Room With a View

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

Like a giant snowball rolling downhill in a cartoon, installation artists work through accumulation. They pick up techniques from different disciplines (paint, fabric art, media art, sculpture) and acquire all sorts of junk in the way of materials--all toward bowling the viewer over in a holistic, immersive experience. So it is that painters now double as installation artists, and installation artists are sculptors, and the whole hot mixture that is the art world shrugs at the notion that anyone can be pinned down to just one way of working.

In two current local shows, installation artists reveal their painterly sides, and artists of sundry media expose their urge to make installation art--and they all have varying degrees of success along the way. More specifically, in "Art Inside/Outside Space XIV," seven local artists take a shot at the interior and exterior spaces in and around Uptown's Intermedia Arts building. In "Voyager: An Installation by Nancy Randall," 2D artist Nancy Randall attempts to combine sound and image in an installation at the Weisman Art Museum. Confronted with all these creative types going for Brownie badges in such a range of disciplines, the viewer has little choice but to subscribe to the theory that gallery-going is all about the art itself--not the labels we place on it.

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)

At Intermedia Arts, two individuals stand out for the quality of their interior installations, and one other shows some promise if she can work herself loose from every trendy technique and concept of the moment. Joseph del Pesco, a media artist and graphic designer, makes a minimalist mini-masterwork in his "Current Hits (A Collected Listening)." For the most part the work is just a bare room. Above this area, however, del Pesco has stretched a membrane-like fabric, and beyond the fabric he has suspended four speakers that play a soundtrack of found sounds transmitted from microphones stashed in other parts of the gallery. (During one recent visit, the sounds were mostly computer clicks, chair-creaks, and not much else.) On the whole, the experience of standing in these quarters is not vastly different from being in any spare and contemplative space, such as a church or mosque. Which is a nice thing: The light, blocked by gauze, is lower here, and the sounds softer, too. Yet these few props are enough to slip the viewer into a different time and space.

More involved, yet less successful, is Amelia Biewald-Low's installation, "Bodyportion Clinique," which might best be described as an expressionistic painting-sculpture gone wrong. This room is somewhat overworked, covered as it is with horrific, hair-sprouting hospital-operating-room furniture and crude, oozing abstract paintings. The artist has taken great care with numerous details--matching the colors of the linoleum in the floor with the colors in the painting and in the vinyl of her furniture objects. And it is clear she is passionate about this body-issues/bad-plastic-surgery-experience thing, or whatever. But it doesn't mean anyone else would want to spend much time in a space that comes across like Munch's "The Scream" for the Upper West Side set--though one suspects this is as the artist wants it.

Only one work in this installation show has been made by a card-carrying installation artist, Charles Matson Lume, and it is, perhaps not coincidentally, the most successful. In general, Lume would seem to spend his days filling rooms with light-refracting, often mundane objects--twist-ties, plastic magnifying glasses, fiber optics, and the like. In his work here, "One," Lume has glued hundreds of small plastic magnifying glasses and clear plastic twist-ties to the gallery walls. These suspended objects gather densely in a lower corner of the room, and then spread out across the two adjoining walls in arches, getting thinner as they rise. The various lights overhead, each strategically angled, pass through these clear objects, casting hundreds of small dots and odd shadows on the walls and floor. It would be impossible for a painter to create a work with the corresponding complexity of light, color, and shadow that Lume has achieved with his technique. Here is a case of installation work achieving its full potential as an art form.

It should be noted at this point that the installation show has been presented by Intermedia Arts each of the past 14 years, thanks to a generous grant from the Jerome Foundation. Each of the seven artists involved this year has been given a stipend to complete either an interior or an exterior project for the show. Which may be how we end up with so many artists who ordinarily work in media other than installation--the monetary temptation being great, and true installationists being somewhat scarce.

This may explain why the three outside projects installed in the building's parking lot--by Krista Kelley Walsh, Stephen Rife, and Cynthia Stevens with Jean Humke--appear rather uninteresting without their creators present to lend them life. Two of these four people are performance artists primarily, and all three projects were conceived as performances--perhaps it's a kind of artistic slumming for these folks.

The live appearances may be quite entertaining: Rife's ongoing weekend show sounds like the kind of combustible antics that got one kicked out of high school chemistry class. Yet what's left over for the rest of us to see seems like an afterthought. The materials, in particular, would seem rather dull. Rife's "Raindial," for instance, is a circle of five-gallon water jugs; Stevens's and Humke's "Lenora Dreams: Down Below" is a wall of sheet-plastic in which dirt and flowers and found garden objects have been suspended; and Walsh's "Urban Mysteries" is made up of a hodgepodge of weird trinkets and random objects stuck in unlikely places around the building or in patches of dirt--an Easter-egg hunt without the context of Easter to lend meaning.

 

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.

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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