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Newport Artist Puts Talents To Work For Multimedia Show

September 23, 1986|RICK VANDERKNYFF

When Newport Beach artist Jerry Wayne Downs flips on his slide projector tonight, his audience won't be seeing vacation slides or family snapshots.

The surrealist painter, who also composes music and writes poetry, has parlayed his interests into a 25-minute multimedia performance. Entitled "Reflections," the 7 p.m. presentation at Orange Coast College's Robert B. Moore Theatre opens an exhibit of Downs' paintings at the Costa Mesa college's art gallery.

"Reflections" uses three projectors to produce a gradually changing stream of Downs' images--which often juxtapose natural scenes with images of high technology--backed by the artist's music and poetry (in taped readings by professional actors).

Building around existing paintings, Downs worked out a storyboard for "Reflections" and then painted dozens of transitional images, so that each painting fades into the next. Then came a detailed time chart on which Downs mapped out his musical score, sound effects and snippets of poetry. The artist composed and recorded the music at home on his digital synthesizer and had the final sound track professionally mixed at a Hollywood studio.

The idea for the project took form last fall, when slides of Downs' works (accompanied by recordings of his instrumental music) were shown to students at the Annenberg School of Communication at USC. "I wasn't there, but people came up to me later and said, 'You've got to do something with this,' " the painter said in a recent interview at his studio. He has been working on "Reflections" since mid-April.

"This is really sort of a dry run. I want to see what the reaction is because I don't know if something like this has been done before," the 52-year-old artist said. "I think it has extreme potential. It isn't so much storytelling as it is philosophizing--it's like thinking out loud, in sound and picture." Downs has plans to expand "Reflections" into a 45-minute show using six projectors for an as-yet-unscheduled showing at the Laguna Art Museum.

Downs, who had a one-man show at Santa Ana's Bowers Museum in 1984, said one reason for doing "Reflections" is to expand the audience for his art. Because of television, he said, many people can't appreciate paintings in the usual context. "They'll look at paintings, but they won't see them," he said.

He illustrated the point by telling about a visitor to his studio who viewed his paintings without reacting and then watched a videotape showing Downs' works. "He saw the video, and said, 'Wow!' even though he had already seen the paintings. Put it on a tube, and you got 'em."

The influence of television and other media is a major theme in Downs' work. "We are bombarded by information from all sides," the artist said. "We're able to see anything in the world the minute it happens. It's just incredible."

Although Downs' high-tech images often stand in ominous contrast to simpler aspects in his paintings, the artist said he is not condemning technology. "Oh, absolutely not. I love technology. I'm thrilled with it," he said. "We have a big enough ego to like to think that our technology is separate from the real world or separate from nature. It isn't. If you make an object, it was made in nature, by nature, because we are natural objects ourselves.

"I do all the yard work around here because I like watching weeds grow and ants run around and all that, because that is also technology at work. It's nature's technology, but it's doing exactly the same thing we're doing."

Downs, who grew up in small towns in Alabama and Texas, taught himself to paint at age 7. Although he never had any formal art training, he went on to work for 10 years as an animator for Walt Disney Productions, beginning with "Sleeping Beauty" and ending with "Jungle Book." He then moved to Orange County and studied computers briefly before coming back to art for good. Music and poetry are lifelong interests that Downs has put to work in "Reflections."

He chose surrealism as a painting style because he can express his philosophical concerns without making his work inaccessible, he said. "That's one thing that abstract painters, I think, make a mistake on: they limit their audience. Because an art student may walk in and say, 'Wow, look at the composition.' That's great. But the farmer from Kansas is going to walk in and say, 'What a mess that is' and walk away. And immediately, the wall is coming down.

"So if you give them a landscape, and you put something in it that has a message, the art student can walk in and say, 'Yeah, the message is great.' And the Kansas farmer can walk in and say, 'Man, that's a beautiful landscape. I don't understand the rest of that stuff, but I love that landscape.'

"The idea of art is communication, and you've got to get your audience as wide as possible."

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