Posts Tagged ‘Video Art’

Since 1980 I’ve had the desire to experience a whole array of emotionally charged installation and video art. Since 1988 I’ve had a continuously growing collection of pastel and pencil drawn nudes hanging on my walls. Since 1989 I’ve had a personalized Oregon vehicle license plate that says “R MUSIC”. Interestingly (at least to me) is the thread that binds together those 3 seemingly disparate aspects of my life. To understand the thread, you need to know why each is important to me.

Let’s begin at the end – with the license plate. I moved to Oregon in 1989. I had California plates that said 3DGRFX because working with 3D Graphics is what I did for a living. When I moved to Oregon I wanted to make a change to, not only my state, but also my identity. So, I changed what the plates said. For a long time I did not know what to put on those new plates. Then, one day I was going to lunch with a friend and the car stereo had been turned up quite loud on my drive in to work. As soon as we got into the car, the Opera “Tosca” went blasting through the parking lot. My friend turned to me and said: “turn it off! Turn it off! I hate that kind of music!” I apologized for the volume and then said: “hey, lots of people don’t like opera; but Patt and I LOVE opera so Opera is what plays in MY car. This is our car and this is our music!” That was the very instant that I decided on my new plates: R MUSIC.

The nudes represent a less silly story. I used to hang out in Los Angeles at a place on Traction Avenue, called “Al’s Bar”. One day, one of my downtown friends brought a postcard into the bar and showed it to me. It was a painting called “Denouement”  by an artist who lived across the street. I was stunned by the uplifting beauty of the painting and I had to meet the artist. While I could never afford to own Denouement or any of his other major works, we did become friends and I did start buying his pastels.

As for the video and installation art, all I can say is “read my last blog post”. Several times in my college career I saw video work by an artist who’s work I could neither afford, nor take my eyes off. The artist came to teach in several video art classes that I took from Professor Gene Youngblood at CalArts. He is my favorite artist and I still can’t take my eyes off his work.

So… who are these 3 guys and why do I consider their work to be contributing factors in my own personal philosophical, emotional, and psychological development? The first question is easily answered. These 3 guys are Giacomo Puccini, Michael Newberry, and Bill Viola. The second question is relatively straightforward but is not as easily answered. The simplest answer is just that each of these artists focuses like a laser beam on the thing that I personally find most powerful in art and in life: EMOTION. But that’s a rather banal explanation unless coupled with the rationale. So, here goes.

The word “emotion” can mean many things. In my context, it really refers to something more broadly called “The Passions”. Honestly, I know very little about intellectual history prior to the 17th century so I won’t pretend that I know where the categorization of the passions began. What I do know is that in 1668 Charles Le Brun cataloged 22 of them based on facial movements. Three and a half centuries later, today’s master of emotional communication, Paul Ekman, is still working on understanding them. What I also know are two things that are entirely personal and subjective. I know that I respond very strongly to highly emotional art. And, I know that the art I personally find most powerful is that which helps us to develop our ability to see or hear deeply and with sensitivity. So, if I was writing a manifesto (right… in my dreams!) I would say that the purpose of art is to provide audiences or viewers with tools that cultivate their mindfulness, and sensitivity to the subtle beauty of all that surrounds us. Each of these artists provide me with exactly that.

Puccini often took everyday experiences, rather than heroic Wagnerian characters and subjects, as the basis for his operas. This neither implies that Madame Butterfly is “everyday” nor does it imply that I like Wagner. Both are untrue. What is does imply is that Puccini understood the subtleties of ordinary life and was able to portray them sensitively. More important was Puccini’s ability to write extraordinary melody in a way that evokes enormous emotion. The man clearly understood the power of melody to express every subtle aspect of every possible emotion.

