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ART REVIEW

'Stations' Shows Value of Simplicity

July 26, 1996|WILLIAM WILSON | TIMES ART CRITIC

If the rising heat's getting you down and you're in the mood to be mesmerized in watery cool, try Bill Viola's "Stations" at the Lannan Foundation. It's an absolutely trippy installation of projected video that proves that the best way to make art magical is to keep it simple.

Viola, 45, is a peripatetic pioneer of electronic art. Born in New York, he lives in Long Beach. He is arguably the most renowned practitioner of a form artists too often transform into an obscure cult practice based on technical ineptitude and creative self-indulgence.

When an individual artist chooses a corporate technocratic medium that bewitches the planet, he's got to be really good to compete.

Viola has done this so successfully that he's gained main-stage art world recognition. Last year he represented the United States at the Venice Biennial. The present piece has already been shown in Germany and France. Its West Coast premiere at the Lannan was coordinated by the foundation's director of art programs, Kathleen Merrill.

It occupies all of the foundation's principle gallery space, which is made extremely dark. In this mysterious ambience one sees five life-size nude figures. They appear to float vertically, heads down, in tanks of water embedded in the walls. They turn with an eerie slow grace. For one markedly disorienting instant, they look like real drowned corpses.

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The impression doesn't last. Something in the back of the brain reminds us cadavers don't float that way. Our optical sensors complain that all this isn't quite real. Images are a slightly bluish black-and-white, although there is some color at the bottom. Maybe they're some species of super hologram. That impression doesn't last either.

Given the poor resolution of even the best video projection equipment, it's a minor miracle Viola is able to create this sense of virtual reality at all. The actual reason he was able to briefly fool both our eyes and that of the camera is his lighting. It's as sculptural as that of a first-rate old master painter.

OK, now that we know what we're really looking at, there's time to enjoy Viola's poetry and amuse ourselves figuring out how he did it.

Of the five figures, three are male, the others women. All look like adults, but the first man seems young, the last middle-aged. The final woman represented is tellingly pregnant. Viola seems to insist we understand he is making a comparison between these images of live people floating in water and all of us drifting happily in mom's amniotic fluid before she rudely ejected us.

*

As if to dramatize the point, each of the figures slowly drifts out of its frame in apparently random order. After a few seconds, each bursts dramatically upward into view, all in color, to the sound of aquatic roaring. It reminds one of those moments of peak achievement in life--great sex, great spiritual or creative accomplishment.

After a few more moments the figures return to graceful drifting. Viola's metaphor of life, rebirth and death intertwined is clear. But how did he bring it off?

The artist seems happy to provide a visual explanation. Below each image, a slab of mirror-polished black granite lies on the floor reflecting the wall image upside down. No, actually, they're right side up. Viola managed his magic through a very simple device.

He videotaped his figures below the surface treading water and turned them on their heads on the wall. The illusion that they burst up comet-like is created by their images jumping in feet first, reversed.

There's something elegantly honest about the way Viola shows his hand. He reminds us that all art first fools us to our delight while by implication explaining itself to our satisfaction. First it's a pretty landscape, then it's paint. First it's "David," then it's marble.

Finally it's all of us reveling in life's illusions, then realizing that existence is all about real stuff.

* Lannan Foundation, 5401 McConnell Ave., to Dec. 22, closed Mondays, (310) 306-1004.

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