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March 2007
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Bill Viola . . . continued from page 1

Finnemore’s touchstone is courage: he believes that fear of failure makes us failures. He responds by, as we used to say in the Sixties, letting it all hang out. He appears to test out his ideas on a first-come, first-served basis, and so far as can be determined, to leave evaluating and editing the result up to the faculties of the audience. One second-generation Utah painter that I spoke to compared the exhibition unfavorably to America's Funniest Home Videos. It could also be said that if Finnemore is fearless, so are the stars of the Jackass movies. Yet there is something about these loose video cannons that redeems them, if only in fragments separated by parts that stretch too long. They are funny; they possess the power to make us laugh, and that laughter releases our repressed disrespect for the authority of the visual image, moving or still: the Great Dictator of our public lives.

Bill Viola's "Ascension," which he made in 2000, can be thought of as a quieter, more meditative sequel to "The Crossing," made four years before. The earlier installation used both sides of a freestanding screen, on each of which a man is initially seen to walk toward the viewer. On one side he is engulfed in flames that start at his feet, while on the other he is deluged by water falling from above. Both figures eventually disappear into the visual cataclysm and the accompanying roar, transformed if one likes from one primeval element into another: earth to water, or to fire, or to sound in the air. Ultimately, coherent light becomes a maelstrom that dissipates the human figure within it. In "Ascension," an underwater camera films an aqueous chamber into which a man plunges feet first, his arms extended fully to both sides. What looked like darkness is now revealed to be full of light that was invisible because there was nothing to refract or reflect it: nothing for it to illuminate. Eventually the man sinks out of sight, leaving the frame filled with bubbles slowly ascending, returning to wherever he came from. Once again, in addition to this cloud of light he leaves behind sounds: here, the fizz of bubbles breaking as they reach the surface.

The obvious metaphor in both works is death, but also transfiguration. Something more complex, and possibly more useful, takes place in "The Quintet of Remembrance." "Quintet" is for all practical purposes a musical term, but in this silent film the music is strictly visual. Five figures, two men and three women, appear initially frozen in place in a small group, standing close to the screen so that only their heads and upper torsos are visible. Their clothes are dark and so is the background, a mottled wall that closes the space without defining the location. Their gazes, like the composition of a Caravaggio, describe a diagonal from the screen into our space, just to one side and below us. While at first they appear motionless, they are animate but the movement is glacially slow. Subtle shifts in their expressions and skin textures occur so slowly as to be completed before they are noticed; they may even feel like the hallucinations brought on by staring at something not actually moving. Did I actually see that?

At some point—whether at the blinking of an eye or the shifting of an arm—the figures clearly move. These early, tentative shifts are scattered, and at first so isolated that the contrast between what moves and the surrounding stillness feels like an eerie variation on the special effects now commonplace in TV commercials. Then the motion of one figure seems to bring on a response in another, as though some remote, indifferent energy had passed from one to the other. Although each is independently driven, individually motivated, their movements affect each other and a complex harmonic motion arises. Each face also reacts individually, the range of expressions ranging from anger to grief to a kind of fascination bordering on mania. A kind of measured, discordant paroxysm sweeps through the small crowd, and when it passes they are all transformed by it. Then they gradually come to a stop, as much a picture—though a different image—as they were at the beginning.

Here again, some metaphors come to mind. One concerns the interconnectivity that arises in any action upon the members of a group, no matter how independent—or for that matter how united—they may think they are. Another involves the way any expression, no matter the inner state it expresses, tends to turn into a grimace when the expression is held: when we smile for the camera. Here the expression only appears not to move. In fact, the whole mask changes so slowly that one subtle expression dissolves toward another, as though we were seeing the interior process rather than the outward manifestation.

There are some things that puzzle me about video. One is why presenters so often speak of the video projection as an "installation." To my mind, an installation is something that resists facility, not something that facilitates. I'm thinking here of Duchamp's choice to show art in a dark gallery and give the viewers each a flashlight. A dark room with a bench would perhaps better be called an environment. Projecting a video onto a moving or dissolving surface sounds more like an installation. What UMFA built for Viola is a theater.

