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Art Review

'Tilt' Stretches the Bounds of Time and Space

October 10, 2000|DAVID PAGEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A couple of centuries ago it wasn't uncommon for an artist to load his gear into a wagon and head out west, where he'd try to capture, in paint on canvas, the grandeur and majesty of the landscape. Upon returning from the wilderness, many painters would send their biggest, most dazzling pictures on tour to town halls and church basements around the country.

Back then it was no sin for an artist to be entrepreneurial-minded. Movies didn't exist, and folks from small towns and large cities would pay admission to marvel at the spectacle of nature laid out before them. Gorgeous sunsets, sublime gorges, soaring peaks and vertiginous waterfalls were staples of the genre, which often caused viewers to gasp, as amazed by a painting's verisimilitude as they were moved by its awesome beauty.

Jessica Bronson's videos do something similar--via entirely different means. Taking contemporary viewers on trips both soothing and stimulating, her powerfully original works embrace entertainment as they set you to thinking about the relationship between consciousness and its surroundings. Imagine what Hollywood special effects would look like if they were produced by a painter like Albert Bierstadt (sometimes in collaboration with Alfred Jensen) and you'll have an idea of Bronson's capacity to warp time and space in works at once mesmerizing and thrilling.

A pair of concurrent but separate exhibitions outline the scope and intensity of her vision. To make "Panamint Tilt," a new video installation at Cal State L.A.'s Luckman Fine Arts Gallery, Bronson traveled to Death Valley, where she swung a hand-held camera equipped with a wide-angle lens from the ground at her feet to the sky overhead. To make "a small infinite" at Goldman/Tevis Gallery, she flew in a helicopter over the outskirts of Palmdale, filming the location where the L.A. Aqueduct becomes the L.A. River.

The centerpiece of the first exhibition is a double video projection. On one free-standing wall appears a slow pan that begins with a close-up of the desert's weathered surface. As the camera angles out across an encrusted expanse, the image seems to accelerate. Passing a range of mountains on the horizon, it gradually slows down as it moves through the cloudless blue sky, eventually stopping before returning along the path the camera just traveled.

The movement of the camera recalls the hypnotic back-and-forth sweep of a clock's pendulum, or the view from a ship's porthole as it cruises through rolling waves. The wide-angle lens causes the horizon to bow downward and upward, forming an unbent line only for a split-second, when it divides the frame into two equal parts. Consequently, the desert appears to be breathing, expanding and contracting as if it were inhaling and exhaling deeply.

On another wall, perpendicular to the first, the same image is projected upside-down. It presents a slow-motion version of what the world looked like when you were a kid and would tip your head back when going as high as you could on a swing.

A musical score, composed and recorded by artist Michael Pierzynski, adds to the sense of weightlessness conveyed by Bronson's topsy-turvy installation. Recalling the pings of a submarine's sonar, the noises whales make when they communicate and the whirling hum of fans and motors, the sci-fi sound effects generate a serene, underwater feel, giving "Panamint Tilt" the aura of an electronic lullaby.

In contrast, Bronson's second installation compresses so much information onto four mid-size monitors that it is initially overwhelming. This visually complex yet rigorously structured piece begins with an unedited six-minute film Bronson made by flying low over the landscape in a stunt helicopter with a nose-mounted camera.

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Next, she divided each frame into four quadrants. Each of these quarter-images was then fed through a computer program that "kaleidoscoped" it--flipping it over, under and back so that each quadrant mirrors the one next to it, forming a symmetrical full-frame image.

To watch the four monitors is to be enthralled by the patterns that form on a single screen and fascinated by the relationships that take shape among them. Imagine what it would be like if a slot machine's spinning images were not static icons but stunning, panoramic movies. Then imagine how fast your eyes and mind would have to work to take in everything that happened on four machines simultaneously. This will give you a idea of the way Bronson's mind-blowing tetratych sharpens perceptual acuity as it sets your imagination in motion.

Both exhibitions include modestly scaled inkjet prints that function like movie stills, souvenir mementos of Bronson's more ambitious works that unfold through time. (The Luckman installation also presents four pedestal-like sculptures and a quasi-abstract, nearly salacious two-monitor diptych.) But each venue's centerpiece steals the show. As they transform ugly-duckling landscapes into sexy movie stars, Bronson's videos draw viewers into their orbit, which you won't want to escape.

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* "Panamint Tilt," Luckman Fine Arts Gallery, Cal State Los Angeles, 5151 State University Drive, (323) 343-6610, through Nov. 4. Closed Fridays and Sundays. Goldman/Tevis Gallery, 932 Chung King Road, (213) 617-8217, through Saturday. Closed today.

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