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A Painter Finds Extra Dimensions

Fifth in a series examining the Los Angeles video art scene.

October 22, 1987|DON SNOWDEN

So how did Stuart Bender wind up in Long Beach?

"My car broke down and I had to find a job, so I got one as artist-in-residence for the city of Long Beach."

That twist of fate contributed heavily to Bender moving into the video art world. His media experience working at an Albuquerque, N.M., radio station helped him move to a position as technical assistant in the Long Beach Museum of Art video department in 1980, following a year working as artist-in-residence for the city. Working at that leading video art center introduced Bender to a medium that provided extra dimensions to his artwork.

"Video was adding sound, movement and time to the same kind of statements I did in painting," said Bender, 34, during an interview at his Long Beach home. "I never saw a real differentiation between painting, sculpting and video because it seemed like a natural progression. It's the same ideas and the same skills.

"Even the way the videotapes are built is the same. Any painting I do probably went through five paintings underneath that changed over and over. With video, I start with a basic idea and, as I'm doing it, other things suggest themselves to add to it, and the images start."

While video art in general has a radical reputation, Bender, who received a degree in painting and drawing from the State University of New York, considers his work an extension of the formal discipline and skills he acquired from his training in traditional mediums.

"When I was in high school, my art background was very, very classical," Bender explained. "My one thought was that to be a great artist, you have to be a great painter and draw like the masters. I'm sort of rigid on that side but there was a whole other part of me that was nuts about Yoko Ono.

"When I came to video, my conceptions about what television was were still geared toward what I used to watch as a TV junkie growing up. I looked at video art like, 'What's this?,' but there was something underlying it that just really grabbed me."

Bender had already picked up experience in a diverse array of disciplines before his involvement with video. He did theater work, taught and performed international folk dancing for eight years, realized his dream of having his own radio show and continued painting and sculpting.

In video, he found a medium flexible enough to incorporate elements of those disciplines and one that allowed collaboration with other artists.

"I work inter-medially, and it's almost like the Wagnerian ideal of opera as the ultimate art form using every art form," he said. "One of the most exciting parts about video is the chance to bring other people in, because painting and sculpture are such isolated activities."

Bender's video work is still hindered by problems inherent to the medium--money and access to equipment. "If I had complete access and unlimited resources, I could probably knock these tapes off in a couple of weeks from concept to completion," he explained. "I don't give up on my ideas. I have ideas from three years ago that I'm still developing and shooting."

Bender's "Spider Love" piece was a two-year project. The tape, which commented on fear-mongering techniques in the media and also satirized Freudian imagery, included segments of human lips superimposed on a painting.

"I would get into one studio to do the lips in one night and maybe it would be three months before I could arrange to get the next bit of stuff done," he said. "I actually quit a job and didn't look right away for another one so I'd have the time, money and resources to finish it."

Like many video artists, a major part of Bender's art involves commentary on the medium he's working with.

"It's real important that the work is showing up on this box," said Bender, pointing to his television set. "It's television, and what television means in our culture. Anyone who's really thinking, period, and using this medium can't detach it from the larger context of society."

That social thrust in his work doesn't mean that Bender is willing to tone down those statements in order to enhance the appeal of his work to a wider audience.

"I am really making any tape I make for a general audience," he declared. "I'm not trying to talk to an art group that understands video art. It's nice to be appreciated, but the reason I do it is the same reason I paint.

"It's getting stuff inside of me out to the world and touching other people with it. Communication is an important part but, if my work wasn't seen at all, it wouldn't bother me. The driving purpose is personal."

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