The Message Is Medium-Small

Photo by James BunoanSomeone once said there's no one so conservative as a revolutionary in power, and that's certainly the story in the art world, where rebels rise up, promise freedom, establish new tyrannies, and fall to new rebels who reintroduce us to the virtues of figurative realism until we're bored and the Fauvists come along and everything's really, really green. For a while.

Take "ID/entity: Portraits in the 21st Century": no matter how avant-garde the medium (tech-centric) or the venue (UC Irvine's Beall Center for Art and Technology), the most current of the works are the most reactionary.

How reactionary? Van Eyck's Mirror goes back 600 years. It's an interactive video installation, a lovely, plush set-up as rich as the nobles who inspired it. A carpet runner lies beneath cool plastic parabolic sound cups. At the end of the runner is a curtained riser housing a mirror like the Wicked Queen's. The sound cups puke forth creepy-old-man breathing, the kind of suffocating breathing that comes right before you die of congestive heart failure. But step on the carpet, and the breathing stops. Climb the steps and look in the mirror: you're in it—barely, like the Hitchhiking Ghost at the Haunted Mansion—and staring back at you is the witness from Van Eyck's The Arnolfini Wedding. You remember the witness—the one seen only in the mirror between the bride and groom, the one they say was Van Eyck himself. Here, the witness is as beautifully, magnificently painted as in the Dutch original. His skin is as creamy and soft and touchable as Vermeer's Girl With Pearl Earring. Nora Ligano and Marshall Reese et al. were able to re-create the perfected portraiture of the Dutch masters. Then the witness . . . blinks. Got you.

Digital Limnings: Miniature Memories by Joan Logue with Kelly Dobson and Raffi Krikorian takes us back to the Dark Ages and the then-super-high-tech practice of painting miniatures to celebrate royal engagements. Four mannequins are cloaked in sparkly red that, despite the festive coloring, evokes Druidic priests. At the shoulder of each is a very small brooch, one of which shows a mother and daughter, arm in arm. They smile at you, then they turn and kiss one another on the cheek. Fish swim in another, then disappear once they're past the camera's eye. In a third, a girl in yellow genie pants twirls manically; after a freeze frame, someone in Chinese or Thai costume (the pin is Zoolander-cell-phone-small, so it's hard to tell) does a fan dance.

Of course, despite the gee-whiz giggle the artists get out of their very small technology, the aim is as old as Lascaux. They just have new and groovier ways to do it now.

Unlike Lascaux, which tells stories, the medium here is the message, and the message is small.

Telephone Story: A Portrait by JD Beltran and Todd Kushnir is the kind of work we started to see a lot in the '90s. Sit on a bench and use a remote control to choose between video loops—with DVD, you're the boss! Meanwhile, someone's answering machine pours forth a soundtrack from friends calling while having coffee at the farmer's market, from an accented lady, from a sweet-voiced girl, from a girl saying she feels very sorry for the owner of the answering machine. The videos show roads, blurs and, in one case, a party of friends sitting on a blanket in a Midwestern field, food and good conversation animating them. It's a harmless piece, but it feels forced and inauthentic. The party looks set up for the camera; the messages sound set up for the answering machine. This "portrait" is as airbrushed and Vaselined as Elizabeth Taylor.

The most radical of the four selections? That would be Loops. It's movement-capture animation—the kind you see on those Los Angeles Times Calendar ads that run with trailers at the movie theater, about how they animate that dwarf dude, when in fact the Times Calendar section never runs stories on stunt men or pet trainers or dwarf-dude animators. Liars! But the captured movement here is Merce Cunningham's 1972 solo dance for his hands. Takehisa Kosugi's music sounds like insects gearing up for a pound of your flesh. Merce's creepy, funereal voice-over says things like, "The afternoon spent browsing through the Metropolitan Museum," and then starts talking about the Cotton Club. Merce has the cool roboto phrasing of a male Laurie Anderson. Meanwhile, on the lower half of the screen, groovy white lines etch themselves across your corneas. They're fast and annoying. They seem kind of coked-out and frantic. They're not for actually watching unless you like epilepsy. The bench before the screen? Needs a cushion.

Now, Marc Downie, Shelley Eshkar and Paul Kaiser created Loops in 2001. But their original source material is so '70s that I was waiting for it to begin declaiming a poem about menstrual blood. (I might just not have stayed long enough for that to happen.) And, oh, it's sweet in its attempts to express! and experience! and consciousness-raise! and all those other '70s things. But it's Van Eyck's Mirror, totally devoid of social conscience or meaning, an installation that's nothing but "gee-whiz, look at the neat thing I made fun!" that raises us up today. There's a war coming, and apathy reigns.

"ID/entity: Portraits in the 21st Century" at UC Irvine's Beall Center for Art and Technology, W. Peltason & Campus drs., Irvine, (949) 824-6206. Open Tues.-Sun., noon-5 p.m.; Thurs., noon-8 p.m. Through Jan. 26.


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