Room With a View

New shows at Intermedia Arts and Weisman contend that everyone is an installation artist


The problems with Nancy Randall's "Voyager"--on view at the Weisman Art Museum--would seem to be fixable through a bit of definitional legerdemain: The "installation" should be divorced from the "art." Much of Randall's work is splendidly rendered, well framed, and aesthetically appealing. The nine three-by-five-foot drawings on paper and eight lithographs in the show are expansive motifs from folklore and nature. There are buffaloes and wolves, dancing hunters, birds on wing, Viking ships, and so on, all corralled together in carefully constructed Big Bangs. Earthy washes of color spread out from the center of each composition. Technically speaking, these are beautiful images, and it is clear that the 72-year-old artist, whose career got a late start when she returned to school for an M.F.A. at age 40 after having raised three children, has no small amount of mastery in the graphite and oil-pastel media she prefers. So far so good.

But then there's that soundtrack to contend with. Produced for the artist by composer Elisa Carlson and sound designer Ken Chastain, it seems an afterthought to the visual work, adding nothing to the experience and, in fact, detracting from it. Though I have nothing personally against pan flutes and voices moaning over a gentle forest breeze--OK, maybe I do have "something" against them; I'll get back to you on that--in this case the soundtrack comes across much as any cheesy new-age relaxation recording that has ever wafted from one of those Target display cases with the little buttons you push to hear "loon with pan flute" and so on.

Stephen Rife sets the art world on fire (top); Nancy Randall puts cave paintings into the museum (bottom)
Stephen Rife sets the art world on fire (top); Nancy Randall puts cave paintings into the museum (bottom)

When viewing any work of art, gallery-goers bring their own associations to the work. You know the routine. One might say of a Kandinsky painting, "That looks like a boat on a lake"--even though it is but a mishmash of colors and shapes. Whether this has something to do with brain chemistry or with our coping mechanisms for dealing with the unknown, we all tend to associate new experiences with something familiar in order to make them more readily comprehensible. And as we all spend lots of time in rooms and buildings, installation pieces are perfect targets of our associations, prompting responses like "This feels like my uncle's den," or "This is a lot like a hospital operating room." Because of the bad music in "Voyager," whatever elegance that was in the art gets subsumed by the rather vulgar notion (at least to me) of new-age commerce. Once the association is made, no amount of good drawing is going to save the work.

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