"Trippy" doesn't begin to describe it.
On a recent Saturday at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, the stunned looks on gallerygoers' faces were enough to clue you in that the current exhibition by digital artist Jennifer Steinkamp is not your grandmother's idea of high art.
Chances are it's not yours either -- and by all accounts, that's a good thing.
Seldom do contemporary art shows find so many unlikely, visibly excited viewers in one place at one time. In fact, the collection of Steinkamp's large-scale, abstract digital projections on view at the gallery had students, parents and children of all ages literally jumping up and down and performing acrobatic feats normally confined to school gymnasiums.
Such is the magnetic appeal of Steinkamp's mysterious, interactive projections, where the viewer's shadow is subsumed into the art itself, fading in and of out being depending on the viewer's location and triggering often surprising optical effects.
A mix between a painting in perpetual motion, an exercise in advanced shadow puppetry and a psychedelic playground, the roomwide piece "Wreck of the Dumaru" is probably one of the largest and more whiplash-inducing pieces of art the gallery has displayed in years. With violent red waves undulating over a liquid blue backdrop, the projection frames the gallery's entire north-facing wall. It pauses in the middle to accommodate the window looking out on Hoyt Lake, which from the right vantage point perfectly frames Shayne Dark's driftwood statue "Into the Blue" on the grass outside. The resulting image is overwhelming, imploring viewers to consider it for long awestruck seconds before eventually allowing themselves to actively interact with it.
"Her work is about the viewer's perception. It explores architecture, space, motion and the phenomenon of perception," said Holly E. Hughes, an associate curator at the Albright-Knox. "She is always thinking about how the viewer will interact with the work and how it plays into the space."
As critic David Hickey put it in the show's extensive exhibition catalog (which originated, along with the show itself, at the San Jose Museum of Contemporary Art): "Within the domain of her pieces, children go manic and scamper, adolescents vogue, and adults stroll casually around, generally unaware of the fact that they are being moved, that they are dancing with the art."
At the Albright-Knox, though, plenty of adults seemed to be dancing along in step. One energetic group of five students from Buffalo State College and the University at Buffalo had fun making complex patterns on the wall. They'd stand in a line and flap their arms to simulate a barrel-rolling airplane, attempt to crush one another's silhouetted heads with their fingers or engage in shadow-puppet faux-fist-fights.
"We were having a fight with a little kid over there," said one of the UB students, Jennifer Wehrfritz, pointing to a young boy in front of "Dumaru" who was actively engaged in a larger-than-life karate routine. "He totally won."
For this generation, a group not often given to extended bouts of focused attention, Steinkamp's art speaks directly to their digital dispositions.
"Everybody thinks art should just be paintings on a wall, or pictures or something like that. But art's really not only that. It's what you make art. Art's all around us," said Matthew Herrington, an art major at Buffalo State. Unlike the well-mined territory of painting, where originality is a tough proposition, he added, Steinkamp's innovative use of seamless and entirely computer-generated abstractions is "a whole new frontier."
>Of architecture and space
Any curator or art professional will tell you that an important element of Steinkamp's work is the way it dematerializes architecture and space. In English, that means that many of her pulsating animations of trees, flowers and complex abstract forms are specifically designed to transform walls, ceilings and passageways into something far more interesting than mere support structures. After she's through with them, plaster and marble melt into liquid pallets that seem to resonate with living consciousness. And that transformation of space is part of what makes Steinkamp's work so important to collectors, museums, for-profit corporations (like the band U2 and the Staples Center in Los Angeles) -- and so compelling to viewers.
The result of many of her earlier works, Steinkamp said in a recent interview at the gallery, is a phenomenon "in between the image space or virtual space and the real space, the architecture. What they were about was transforming the real to the virtual, and at the same time the virtual becomes transformed by the real."
The implications of that statement for a world straddling digital and communal culture, lost somewhere between Facebook and the outside world, are staggering. And Steinkamp was the first to make that statement -- exclusively using the self-referential language of zeros and ones -- almost unthinkably before its time.
Born in 1958, Steinkamp is that rare Generation X artist whose work applies and appeals to younger and future generations far more than existing ones, or even the disaffected population of her own. Her work is hailed as much for what it embodies as what it prognosticates for the future of 21st century art -- exactly what those five college students were musing over as their shadows engaged in sophisticated horseplay.
>A suspension of disbelief
In the case of an untitled 1993 piece, acquired by the gallery in advance of its revolutionary "Extreme Abstraction" exhibition in 2005, the floor itself becomes a brilliantly colored cross between a breathing creature and a heaving river. That seminal piece, which Steinkamp calls her "epiphany," is cast onto the floor space between two staircases by two projectors mounted overhead near the entrance to the gallery's Clifton Hall Link.
"This piece made me realize, just like [Dan] Flavin, actually, that I could dematerialize space with light," Steinkamp said in a recent lecture at the gallery, referring to the work of the seminal light and space artist whose work similarly broke out of the artistic boundaries of its time.
In order for that perceptual trick to work, the viewer has to willfully forget that what they're seeing comes out of high-tech video projectors and painstakingly designed computer algorithms. Hughes noted that to fully appreciate Steinkamp's work on more than a simply aesthetic level, a suspension of disbelief is required.
Fortunately for viewers, unlike the more traditional light and space artists from the recently closed "Panza Collection" exhibition, the artist makes that jump exceedingly easy with meticulously installed pieces that often obscure the means of their production.
"I wouldn't say that Jennifer considers herself to be a video artist per se," Hughes said. "She's a new media artist, in the sense that she's creating these works completely on the computer. She creates the imagery, she animates the imagery. Projection is just a means for getting on the walls."
Steinkamp's approach to transforming architecture came out of a long artistic tradition with roots in the '60s, a decade that saw groundbreaking contributions from artists who dealt with light, environment and space like Robert Irwin, James Turrell and, especially, Flavin. Works from all three of those artists factored prominently into the Panza show at the Albright-Knox, and Steinkamp's inclusion ties in nicely for those who are interested in where she fits in the spectrum of modern art.
>A hot commodity
Steinkamp remembers when she decided to dedicate her practice to digital art. She was a student at the California Institute of Technology in 1982, taking a class from Gene Youngblood, an influential professor who wrote the book "Expanded Cinema."
"In 1982, I saw some of the first computer animation stuff and my head exploded," Steinkamp said, referring to groundbreaking films by the artist Ed Emshwiller. "I had what Buddhist priests try to get after. And I haven't had it since, but it's a cool feeling, really. Maybe it's just some weird synapse thing in your head: You have to do this."
That "weird synapse thing," whatever it was, has made her one of the more sought-after artists of the last decade. She is a hot commodity with museums, collectors and many critics, who think, as Hickey wrote, that "Steinkamp is the first artist whose work demonstrates the likelihood that the most significant painters of the 21st century will be using computer-driven projections to create and present their work."
To help viewers appreciate Steinkamp's work on more than just a shock-and-awe level, Hughes has incorporated a reading room into the gallery. With explanatory wall panels, books and chairs, the room seems more apt for a library. But Hughes, on a personal mission to include more context in the shows she curates, saw an opportunity here and went with it. The room also includes a computer for visitors to leave comments and have discussions about the show.
"It incites dialogue for people to talk about artwork, even for people who maybe are uncomfortable talking to each other about artwork," Hughes said.
"I feel her work evokes a third eye for those who do not use recreational chemistry," an anonymous commentator said. "For me, it just enhanced it."
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