Thursday, April 26, 2007

Brian Knep

For the Boston Cyberarts Festival, Bostonian Brian Knep, who has been making some of the most exciting new media art hereabouts, presents a group of video-installations-in-progress at Boston’s Judi Rotenberg Gallery.

“Frog Triplets” (at left) is a non-repeating video projected on the gallery wall showing three silhouetted frogs lined up side by side at the bottom of what looks like a competition swimming pool with blurry floating lane markers. As a blurry horizontal stripe repeatedly wipes up the image, gets to the top and then starts up from the bottom again, the frogs fidget, and seem to poop, but actually they are sprouting tails. Now and again one leaps upward, briefly becoming a translucent veiny limbless tadpole, before falling back down and becoming a frog again.

His non-repeating video installation “Frog Time” (below) is similar, but it shows just one frog in lanes oriented horizontally. Here as the line wipes from right to left it seems as if the frog is horribly struggling against a tide or current and constantly loosing ground. The whole while the frog restlessly morphs from frog to tadpole and back again. The piece has an anxious, agitated feel.

These video installations are the beginning of a project – studies really – coming out of four months of photographing tadpoles developing into frogs in his lab at Harvard Medical School in Boston, where he’s been an artist in residence since 2005. He’s run the some 3,000 still photos that he’s shot so far through software he’s written to create these lifelike digital animations.

Knep’s works often mimic natural systems, and so embody a tension between the natural and the digital. But these installations have the added element of arising out of direct scientific observation. His idea is to use the tadpoles-to-frogs as a metaphor for aging – for our struggle to stay young, to resist the effects of time on our bodies. Knep seems to still be figuring out this project, so this stuff doesn’t all quite come through yet. And at this stage the form, the simple linear movements of the frogs and lines, right or left, up or down, is a bit blah. My understanding is that Knep plans in later versions to make the pieces interactive – reacting to visitors in the gallery.

Part of the electricity in Knep’s work is the way he uses the specific properties of new media – in his case computers’ knack for producing special effects and endless variations within set parameters – to embody his content and create distinctly digital art. As his gallery explains, these are not traditional videos, but computer projections: "There is a computer that is constantly reconfiguring information that Brian inputted. The projection therefore never displays the same image/information more than once."

The frog works represent a move away from his “Drift Walls” and wound-healing digital projections. They make the abstract digital blobs of such previous works seem schematic – almost like studies for the vivid realism here, which echoes the special effects programming he did for George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic on films including “Jurassic Park” from 1993.

Knep seems poised for an artistic breakthrough, and local museums should celebrate and incubate it, maybe with one of those Momentum shows at Boston’s ICA, or with an installation at the Wall at the Worcester Art Museum or in the lobby of Boston’s MFA. You can see Knep testing out components, tinkering with his visuals, scale, movement. With the frogs, Knep’s work becomes more visually lush. His interactive video installation “Drift Wall 2007” (above) at UMass Lowell through May 11, is larger (20 feet by 8 feet) and more encompassing than many of his past works. And the merging cells video installation he exhibited at Gasp gallery in Brookline last fall could be seen as a study for more complex interactions among the parts of his designs whether they’re abstract blobs or frogs or worms or yeast (the other planned subjects of his “Aging” project). I’m looking forward to the sparks as all these pieces come together.

Brian Knep “Aging: Works in Progress from the Harvard Medical School,” Judi Rotenberg Gallery, April 21 to 28, 2007.

Extra credit: Compare Brian Knep’s work to Boston-area artist Karl Sims’ digital animations from the early 1990s, which also used computers to mimic natural systems, specifically Darwinian natural selection.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

O’Malley, Shepherd at Locco Ritoro

Somervillian Mary O’Malley’s exhibit of recent drawings at Locco Ritoro gallery is called “ultra-beauty” and damn if the show doesn’t live up to its name. With silver and gold ink on velvety black paper, she creates fantasias of birds and trees and flowers as well as abstract cascades of dots and dashes with flowing thick outlines that look something like mutating jellyfish. They’re dazzlingly ornate drawings, filled with obsessive patterning, that recall the swooning romantic dreams of turn of the century Art Nouveau. Wow.

Also on view is Cambridge artist Liz Shepherd’s 2006 sculpture “Saint Sebastian” (at left), a pink dresser riddled with holes as if attacked by a mad woodpecker and then hung on the wall at head height. It’s lit from within, which gives it a romantic air. Her “Untitled (tall)” from 2006 (below) is a vanity standing about 6 feet tall and leaning precariously forward on the front two of its four spindly legs. It’s a cute special effect that’s made pleasantly strange because the tabletop is angled so that the mirror on the back reflects your face, as if the furniture is oddly, thoughtfully accommodating you. These pieces are rather sedate, but charming.

Mary O’Malley and Liz Shepherd, Locco Ritoro, 450 Harrison Ave., Boston, March 2 to April 28, 2007.

By the bye: Saint Sebastian, a Roman soldier, didn’t die from being shot full of arrows and left for dead as he’s pictured in so many memorable old master paintings. As the story goes, he was ordered killed because he was a Christian, but the poor bastard survived the arrows, denounced the Roman emperor for his cruelty to Christians and so the emperor had him beaten to death.

Pictured from top to bottom: Mary O’Malley: “Mental Map #5,” 2006; “The Lesson,” 2006; “Bird Bouquet #1,” 2007; Liz Shepherd: “Saint Sebastian,” 2006, and “Untitled (tall),” 2006.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Tony Oursler

For a trip down Boston new media art memory lane, I visited video art star Tony Oursler’s show at New York’s Lehmann Maupin gallery last month to check out what the former Bostonian was up to. Oursler taught at MassArt in the 1990s and now lives in New York.