In a very different way, Bill Viola understands emotions on a very subtle level. He wants his viewers to experience these emotions but he also wants to heighten out awareness of them. Bill’s work serves to make us aware of how life is lived and experienced and how we emotionally respond to that. Not every emotion that Bill wants us to experience is positive. As much as he want’s us to know what love and ecstasy are like, he also wants us to understand things like sadness, fear, death, loss, grief, confusion, emotional conflict, anger, and everything in between. That’s why Bill can create a piece like “The Passing” which eloquently examines the spiritual, emotional, existential extremes of human birth and death; concurrently juxtaposing them.It’s why he can create something like “I do not know what it is I am like” that does the exact same thing with the natural world. It’s why a viewer can sit transfixed in an installation of “Five Angels for the Millennium” and feel uplifted. And, it’s why “The Passions” can effectively juxtapose everything from “Man of Sorrow” to  “Emergence” in a way that maintains philosophical integrity. Bill doesn’t only want us to be uplifted. He wants us to know what every emotion feels like and, through experiencing his work, to become sensitized to those emotions and to be better able to recognize and wrestle with them. All of Bill’s work reaches it’s pinnacle in “The Passions” because all of those pieces deal with what John Walsh calls “Emotions in Extreme Time”. The pieces were not shot on video. They were shot on 35mm film at an extremely high frame rate. The result is that we viewers need to spend time with the pieces (you can’t just walk by them). But, when you do, you experience the most intricate subtlety imaginable. You learn everything about the emotion expressed in the work. For I guy like me, who values emotion as the most affecting component of art, nothing is more powerful than Bills most recent work!

Like Viola and Puccini, Michael Newberry’s work is about emotion. Somewhat different from Puccini and drastically different from Viola, Newberry’s work focuses on a only a subset of the passions. That subset, however, is the core of both his aesthetic and his beliefs about the purpose of art. Michael DOES have a manifesto and it’s not the same as what I said mine would be. I have a broader range of art that I would call “good” than Michael does but that is because Michael has very solid, rational, consistent beliefs about why he does what he does. So, much of the art I like, Michael does not like because it does not meet his standards for what he believes art should do. I had a conversation with Michael recently, about Picasso’s composition. Michael sad this: “Picasso is one of my favorite painters but he is not one of my favorite artists“. I’ve never discussed Viola’s work with him but I have the feeling he’d feel similarly.  Michael has an aesthetic that is strongly rooted in Romantic aesthetics. To him, the most important thing that art should do is to help the viewer or listener understand his potential for greatness; to make the audience see their human potential; and to make them have a desire to be the best, most productive, most glorious humans that they can be. Michael does not try to work with the whole gamut of emotions. Many of Le Brun’s 22 passions are exactly the opposite of what Michael wants his work to express. What he wants is for his viewers to see intense love; pure, unfiltered, unimpeded ecstasy; and the feeling of joy brought to its ultimate heights. Unlike Viola, or even Puccini, Michael does not want his work to have anything to do with fear, anger, disappointment, sadness, or death. Where Viola wants us to see everything and to be forced to deal with our own responses, Michael wants only one thing: to show you your highest, greatest, most amazing potential and to make you strive to achieve your own.

I owe a great debt of gratitude to all three of these artists. To Puccini I owe my love for some of the most passionate aural experiences one can ever have. To Viola I own my love for visual experiences that forever change ones perceptions. To Newberry I own a house full of some of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen, the daily renewal of my desire to strive to be my best, a constant reminder to take the personal responsibility for achieving (or not) my goals, and the acknowledgement that it’s okay (dare I say mandatory) for one to nurture one’s own joy, happiness, and love.

What my favorite artists would think of each other, I don’t really know. I’m pretty sure that Puccini would love Newberry’s painting and, at least, the most recent of Viola’s work. I’m certain that if Viola saw Newberry’s painting he’d feel he’d found a kindred spirit. I know that Newberry loves Puccini because we’ve spoken about it and listened together; about Viola’s later work I guess that Michael would respect it and love (or come to love) “The Passions”. Each of these guys would have a different view of how the others meet the aesthetic objectives of their own artistic conceptions. But, that’s why they are all great artists. Their artistic conceptions each differ but, unlike so much of the terrible art that has been produced in the last 100 years, what make each of these aesthetics unique is their unadulterated nobility.

As for me, I am just a lover of emotionally charged art with a bunch of pastel and pencil drawn nudes and a silly “R MUSIC” license plate. But the thread that binds together those really important parts of my life is passion. Today I live more passionately, more compassionately, and with greater mindfulness of our world and our human potential because of them.

