I call it ORANGES

Art Reviews, Cultural Bric a Brac, Jargon Free

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Location: Los Angeles, California, United States

I am an independent writer living in Los Angeles. I write Visual Art Reviews, General Cultural Essays, and Book Reviews.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Jennifer Steinkamp

Jennifer Steinkamp
Acme Gallery
Through June 28th

For full disclosure, I should say that I already wrote about Jennifer Steinkamp’s show at ACME for ArtSlant and recommended it to the website’s readers. When I saw the post, however, I started to feel like I left something unsaid. This is what I initially wrote:

“Jennifer Steinkamp's video installations are unapologetically beautiful and fill the walls of Acme gallery with streams of digital flowers and undulating clouds of color. A former commercial animator, Steinkamp makes professional and seamlessly executed work, not seeking to disrupt the highly discussed "passivity" of video but instead use it to purely aesthetic ends. The waterfalls of images are therapeutic and pleasing. The viewer is so immersed in the constant flow and subtle movements of the flowers that they might think they are a poet watching grass blow in the wind, closely paying attention to the tiniest of details.

Steinkamp might prove a test case for the future viability of beauty in the discussion of video and her work asks many important questions. Without politics, critique, or narrative being intrinsically part of the work, for instance, what distinguishes Steinkamp's work from being merely giant size versions of the video aquariums or fireplaces one sees in your doctor's waiting rooms? Are Steinkamp's videos sterile versions of nature for those who cannot find it or essential, earnest efforts to encourage our re-discovery of nature, honing our often jaded visions back to flowers and clouds? These questions are difficult to answer and Steinkamp's work may require simply a from-the-gut reaction. For most people, the reaction is awe- inspiring and glorious.”

So why am I now having a problem with her flowery cataracts?

I think the problem started with that video aquarium in my doctor’s office – a high definition clumsy attempt at relaxing a patient before their doctor’s visit, a reference to nature where there is none. There is something decidedly cheesy and new age about the aquarium, like those racks of cds in Target recording the sounds of wind and water. The aquarium and the cds do not have to go any deeper than a ploy at relaxation – they are not metaphors, they are mere copies, imitations of nature.

The aquarium serves a challenge to Steinkamp’s videos of flowers and clouds. Being in an art gallery and coming from a blue chip artist, the imagery must go somewhere beyond that aquarium. I don’t think that Steinkamp is an artist focused on critiquing originality or imitation or nature (we don’t need any more of those artists) so instead, I agree with Christopher Knight that the flowers and clouds attempt elegy, that they become metaphors for loss. The videos are quite beautiful and you feel sort of wispy in the gallery, intoxicated by the complexity of the tones and flavors of the flowers, but something eventually bothered me.

Steinkamp gives a partial direction for what she might be doing for in her title, “Nice day for a White Wedding.” Invoking the Billy Idol song immediately tells us that the flowers are somehow ironic or that there is a darker undercurrent to the streams of beauty coming down the walls. The lyrics come into your head when you read the title, “There’s nothing pure in this world,” and then “There’s nothing safe in this world, There’s nothing fair in this world.” Idol sums it up, “It’s a nice day to start again,” but the inflection of his voice tells us that he doesn’t quite believe it or maybe that starting again is impossible.

The clue of the title and the flowers themselves directed Knight towards a reading that the piece serves as an effective elegy, an elegy that is apt for this moment in time: “Electronic wallpaper of raining flowers suggests petals strewn on a sacred path and mournful tributes cast on a grave. Virtually hypnotic, it creates a gentle space for reflection. In this post-Sept. 11 period of death and distraction, their ambiguity feels just right.” However, I think the ambiguity did not feel just right, and I wanted to think about possible reasons why.

It might have something to do with some of video’s inherent weaknesses, some of its problems at the moment that keep it from being a good at elegy and an effective vehicle for mourning. The work of Jim Hodges, for example, uses imitations of nature as well – plastic flowers. Like the aquarium and the Steinkamp piece, the flowers are a copy of nature. Like the aquarium, you could call them kitsch. They feel cheap. However, the history of those plastic flowers (their accumulation in roadside memorials, the sense of sadness that their faded colors convey in a cemetery, the fact that they are only appropriate when presented to the dead) become features of the materials, and thus the plastic flowers as material (caught up in that history) carries the elegiac message effectively. That said, I think that Hodges’ curtains of flowers are quite effective as elegies in a way that the Steinkamp piece was not.

This review is probably nitpicky, but I wanted to make the distinction between how materials carry meaning that maybe video images are not yet capable of. Maybe we are in a waystation point in the history of video – maybe the video elegy in the future will become recognizable enough to really impact us, allow us a “gentle space for reflection.” But currently I think it reads more like the aquarium in the doctor’s office, something that takes technology to perhaps overreaching lengths. Or, and I think this more probable, maybe video itself is just a less effective form for elegy than those Hodges’ flowers. Perhaps a video is like the sonnet in poetry, fantastic for certain purposes but not so effective in others. For love, the sonnet is for me – for elegy, however, I choose the villanelle.