Here he presented flat aluminum sheets cut and painted to resemble brightly colored paint splatters. Holes in the sheets framed small LCD screens showing DVDs of bulging blinking wild eyes, squirmy lips and weird pans of faces. And from somewhere behind the pieces came a barely audible murmuring. I couldn’t make it out, but Ms. K joked that it sounded like Gollum whispering about his ring, his precious ring. (This video is a pretty good record of what they're like.) The aluminum plates weren’t satisfying objects, and all together it was kinda cheesy and annoying.

But if you want to experience some other fairly recent Oursler stuff, check out his five eyeball video projection sculptures from 2005 in the ICA’s “Super Vision” exhibit through April 29. To explore another Oursler-Boston connection check out his 1985 video “Evol,” which was partly funded by the Contemporary Art Television project, a collaboration between Boston’s WGBH and the ICA.

Tony Oursler, Lehmann Maupin, 540 West 26th St., New York, Feb 17 to March 24, 2007.

Pictured from top to bottom: “Invisible Green Link,” “(Usually) Black Anythingyou want,” and “Emanate Orange Research,” all from 2007. Images courtesy of Mr. Oursler and Lehmann Maupin Gallery.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Boston Cyberarts Festival

Here’s my preview of the 2007 Boston Cyberarts Festival, in which I argue that new media art is “the most distinctive sector of Boston-area [visual] art these days.”

I go on to say: “Boston's new media scene is simmering and scruffy, both thrilling and frustrating at this stage of development when few major artists have emerged.” Much of it seems to still be in an experimental testing phase – which can be cool, but often feels unripe.

Partly this reflects the basic nature of new media art, which often comes out of artists inventing new machines, new programs or new combinations and uses for existing technology. In other words, there’s a lot of stuff to puzzle out before you even get to what the art might be about.

Still , too much of new media art is empty spectacle with a tech fetish, like San Francisco artist Camille Utterback’s installations at Art Interactive in Cambridge, in which cameras turn visitors' shuffling through the gallery into abstract doodles projected on the walls. (Pictured above: Utterback’s “Untitled 6,” 2005.) It’s a demonstration of the basic technology, rather than something that uses the machine to make something new.

And lot of local new media art or tech art or cyberart (all lousy labels) is really old stuff in new packages. Photoshop special effects are basically the same gimmick as double-exposure “ghost” photos from the mid 19th century. Much video art rehashes experimental films made before the end of World War II with the primary differences being that the format is digital and the cuts are sometimes smoother. Compelling work can come out of this, but it’s not particularly engaged with or a result of the newness of the media.

To me what’s most exciting is the work being made by folks who take advantage of the specific properties of the new media to embody their content. Like Bostonian Brian Knep’s computer projections, which use the machine’s knack for producing special effects and endless variations within set parameters to create distinctly digital art about natural systems, healing and aging. (Above: Knep’s “Drift Wall 2007.”)

Or the recent “Personal Computer” show at Second Gallery, in which artists from New York and Georgia dissected familiar Web landmarks and then collaged the bits together into new abstract Web art to begin to consider how we interact with the Net and its mental-techno landscape.

Or New Yorker Ethan Ham’s “Self-Portrait” at BU’s Photographic Resource Center last fall, which deployed facial-recognition software to search for his likeness among the millions of photos posted to So much art about the Internet is about how vast and lonely and bewildering it is. But Ham used computer data crunching to try to make sense of the Web and find connections.

As the number of out of town artists in these last two examples hint at, in some ways our wealth of local new media exhibition infrastructure – Cyberarts Festival, Axiom gallery, Art Interactive, Second Gallery, Gasp, MIT’s List Visual Art Center, etc., plus the local new media magazine Aspect – has outpaced the amount of accomplished new media art being produced here. This means we get to see lots of new media imports. But this – I guess you might call it – excess capacity seems also to be an optimistic bet on what local artists will create in the future and an effort to incubate it.

Boston Cyberarts Festival, various locations around greater Boston, April 20 to May 6, 2007. Click here for full schedule.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Sol LeWitt

Hartford native Sol LeWitt, who died in New York April 8 at age 78 after a long battle with cancer, was a master and trailblazer of minimalist and conceptualist art. His popularity was such that it is difficult to visit an art museum these days and not stumble upon of one of his wall drawings – actually usually simple geometric paintings in politely muted primary colors executed by assistants based on his math-problem-like instructions.

I’ve never much cared his stuff, for its relentless dull geometry, its tedious modular, mathematical permutations. Consider his recipe for “Wall Drawing #146” from 1972: “All two-part combinations of blue arcs from corners and sides and blue straight, not straight, and broken lines.” And then there are his sculptures that look like 3D graph paper. Ugh.

So much art of the past generation has been about trying to recover from the puritanical fundamentalism of minimalism and conceptualism. Attempted remedies have included rejecting it via the messy expressionism of the 1980s and the kinder, gentler minimalism of the past decade that has tried to humanize the old cold stuff by making the colors hotter and the surfaces softer.

LeWitt himself loosened up with a series of wiggly line paintings and wall drawings over the past decade or so. His 2004 acrylic paint mural “Wall Drawing #1131, Whirls and Twirls” (below in Allen Phillips' photo) on the wall of Hartford’s Wadsworth Athenaeum, where LeWitt took art classes as a kid, mutates his sober minimal vocabulary into something wild and dazzling. It’s as if after decades of ultra-serious high math theorizing, he realized his accumulated geometric smarts could be put toward designing psychedelic pinball machines. Not bad, not bad at all.