But there's a more important question. Why is video art so hard to enjoy? Most viewers at the Art Center and UMFA sat through one viewing and then left. Halfway through the second viewing of the Quintet of Remembrance, my companions and I began to discuss our reactions openly (we were the only ones in the room). I remember spending an hour alone in the Vermeer room at the National Gallery in Washington, and though there were three of them, that still amounted to more time with each than I spent with Viola's entire quintet. I learned recently that the Long Beach Museum of Art's video collection, considered one of the medium's great repositories, is moldering in neglect to the point where much of it may be permanently lost. I wish I could agree that this is a generational issue: that we older viewers just don’t get it like the young do. But it was the more seasoned viewers who stuck it out with Viola, who is in his mid-fifties. Those who bailed were college art students: the same young adults who routinely watch their favorite movies again and again.

The problem must lie, at least in part, in the variety of fundamental ways any narrative may take control of us for the duration of its taking place. With a novel we can stop to ponder, flip back and reread a passage, skip forward, or take a break when our minds wander. Even better, in a painting everything is present at once: the only time passing is passing for us, and we are usually in a mental state where we don’t notice. But in a video the mechanism sets the pace. We yield control and, regardless our individual outcome, become part of the manufacturing process. It is not a pretty picture.||
Alternative Venue Spotlight: Salt Lake
Alchemy Coffee
by Cara E. Despain

Tucked away at 390 East 1700 South, Alchemy Coffee is host to good brew, a comfortable, antique atmosphere, and local art. With exposed brick walls, eclectic, second-hand furniture, and an array of delectable beverages and snack items, Alchemy is a little gem just off the beaten path.

For owners Venessa Vetica and Jason Briggs being an exhibition space wasn't necessarily their focus, but artists were frequently coming to them wanting to display their work. Caffeine hubs often serve as spaces for art, and this classy yet funky environment provides a space much like a living room to display just a handful of works. Paintings become more discreet and less isolated in this constantly changing environment; more a part of the décor than precious bits in a sterile gallery. This mingling of interior design and revered art is accomplished tastefully in the cozy space—you don't get the idea that people are ignoring the work, or carelessly knocking it around as is often the case with coffee shop art. It's an interesting, more casual break from an art show, and the shop doesn't take a cut of the sales. This is because Jason and Venessa don't want to interfere as curators; the artists themselves have the leisure to price their work more approachably, and hang it how they wish. "Our regulars anticipate new art with the monthly change," Jason says. "It keeps the atmosphere from getting stale."

Alchemy's current show includes work by Trent Call and Tessa Lindsey, former Poor Yorick artists and among Salt Lake's favorites. Lindsey has five works: three small collage pieces |2| and two paintings. "Lousy at Love After All" and "Now or Never," the paintings in the group, apply a muted palette and thin washes to raw board, allowing edges and atmosphere to fade in and out. Affixed to the panel are thin pieces of wood cut into the shape of buildings with old floor plans printed or transferred on the surface. In the first piece (respectively), the composition seems to be fleeing toward the outskirts --the buildings only partially visible before dropping off the edge of the panel. In the second, they appear forced into the center, enclosed by a dark bold line. They seem to be vaguely obsessed, perhaps metaphorically, with isolation and architecture in an expansive and ambiguous landscape. Pencil lines surround the dwellings, further separating them from the space in which they reside. These structures are permanent fixtures; they lie however close together or far apart from one another according to where their foundations were poured. The environment around them may change with weather or development, but they will remain fixed in the same place.

Call's paintings combine design elements with stencil and brazen, explosive strings of color to create a labyrinth of buzzing lines. His panels are layered with spray paint, acrylic, enamel, shape, and line to ultimately yield the playful and well-resolved matrices and images Salt Lake patrons have come to know and love. "You've Been Had by Mr. Flamingo" illustrates a saturated, combustible example of these tactics. |3| Yet entangled in the bramble of calligraphy is a subtle ode -- there is a method to the apparent madness. The careening lines actually form tessellations, and beneath them lies an image of a pair of handguns that reference the muse of the work. Although it's often easy to get caught up in the masterful technique and design in Call's work, there always seems to be an implicit theme that goes beyond poppy colors and booming lines -- it just requires a closer read. In this particular piece it seems to remind that without the fiery fun of madness and intensity, we would be left uninspired.

Next month, Alchemy Coffee will feature a fairy themed show, with work from Jenni Lord, Sherri Pauli, and Samantha. Alchemy is also a hot spot for local music, with an elbow to elbow open mic every Tuesday, and live music on the weekend.||

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