Mark Chamberlain: The Irrepressible Artivist
March 20, 2023 marked 20 years since the U.S.-led Shock and Awe invasion of Iraq began — a war waged on the false charge that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. That less-than-auspicious time is also when I met Mark Chamberlain, the former Laguna Beach, California-based photographer, installation and environmental artist, and gallery owner.
Mark Chamberlain and Jerry Burchfield, “The Tell,” 1989. Photo courtesy BC Space
In late March 2003 I first visited Chamberlain’s gallery, BC Space, to gather information for my review on his exhibition “Pretty Lies: Dirty Truths,” a thematic group show artfully challenging the assumptions used to justify the War in Iraq and for war in general. Notable among the many pieces on display, there was a photo of a handsome Black man wearing Marine dress blues by L.A. photographer Dennis Keeley. It was placed on top of Lynn Kubasek’s American flag in black and silver, which rested in turn on top of a funeral casket, together approximating a coffin for a marine killed in action.
Other works included several Afghan rugs featuring war motifs and a photo of President Eisenhower, above his 1961 Farewell Presidential Address, which read in part, “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”
Mark Chamberlain during his service in Korea, 1967
Soon after meeting Mark, we became friends, and then life partners until he passed away on April 23, 2018, just after Earth Day.
Spurred by Mark’s anti-war perspectives, I often asked him about his experiences in South Korea during the time of the War in Vietnam. Narrowly avoiding jungle duty, he spent time with soldiers who were sent to Korea to recuperate from the severe physical and emotional scars they sustained in active combat in Vietnam. Their stories profoundly affected his perspectives about war and its corrupt politics, causing him to reflect deeply on his purpose in life and about how art can help change our world for the better.
Indeed, Chamberlain’s tour of duty did change the trajectory of his life. While in Korea, he took classes in that country’s language and history, and studied under a photography instructor in the military crafts program. Mr. Chae became an important mentor, teaching him darkroom techniques and encouraging him to examine the deeper messages in his photographs. With his newfound skills, Mark toured the Korean cities and countryside, conversing with the people and photographing their lifestyles.
Years later, he wrote to a friend: “I was fortunate to survive active duty during a very bizarre era. Fortuitously, I picked up a camera as a means of focusing my attention and observations, while maintaining an objective detachment, but also providing a way to share my views with others. I came to embrace the power of the photograph to communicate ideas, not just to convey images of things or activities.”
Chamberlain’s wartime experiences influenced him to move to Los Angeles in 1969 from his hometown of Dubuque, Iowa, to become a photographic artist, to open a photography gallery, and ultimately to mount many politically and environmentally oriented exhibitions. He once told me, “I have often felt like an accidental tourist in the art world, as unanticipated events led me on my artistic path.”
Chamberlain moved to Laguna Beach in 1970, where, along with photography, he supported himself as a housepainter, carpenter, electrician and handyman, developing skills that he later used to re-construct his Forest Avenue gallery and lab. On April Fools’ Day 1973 he opened BC Photography and Custom Lab Services with art partner Jerry Burchfield. In that 1,000-square-foot space (later expanded) the art partners shot and processed film for commercial clients, galleries, museums and artists. They also presented photography exhibitions, displaying a wide range of work, many infused with political, social, and environmental messages.
Over time I came to understand that Chamberlain’s efforts to help improve the world through art exhibitions was only part of his mission. He had co-founded with Burchfield the Laguna Canyon Project, a multi-phased environmental art effort (1980-2010), to document deleterious changes in the bucolic Laguna Canyon. As he wrote in 1988 in the Journal of Orange County Studies, “Local residents see the Canyon as a greenbelt buffer, while others view it as virgin territory ripe for development. But we felt it imperative to call into question prevailing conceptions of progress. We used photography, video, sculpture, performance, installations and collaborative events to address these concerns.”
The Project’s largest and most dramatic phase was “The Tell,” a 636-foot long, 36-foot high photographic mural, constructed in 1989 by several hundred volunteers, across from the Irvine Company’s proposed Laguna Laurel [housing] project to be constructed in what is today the 7,000-acre Laguna Coast Wilderness Park. The name “Tell” comes from the archeological term for a mound of artifacts from prior civilizations, buried by natural elements.
Applying the skin of “The Tell.” Photo courtesy of BC Space
"The Tell," detail, 1989. Photo courtesy BC Space
“The Tell’s” biggest demonstration, the “Walk to Save the Canyon,” occurred on November 11,1989, just days before the Orange County Board of Supervisors was scheduled to grant approval for the 2,200-acre housing project. On that Veterans’ Day, 9-11,000 people walked, hiked and biked from the Festival of Arts grounds in downtown Laguna into the canyon and over the hills to "The Tell" to demonstrate their desire to preserve Laguna Canyon.
As a consequence of this public display and its extensive press coverage, Donald Bren, Irvine Company owner (who was to build the housing project) ultimately agreed to negotiate with Irvine and Laguna Beach to release the land for public acquisition. Following negotiations and a vote by Laguna Beach residents to tax themselves to buy that canyon property, that land is now a part of the Wilderness Park – and a rare undeveloped area in Orange County.
In 1987, during the heyday of the Laguna Canyon Project (but before "The Tell" was built), Chamberlain assumed sole ownership of BC Space. He soon began expanding the gallery’s exhibitions to include other visual and performance media, along with photography. “Ideas and issues expressed through art became more important to me than just one medium,” he explained. He also explored controversial issues, including art as an expression of our deepest yearnings; healthy sexuality; societal evolution; politics and economics; the abuse of indigenous peoples; environmental concerns; and the hell and hypocrisy of war.
Mark Chamberlain at entrance to exhibition “Amerikan Krazy: Life Out of Balance” at BC Space, 2016. Courtesy of the Orange County Register
Bradford Salamon, "Mark Chamberlain Portrait"
BC Space exhibitions included “Inside Out” (1988), about mental illness; “Just War” (1991), about the first Gulf War; “Cities of Chance, LA/NY” (1998), contrasting coastal lifestyles; “For Shame” (2004), a reaction to a politician’s prohibition of nudity in art; and “Come Hell and High Water” (2007), a scathing photographic essay on Hurricane Katrina.
Following the success of “Pretty Lies: Dirty Truths” in 2003, Chamberlain mounted “Mean Times ... Back at Home” in 2004, artfully illuminating the consequences for Americans of the War in Iraq. In 2008, he exhibited “My Father's Party is Busted,” addressing the stark reality that most issues raised in those two previous shows still applied several years later, and with dire consequences.
“Capital Crime$” (2012- 2013) addressed how, as Chamberlain described it, “The power of concentrated money has subverted professions, destroyed small investors, wrecked the regulatory state, corrupted legislators en masse, and repeatedly put the economy through the wringer.” He asked many artists, “Do you have anything to say about this dire economic situation and would you like to add your voice to the debate?” More than 60 artists contributed paintings, sculptures, collages, assemblages, mixed media, installations, photographs, and videos. Chamberlain wove these works together into a powerful indictment on the abuses of money in our culture.
Chamberlain continued to curate shows, melding art with important issues until January 2018, three months before his passing. The former BC Space gallery continues today in the same Forest Avenue location, but with a new name, Laguna Beach Cultural Arts Center, and with a new format, primarily mounting musical and theatrical performances, with occasional art exhibitions.
As an artist/curator who addressed political, environmental, and social issues through various art forms and alliances with the public, Chamberlain often called himself an “artivist.” In fact, he was a leading proponent of the growing trend known as Social Practice, which seeks to effect social and political change through the application of aesthetic principles and projects that engage artists and non-artists in collaboration with their communities.