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Lost in the lights

October 23, 2009|David Pagel

Jennifer Steinkamp's five new pieces at ACME are so individually absorbing that a lot of time can go by before you notice the magnitude of her achievement. She almost single-handedly transforms the medium in which she works -- projected digital imagery -- from a one-at-a-time, one-after-another setup into an all-at-once immersion in a stimulating environment that leaves you with more freedom than you came in with.

I love it when that happens.

Here's how Steinkamp, who has been exhibiting projected imagery for more than 20 years, makes it work: She treats each of her meticulously engineered animations as if it were a painting.

Not because of what it's made of. There's no mistaking Steinkamp's gorgeously composed constellations of shining light as oils on canvas.

And not because of what it depicts. The swirling leaves, budding blossoms, undulating trees and jiggling squiggles in her pulsating pictures never pretend to be anything other than what they are: super-sophisticated computer animations.

Steinkamp's pieces instead function as paintings because of the ways they get visitors to interact with them.

One of the best things about paintings is that you can look at a roomful of them in any order whatsoever, skipping and jumping back and forth among as many or as few as quickly or as languorously as you like, for as long as you want and as intensely or as informally as it suits you.

One of the worst things about conventional video projections is that they don't play well with others. In general, each demands that you pay exclusive attention to it, from start to finish, before going on to the next one.

Steinkamp's floor-to-ceiling fields of dancing light throw their lot in with the every-which-way simultaneity of a roomful of paintings. In the first darkened gallery, four projections on each of the four walls make you feel as though you have stepped into a high-tech house of mirrors. It's fascinating, befuddling and inspiring to try to make sense of the rhythms, patterns and sequences that take shape between and among "Orbit #2," "Orbit #3," "Orbit #4" and "Orbit #5."

Sometimes symmetry happens, as parts of each of the approximately four-minute-long animations pair up with one another. At others, chaos reigns, especially when each of the four projections seems to be marching to its own beat.

What happens between these extremes is endlessly fascinating, particularly when standing in the first gallery and viewing the abstract projection "Sharpie #4" in an adjacent gallery. Time and space collapse and expand as you zero in on details, scan the rooms swiftly or sit back, space out and take in an overall view of the whole.

Every once in a while, serenity is thrilling.

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ACME, 6150 Wilshire Blvd., (323) 857-5942, through Nov. 14. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.acmelosangeles.com.

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Playing off a Tijuana groove

Josh Kun's smart exhibition in a small upstairs gallery at Steve Turner Contemporary focuses on two types of popular music made in Mexico and the United States in the 1960s. With great clarity, "Last Exit USA" demonstrates that culture is not a conventional commodity: Neither imported nor exported like ordinary goods and services, it instead grows out of back-and-forth exchanges that are far more fascinating than those accounted for in terms of trade deficits and surpluses.

Best of all, Kun's exhibition is a lot more fun than that sounds. There's plenty to look at, plenty to listen to and plenty to think about, all presented in an easy, see-for-yourself way that leaves visitors free to go at their own pace and make up their own minds.

Narrow shelves on each of the four walls display 44 album covers from the 1960s. Most have "Tijuana" in their titles. The imagery falls into three groups: women with come-hither eyes, bands dressed in mariachi costumes and barely road-worthy cars. Sombreros abound. Other cliches, such as tequila, banditos and burros, appear frequently.

All of the albums were made in the U.S. by big record companies. All followed hot on the heels of "The Lonely Bull," a 1962 hit record by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, which is also displayed.

Collectively, the albums created and cashed in on what became known as "the Tijuana Sound," a lively trumpet-and-marimba combo that played up standard south-of-the-border fantasies.

On two walls, two listening stations allow visitors to tune into 16 songs from the 1960s. The playlist features bands probably unfamiliar to contemporary listeners, including Los Dug Dug's, Los Rockin Devils, Los Tijuana Jet's and Javier Batiz and the Famous Finks. All were active in Tijuana in the '60s, playing and recording music inspired by such north-of the border rock 'n' rollers as Fats Domino and James Brown.

Listening to Kun's selections is like visiting a world both familiar and strange, a sort of parallel universe that is disorienting, eye-opening, exciting. Spanish and English intermix, as does slang and proper diction.

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