain, gives a no-frills magic show. In one scene, his shadow grows ominously over the crowd, then flits away. In past shows, Curchack quoted Brecht, Joyce and Shakespeare while interpreting African, Balinese and Native American folk rituals. "San Francisco performers," he says, "are willing to try unusual things that could fail."

Tony Pellegrino set out to study sculpture at Kent State University in 1972, but after molding his first papier-mâché Halloween mask, he felt drawn to perform. "Masks only come alive," he says, "when somebody puts them on." In his first major piece, Pellegrino, 33, showed the stages of a scream with a series of masks. In his current work, Deer Rose, about his mother's death from cancer, he sets up tableaus (shown in photos) with masked actors, sometimes on stilts, wearing painted canvas robes. As the characters age, they change masks. "I didn't want to dump my problems on the audience," says Pellegrino. "I wanted to create an art form." The people who sobbed at a recent performance seemed to suggest that the technique works.

Ambrosia Transpersonal Communications When painter Tim O'Neill let fellow performers drip hot wax on his stomach in a show at the Art Motel, the audience was very comfortable compared to the crowd at a recent performance by O'Neill's mentor, Kristine Ambrosia, 32. She insisted that her viewers wear black tape on their mouths, plastic bags (with breathing holes) over their heads and nooses around their necks. Ambrosia, who writes children's books on the side, has staged shows since 1975 that included such acts as whipping and shooting sharp-pointed darts at her assistants. Entering an ecstatic trance, Ambrosia attempts to use primal violence to recreate powerful ancient rituals. O'Neill, 36, who says his hot-wax ordeal didn't hurt him, declares that he and Ambrosia bring new meaning to forgotten rites. "It's one thing to paint ancient myths," he says. "It's another thing to do them."

Soon 3 A priest stands on his head on a revolving platform as a woman in a red evening dress spins the platform with a long pole. A string attached to the priest's toe lifts a red wind sock off a black pedestal that reveals a glass of red wine. Most people who wander around the large room containing three separate platforms can't begin to explain what they're seeing. But as the performers, including two men dressed as a gymnast and a pilot, surround the audience, the effect is undeniably lively—rather like being inside a pinball machine. Alan Finneran, 42, founder of the six-member Soon 3 troupe, gave up conventional painting when he found that music, sculpture and actors gave greater impact to his ideas. His works have featured a giant red shoe and a nude woman in a Plexiglass, water-filled coffin. Finneran's son Max, 8, liked the huge sculptures in his dad's last show best. After performances he crawled in to play.

Sha Sha Higby last spring appeared (in a tiny garage with an audience of five) in one of the most intricate and delicate outfits ever worn. Little creatures with heads, hands and feathers hung from her fingers. Twigs, string and tiny checkered cloths covered her arms. Bells dotted her hand-painted, hand-stitched silk-and-gold-leaf gown. Looking like a forest nymph, Sha Sha began to dance, stripping off parts of her outfit for half an hour until she danced naked, her body covered with earth-toned makeup and glitter.

"In my work, it gets more involved, more beautiful, when you get up close," says Sha Sha, 33, who studied puppetry and performance in Indonesia on a 1978 Fulbright-Hayes grant. She takes between six months and four years to create each of her costumes, gathering pine cones, grasses, foliage and other mostly natural materials.

Higby, who made hundreds of stuffed, painted paper birds as a child, originally hoped to make toys as an adult, "but the ones I made were too spooky and way out." So she turned to performance. "There's a point when I want to dance," Sha Sha says. "But other times I wish my body would disappear and the sculpture could move on its own." Who knows? Maybe one day...

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