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A Projection of the Imagination

By throwing video images onto inanimate objects, artist Tony Oursler explores the tube's takeover of our lives.

April 02, 2000|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

Twenty years and three months ago, Tony Oursler introduced himself to hard-core aficionados of Los Angeles' contemporary art scene in a bare-bones setting. Those who found their way to Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions--an "alternative space" then housed above a shabby downtown bridal shop--saw two low-budget videotapes by the 22-year-old artist, fresh out of CalArts.

One tape, "Diamond Head," was an X-rated soap opera about a disastrous marriage. The other, "The Weak Bullet," followed the path of a bullet as it snuffed out one nasty argument after another. Together, the two works offered a glimpse of a promising artist who used a light touch, dark humor, handmade dolls and painted props to deliver biting social commentary. Tapping into the weirdness of everyday life in a world hooked on television, he was definitely on to something.

Oursler returned to his native New York in 1981, a year after his show at LACE, and proceeded to distinguish himself as a pioneering synthesizer of video, sculpture, performance art and recorded monologues. His spooky eyeballs, pathetic characters--made by projecting images of human faces on sculptural forms and making them whine, cajole and bark out orders--effectively suck video images out of their usual boxes and set them free in galleries and museums. Meanwhile, his work has become a staple of the international art scene, appearing three times at Documenta--the periodic survey of contemporary art in Kassel, Germany--and in leading museums all over America and Europe.

Now he's back in L.A., at the Museum of Contemporary Art's splendid digs, with his largest exhibition to date: "Introjection: Tony Oursler Mid-Career Survey 1976-1999," which opens today. Named for the artist's interest in the assimilation of thoughts and behaviors from television and film, the show was organized by the Williams College Museum of Art in Williamstown, Mass. The 85 works track his evolution from narrative videos to complex mixed-media installations.

"It's amazing to see what's happened in Los Angeles since I left," Oursler said as he supervised the installation of his exhibition--in galleries that didn't exist during his student days. MOCA was founded in 1979, but its main building on Grand Avenue didn't open until 1986. Recalling a period 20 years ago when there were few local showcases even for his celebrated professors at CalArts, Oursler said that L.A. is now widely acknowledged as a major art center.

Walking through the galleries where his show was taking shape, Oursler pointed out "Side Effects," an eerie group of projected faces, and seminal works. "The Watching," a mixed-media installation with video projection made for Documenta in 1992, was a breakthrough because of its use of small video projectors.

"When I discovered that I could use these projectors to make video effigies or dummies or dolls, it enabled me to take these characters out of the television set and develop them further. I started to work with figures in terms of empathy tests on the audience," he said, referring to dolls that cry and dummies that yell at passersby.

One work that grabs attention is "Getaway #2," in which the stuffed-pillow head of a life-size female dummy is wedged under a mattress. The face projected onto the pillow grimaces, rolls its eyes and snarls, "Hey you, get out of here" and makes unprintable threats. "For me, the interesting thing is that she tells you to get away, so the first thing you want to do is stay," Oursler said.

Long fascinated with psychological effects of electronic media, Oursler has been particularly concerned with the balance between awareness of media and immersion in it during the last 10 years. "There is always that fine line of whether you are using media as a way of growing or a way of escaping, or whether you are even aware of what's happening when you turn it on," he said. "I think it's really important for people to be aware, so that's an important dynamic of what I am trying to do."

That has led him to explore the phenomenon known as multiple-personality disorder "as a kind of metaphor for the way we move from one identity to the next by channel shifting or surfing on the Internet and taking on different identities," he said. One major work that emerged from that research is "Judy," a 1994 installation that marks the beginning of Oursler's use of tacky domestic furnishings with a figure.

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