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Now aping the art world

Video game images are the inspiration for something more serious. Or is it?

November 24, 2005|Scott Sandell | Times Staff Writer

THE opening of the show "Into the Pixel" was like many a night in the downtown L.A. gallery scene: The cognoscenti wore black clothes and angular eyewear, and they engaged in a good deal of chin-stroking while, in the background, a DJ spun tracks. But the setting was the L.A. Convention Center, during the huge E3 convention in May. The works were unveiled by young women in slinky dresses -- E3 is, after all, renowned as much for its "booth babes" as for its cutting-edge look at video gaming. And the 16 pieces being regarded for their use of light, composition and color were mostly images taken from new games.

Judges from not only the industry but also the art world -- including curators from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Getty Center, and gallery owner Billy Shire -- had selected the works from 140 submissions. The winners included portraits such as Marcos Domenech's icy "Hacka the Hunter" from Killzone and landscapes such as Mathie Raynault's "Babylon Panorama" from Prince of Persia 3, which Shire described this week as "kind of Bruegel-esque."

And yet, Shire has a caveat. "I don't see this fitting into the realm of fine art," says the champion of the lowbrow at his La Luz de Jesus gallery in Los Feliz. "It's a fine line ... and the lines are blurring so much these days, but it's not there yet."

The world of video game art is growing along with the industry. And even if the art establishment isn't quite ready to hang on its walls a landscape luminously rendered in PlayStation 2 software, art that tweaks or comments on video games is landing in traditional venues. The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art have all hosted shows examining the influence of video games.

This summer, the Orange County Museum of Art's Orange Lounge presented Venezuelan-born Yucef Merhi's short poems, displayed on Atari 2600 systems from the 1970s and changeable at the touch of a joystick. ("Atari Poetry IV" from 2004, is in the museum's permanent collection.)

"Video games are an indicator of pop culture, and one of the great things about them is that so many aspects of real life can be played out on them," says Irene Hofmann, OCMA's curator of contemporary art. "And they make for artworks that people can play."

Merhi's work typifies much game-based art being shown, in that it reflects the roots of gaming of the 1970s and '80s rather than the super-slick digital worlds of today's titles. The colorful imagery and characters of gaming's early era are ripe for artistic interpretation, adds Jon Gibson, curator of "I Am 8-Bit," at Gallery Nineteen Eighty-Eight on Melrose Avenue this past spring.

"These games were our baby-sitters, our friends," says Gibson, 23. "They evoked emotion from you, they gave you happiness."

"8-Bit" presented about 140 works by 100 artists, each riffing on classic games. Greg Simkins' acrylic on canvas depicts Pac-Man as an ailing old man; Daniel Peacock's acrylic and oil portrays Mario brown-bagging it.

"I've always been fascinated by the culture of games," says Gibson, who has a book about the show coming out in April and is planning a new "8-Bit" exhibition then. "And part of the reason for doing the show was trying to get respect for video games as art."

The quest for respect is an overarching theme for art connected with video games, even as it finds its way into large exhibitions. OCMA's Hofmann points to works such as Marco Brambilla's "Half-Life" installation, which juxtaposes snippets from the online game Counter Strike with video close-ups of Garden Grove youths playing it. (The piece appeared at the museum's California Biennial last year.)

Or to Brooklyn-based Cory Arcangel, who hacks Commodore 64 and Nintendo Entertainment System games. (His "Super Mario Clouds v2k3" was part of last year's Whitney Biennial in New York. The 2003 piece shows nothing but the blue sky and fluffy clouds from Super Mario Bros., projected on screens.)

Yet Hofmann says, "I think the acceptance of the newest new media is still very far off. It comes with a lot of challenges.

"But then," she adds, "the intended audience is not necessarily the museum visitor. It's a much more global audience."

THE "is it or isn't it art?" debate can even be taken to games as a whole. In the new book "Video Game Art," author Nic Kelman argues that games have made the leap from entertainment to art the same way cinema has -- with intricate plots, highly developed fictional worlds and complex characters.

Short of that, some observers say video game-derived art must strive for new levels of sophistication for it to be a true creative endeavor.

"It needs to have more of an original element; it needs to be more than 8-bit stuff," says Eric Nakamura, founder of the Giant Robot hipster art outlets. "It's going to take someone who is really committed to this as their career, not just as a commercial project."

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