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Bill Viola is among the leading video artists in the world. Some would say he is “arguably THE leading” video artist but I simply can’t accept the word “arguably”. When one thinks of video art, perhaps Nam June Paik, or Ed Emshwiller, or Kit Galloway, or Dan Sandin may come to mind. Paik may even be a contender, or even the winner, as best known among them. But to my mind, the work of no one who has ever touched a video camera can compare with the magnitude of the work of Bill Viola. Bill’s work is unique within the discipline of video art. Sometimes the pieces that Bill has created in the last decade or two are referred to as “moving paintings”. To my knowledge, no one creates anything like Bill’s work and no one uses video in a manner so emotive and so painterly. For this reason, I am more than mildly excited that Bill is not only among the 2011 Praemium Imperiale Laureates, but is the Praemium Imperiale Laureate in PAINTING!

Bill Viola’s work has been shown on virtually every continent. He has received awards from  institutions as diverse as art institutes and MIT. But leave it to Japan, where the aesthetics of emotion, subtlety, and sensitivity in art are most respected, to finally recognize the true underpinning of his work – Bill Viola is a PAINTER!

I first met Bill Viola in 1979 or 1980 thanks to the CalArts School of Film and Video and to Mr. “Expanded Cinema” himself, Gene Youngblood. Before any of us had color TVs (okay, a slight exaggeration, but only just) Gene was predicting the future of the moving image and the eventual merging of media technologies. Gene wasn’t always exactly correct, but he certainly was closer than almost anyone else. He predicted that we’d all one day have cable (or satellite) television and that it and computers would one day merge. He really is an amazing man. Besides, how many people do I know who actually knew (well) both Buckminster Fuller and Stewart Brand! But, I digress. My point is simply that Gene knew, back in the 1970’s, that Bill Viola would lead that pack. That is why Gene would regularly invite Bill to speak in his classes, and to show his work. To this very day, Bill’s video “Hatsu Yume” is my favorite of his earlier pieces; not because it is visually stunning (which it is), or because it is brilliantly communicative (which it is), or because he got to do it on a quite impressive grant from Sony (which he did), but because I remember sitting on the floor in class watching Bill spend inordinate minutes adjusting the television on which we were to watch the tape. Like everything about Bill Viola, it had to be both technically and visually perfect.

I never gave up on following the work of Bill Viola. I saw it in museums and I remember one of the most amazing shows I’ve ever seen in an LA art museum in the 80’s. I remember the first time I was transfixed by “He Weeps for You” and the first time I sat in “The Room for Saint John of the Cross“. But nothing prepared me for the visual experience that finally turned Bill from my “favorite video artist” to my favorite artist in any medium. That experience came at the J. Paul Getty Center in Los Angeles where Bill showed the body of work collectively known as “The Passions“. It was at that show where I learned that video could be so emotional and so passionate that it’s impossible to avoid tears. It was at that show where I saw that video could be quintessentially painterly. And, it was at that show where I experienced my favorite of his pieces, and my favorite work of visual art: the “Five Angels for the Millenium“. In fact, On February 17, 2003, I posted this (which I can’t believe is still there!) to the Getty Center Website: “I was in awe. I’ve seen every piece of Viola’s since the 70’s when he’d come to lecture at Gene Youngblood’s video art classes. When I saw The Greeting I thought that Viola had reached the zenith of his career. But I was wrong. Silent Mountain still resonates in me many days after seeing it. And if Silent Mountain resonates, then I don’t even know what to call the feeling that Five Angels for the Millennium left me with! Transcendence maybe. The joy of knowing that man can be uplifted. Needless to say, I love this show.” To this day, I stand by that reaction.

So I have to share just one more non sequitur. I had very little time to see the Getty show in 2003. I got to the center at exactly the time that the show was to open,  on the first day of the show. The bad news is that they were opening the show 2 hours late because the first 2 hours were devoted to a press tour. The good news, and amazing blessing, is that when I told someone in the gift shop that I’d studied with Bill, she took me up to the gallery and let me in to the press event.  Yes, I had only 2 hours to see the show. But much of those 2 hours was spent getting a private tour with Bill. So, perhaps those 5 angels like me as much as I liked them!

Now, all of these stories bring me back to my original motivation for writing this post. The work of Bill Viola has been a part of my personal aesthetic for most of my adult life. I’m sure that he has no idea who I am. That doesn’t matter. What matters to me is the pride I take in recognizing his genius over 30 years ago; the joy I take in watching the body of work that I respected back then grow into one of the most visually amazing bodies of work in western art culture; and the growth that I, myself, have received from studying with Bill, following his work, and making the moving image and Bill’s “moving Paintings” a part of my own process of self-examination and my understanding of aesthetics, emotion, and the world.

Congratulations Bill!