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Reality and games in collision

November 01, 2002|Leah Ollman | Special to The Times

Truth is stranger than fiction -- we know that already. When the truth is frightening, it's also more insidious than its imaginary counterpart because its ramifications and consequences must be reckoned with. In Marco Brambilla's chilling video installation at Christopher Grimes Gallery, we face both truth and fiction and are left to speculate on the horrific prospect of their intersection.

"Half-life" is a three-channel video piece shown on three walls of the darkened gallery. On the back wall, we see a split-screen grid of faces of young men (and one young woman). They stare listlessly ahead, their eyes glassy, their faces devoid of emotion. On the two side walls, we see what their attention is fixed on: fast-paced scenes of violence from a popular Internet game.

Radical contrasts between the two realms register instantly. The game consists of short segments in which characters stalk and shoot enemies in various environments: along train tracks, inside a jumbo jet, around industrial loading docks. Men in combat fatigues, police uniforms and generic, dark-hooded terrorist gear hunt down and blast the life out of one another. Guns emit cartoon star blasts; bodies spurt lava-like gobs of blood.

Risk, danger and speed are the operative principles here. These games put players on the brink and keep them there. In truth, the players are sitting in suburban cyber cafes, at long banks of computers, on which Brambilla has mounted cameras to record their faces. He also provides, on another screen in the gallery's reception area, an elevated, surveillance-type view of the anonymous, sedentary playing environment. Its sterile uniformity couldn't clash more with the extreme angles, saturated colors and rough, raw settings of the game.

Just how do these violent fantasies mesh with reality? Sociologists differ in their opinions, and Brambilla himself, an Italian-born filmmaker living in L.A., doesn't peddle a simple conclusion. The immediate, visceral impact of his installation, though, triggers a reflexive response against such destruction-based entertainment. Snipers loose on the streets and airwaves filled with reductive, with-us-or-against-us war rhetoric make this game imagery feel uncannily, disarmingly familiar, as if truth and fiction have merged beyond distinction.

In another single-channel video, Brambilla has staged a reenactment of a stabbing that occurred outside an Orange County cyber cafe a few years ago. In an effort to sensitize us to the desensitizing effects of repetition, he plays this condensed drama of death over and over again in a continuous loop. The image, a copy of a crime that was, presumably, a copy of a game, is mesmerizing and traumatizing, powerful and, ideally, empowering.

Christopher Grimes Gallery, 916 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 587-3373, through Nov. 23. Closed Sundays and Mondays.


Cups runneth over with wit, beauty

"Variety Show," the title of Ron Nagle's exhibition at Frank Lloyd Gallery, suggests that amusement's in store, and Nagle delivers generously. He's a consummate craftsman with a worldly sense of history and humor. His aren't pretentious in-jokes that reassure cognoscenti of their privileged status in the art world, but accessible witticisms, oddities and quirks that draw on popular culture and artistic precedent. They elicit smiles and chuckles, but also respect.

Nagle has been making cups and other small clay objects for 40 years. The work has had attitude from the start, and these recent sculptures are as irreverent as they are weirdly beautiful. Of the three groups of work here, the Thin Fins provoke the most delicious shock. A cross between comic ballet and lunar landscape, the format evolved from the basic cup but is now flagrantly functionless. Each of the sculptures sets an extruded shape, which curls or angles back in on itself, in front of a rectangular or curved panel. Strange, enchanting little objects, they have a curdled texture and come in an extraterrestrial spectrum of airbrush-perfect candy colors.

The Snuff Bottles resemble stylized female silhouettes from an earlier era. Statuesque little forms, they have heart-shaped, curvaceous upper bodies, pinched waists and long skirts with sinuous, drippy hemlines. These porcelain and overglaze pieces bear colors that hark back to traditional domestic comforts, like creamy tomato soup ("Miss Bisque") and hot chocolate ("Swiss Mystic").

Nagle's Smoove Wares take off from sturdy cups, slick cars, the reductive elegance of Brancusi and who knows what else. Their chief thrill comes through pungent combinations of color: neon orange with grape; sea green and wine; gunmetal gray and hot tangerine.

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