URBAN LIVING Goulis’s Box.
Sometimes I think if Richard Goulis had lived in New York or Los Angeles he'd be in the art history books, instead of being a guy from Providence whom we cherish for making our town a bit more crazy and dangerous and wondrous.
"You Were Just Mine," his mini-retrospective at Rhode Island College's Bannister Gallery (600 Mount Pleasant Ave, Providence, through March 29), is an opportunity to take stock.
Goulis burst onto the Providence art scene with Box in December 1983. He built an 8-foot-tall wooden cube, installed it in a traffic median near RISD's Market House (the site was removed in the subsequent opening up of the Providence River), and lived inside for a week, drawing and writing a journal. A camera broadcast what he was doing inside to a monitor on the outside.
An Associated Press reporter wrote about it, and the article was printed in newspapers around the country. It ended up on TV as one of those news-of-the-weird segments that anchors joke about at the end of the program.
"People were up in arms because it made me look like a crackpot," Goulis tells me. But his reaction was more equanimous. "At the time, it was like, 'Okay, that's their opinion. That's fine.' I was trying to figure out what I was trying to do too."
Before he graduated from RISD the following year, Goulis had himself buried alive for three hours. Then at Riverside Mills in 1985, he had plaster poured into molds and hardened into blocks around his head (he wore a snorkel-like mask inside) and hands. He sat like that, in a red three-piece suit, until accomplices chiseled him free after 12 hours. It's a scary, death-defying stunt and then clowning (a literal blockhead) , then back to scary again.
TV AS SHRINE Goulis’s China.
"For me, it was about first of all this image," Goulis says, "and then what can I do, what can I put myself through, and how can I survive this?"
These early performances are represented here by relics (squares of wood, plaster fragments, the suit) and old videos. Goulis's theme of imprisonment and burial, his mix of performance and sculpture and danger, echo things artists like Chris Burden got up to in Los Angeles and sculptor Richard Serra did in New York a decade or two before. He has a knack for identifying society's pressure points, though his focus can be somewhat loose — perhaps a reflection of his own thinking — which can divert him from deeply tapping into their electricity and resonance.
"These kinds of pieces eventually reveal themselves to me. I didn't always know what the heck I was doing back then. I knew these things resonated with me," Goulis says. "Looking back, everyone else saw you can fucking kill yourself doing this shit. I never went there. I knew that tension was there. I liked that. But I wasn't fearful."
He adds, "That was a real exercise in trust above other things. I trusted that the people around me would help me if I needed help. Don't we always live life that way?"