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Jennifer Steinkamp

The Garden in her Machine

January 28, 2007|Gendy Alimurung | Gendy Alimurung is a freelance writer and an editor at the LA Weekly.

Jennifer Steinkamp works on a wobbly table in a small garage-turned-studio in Mar Vista. She works for hours at multiple computers and monitors, coaxing ravishing imagery out of the software: Maya, Director, After Effects, Photoshop. No music to liven the time, just the hum of the CPU and her old, arthritic dog, Cariesta, snoring on the floor beside her. There is a kind of monastic regularity to her life these days, broken by occasional glamorous trips to install her art in far-flung places across the globe--London, Taipei, Madrid, Basel, Istanbul, New York.

Her neighbors call her "that weird artist." At night she projects enchanted electronic trees that whirl like dervishes onto the wall of their garage. Then there are two gardens in the backyard. The scrubby real one, and the one that grows from a place infinitely more perfect and difficult.

There is a stillness to steinkamp, a reserve tempered by a wary curiosity, as if she's figuring you out. Tall, robust and earthy, even a little awkward, she pads around her house in faded black socks and a rumpled all-weather jacket when it's cold instead of turning on the heat. Some have called her serious and soft-spoken, and certainly there's that too, as well as a keen intelligence. But it's strength, mostly, that you come away with. That and a nice, sick sense of humor.

There is a painting of sharks, for instance, just inside her front door. Step in, turn right and bam, a frenzy of shark heads and ocean waves and bloody human legs and torsos being chomped and tossed. Even though the sharks have funny, dazed expressions and the water is rendered in pastel washes, Steinkamp suspects that the placement of the painting is probably bad feng shui for her love life as a single 48-year-old woman.

Then there are the cannibals. During World War I, Steinkamp's great-uncle was lost at sea and nearly eaten by his fellow sailors. For 13 days he drifted. He drank sea water, went crazy and thought he had a nail stuck in his head. But he was lucky. It wasn't until after he was dead and chucked overboard that his buddies started in earnest on the cannibalism. Out of this story came Steinkamp's 2004 piece "The Wreck of the Dumaru." A giant red wave, taller than a man, sweeps across the gallery walls, as if you are at sea level, as if the water is suffused with blood. Back and forth goes the wave, like water slopping in a bathtub. Beyond it, a sky of blue. But it isn't simply sky--it's water made to look like sky. Even viewing it on a small screen, you can be swept away by the piece--its visceral, saturated color, the queasifying physics of its impossible motion.

Artists, Steinkamp says one evening, are by nature ruthlessly competitive. She is driving to collector Blake Byrne's house to check on "Jimmy Carter" (2002), one of her most significant pieces, which Byrne has installed on a wall overlooking his swimming pool. She'd argued with someone the other day over the trajectory of her career. "They said it was like this"--she makes an up-and-down motion with her hand, like a seismograph needle in the middle of an earthquake. "But I said it was more like this"--she makes a smooth, swooping motion. Before making the jump into fine art, Steinkamp did special effects work. She made commercials with animated Cheerios and dancing Skittles. She digitized images of Princess Diana and Madonna to look as if they were being flushed down a toilet.

Even after his donation of a record 123 works to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Byrne's place is packed with all kinds of stunning, important art. A Murakami here, a Rauschenberg there. But still, the first thing that hits you is the view: nearly 180 degrees of city skyline stained deep orange by sunlight filtered through smog. "Can we turn off the sunset, please?" Steinkamp gestures grandly at the floor-to-ceiling windows. "It's competing with my piece."

The guts of her piece are housed partly in the kitchen pantry, partly in the guest bathroom. Wires snake out through the roof, across the hallway, into a pair of computers tucked away behind the spice rack--basil, oregano and a 2.8-gigahertz PC with 1 gig of RAM.

"Jimmy Carter," a homage to a world leader who opted for peace over war, features floor-to-ceiling garlands of flowers that sway as if caught in an invisible wind: clovers, dahlias, dandelions, roses, sunflowers, in yellow, pink, pale green, fire red, magenta, purple and white. "I need to calibrate the colors," Steinkamp says in a frowning sort of way, then fusses with the projector suspended over the commode. The colors shift imperceptibly. "Much better." The wall of flowers casts glittering reflections in the pool. Every now and then, some of the petals twitch crazily. At night, with the real wind blowing and the real trees rustling, it's as if you're in a dream where everything is both brighter and darker than it should be.

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