New media, contemporary art join in a happy marriage

Art Review

January 08, 2003|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

From the outside, Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller's The Paradise Institute at Washington's Corcoran Gallery of Art looks like a small mobile home or construction site trailer.

As soon as visitors pass through a small door at the side, however, they enter the artists' clever optical illusion of an old-time movie palace, complete with sculpted balconies and rows of tiny seats.

There are only a dozen or so full-size chairs in the trailer, each equipped with a set of stereo headphones. And once visitors take their seats and the "movie" begins, strange things start to happen.

The story line seems to involve a mysterious stranger in a hospital bed and the nurse who cares for him. There's also a villain with evil designs, shots of a house engulfed in flames and vague premonitions of danger, escape and romance - all classic ploys of the film noir genre.

Soon, however, the voice of the villain seems to be issuing from someone in the audience just behind the viewer, along with sounds of someone loudly crunching popcorn and a conversation between a couple worrying about whether they left a stove burner on at home. Odd noises - someone walking on the roof, street traffic, etc. - continually intrude on the "movie" narrative. But when you turn around to locate the source of these distractions, there's nobody there.

The Paradise Institute is a fascinating piece that blurs the line between movie and audience, fiction and truth, art and life. And by doing so, it serves as a kind of signature work for this year's entire Corcoran Biennial, which even more than the last one locates the defining moment of contemporary American art largely in the new media of film, photography, video and installation rather than in the time-honored arts of painting and sculpture.

Curator Jonathan P. Binstock has entitled this year's exhibition Fantasy Underfoot, a metaphor to suggest how what he calls a "conceptual vernacular" style of artmaking has arisen in recent years out of a marriage between 1960s-era conceptual art and minimalism.

What ties the 13 artists included in the show together, Binstock writes, is the way "their videos, films, photography, paintings, drawings, sculpture, installations and digital works all employ familiar or readily understood forms designed to quickly seduce and engage the viewer" using visual strategies from mass media and popular culture.

In Susan Smith-Pinelo's installation, Dances with Hip Hop, for example, three video screens in a vertical bank separately depict the artist's head, torso and hips wiggling in time to an inaudible musical beat. By performing the dance herself, Smith-Panelo implicitly embraces the musical culture of her generation; but the fragmentation of her image across three screens also suggests the artist's deep ambivalence toward hip-hop's callow reduction of female identity to displays of fetishistic body parts.

Similarly, Bruce Yonemoto employs the strategies of mass media and advertising to express the globalization of American culture through mass produced images of sexual desire.

One series of large color photographs, for example, parodies the commercialization of sex popularized by publications like Playboy magazine. In Panpanorama, a looped tape of the famous kiss scene from Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo plays over and over, but with Hitchcock's original background stripped out and replaced by scenes from other classics of world cinema such as Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai and Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin.

Former Contemporary Museum curator Adam Lerner, who wrote the catalog entry for Yonemoto's piece, suggests this work evokes both "the way in which our imperfect memories alter and merge events from the past as well as Hollywood's continual dominance of the cinematic world."

In a more conventional vein, Marcel Dzama's and Kojo Griffin's watercolors derived from children's books and commercial illustration, Bruce Nauman's much (to my mind, at least) overrated video diaries, Ken Feingold's animatronic talking heads and Linda Besemer's fantastic geometric folded paintings all co-opt mass culture imagery and media with varying degrees of success. Tim Hawkinson's Rube-Goldberg-like drip machine, a polyethylene and vinyl virtual creature that taps out a rhythmic tattoo of water on tin plates affixed to aluminum buckets, is a delightful sendup of the universal mania for high-tech contraptions, while Nancy Davidson's huge, dirigible-like installation suspended over the gallery's main entrance hall is a clean, minimalist form that manages to evoke both beauty and the grotesque with cheerful good humor.

This is a show that's worth seeing as much for the ideas it presents as for the objects on display. It suggests that contemporary art is as much about the discovery of new aesthetic forms - unbounded, dynamic and with no sharp distinctions between media - as it is about content. And though it doesn't always succeed in engaging the viewer with the same easy facility as pop culture, it certainly packs a wallop when it works.

Art exhibit

What: Fantasy Underfoot

Where: The Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. N.W., Washington

When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wedneday-Monday; through March 10

Admission: $5 adults, $3 seniors, $1 students

Call: 202-639-1700

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