- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 23, 2008

Some of the shortest, most arresting movies in town are playing for free at the Hirshhorn Museum. The new exhibition, “Dreams,” turns the museum’s second floor into a Cineplex filled with 21 moving pictures. This mesmerizing, magical show of films, videos and digital art is the first installment of “The Cinema Effect,” a two-part project conceived by the Hirshhorn’s acting director and chief curator, Kerry Brougher, and his staff. It is set behind a glowing orange-red curtain — a video projection on a scrim by Scottish artist Douglas Gordon — within a maze of minitheaters so dark that you may want to bring a flashlight.

Movies have long influenced painters and photographers, and this show presents an updated view of their reach within the art world. The represented artists are inspired not only by Hollywood films, but by more recent developments in animation, video games and Web sites.

And yet, despite their embrace of digital advancements, many of these 21 creative talents uphold conventional ideas about beauty and visual language. Viewers who prefer the traditional fine arts will find much to enjoy in this show, with several works literally resembling paintings in motion.

“Niagara” by German-born Wolfgang Staehle, a large projection of the powerful waterfall, is what artist Frederic Edwin Church might have done with a camera instead of a brush in creating his 1857 painting of the falls. “Up and Away” by Michael Bell-Smith presents mountain ranges, forests and city skylines from video games as a continuous roll of scenery like a moving Japanese screen. “Exiles of the Shattered Star,” a scene of fireballs falling into a mountain lake by Canadian artist Kelly Richardson, is as sublime as a 19th-century landscape by German romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich.

At a gallery talk last week, Miss Richardson related how digital technology has made it much easier for artists to make moving pictures combining imaginary images and real places. “You used to have to rent expensive editing suites, and now you can edit on [Apple’s] IMac at home,” she said. For her piece in the exhibit, the artist created the flaming nuggets by electronically altering stock footage and superimposing it onto video shot in Britain’s Lake District.

The fixed viewpoint and repetitive imagery in her picture — all those fragments falling and falling without a narrative to tell us why or where — has a long tradition in artist-made films. The exhibit starts with Andy Warhol’s “Sleep,” a 1963 film of a man catching 40 winks that is almost as static as a photograph. It’s all about the beauty of the sleeper, a portrait akin to the artist’s silk-screens of celebrities. This early “reality” show paved the way for younger artists to experiment with film and video and appeal to a larger audience more comfortable with movies than esoteric contemporary art.

The exhibit’s “Dreams” theme doesn’t hold true for all the works, including some that expose us to the realities of cinematic presentation. Canadian artist Rodney Graham displays the bulky 1950s projector used to show his film of a pristine 1930s typewriter being buried in artificial snow. An ode to obsolescence, the piece taps into nostalgia for old movies with their fake landscapes and weather. Its stars are machines, recalling the industry-obsessed works by early 20th-century modernists.

British-born artist Anthony McCall similarly wants the viewer to see how his images are shaped. In his room-sized installation, a big cone of vaporous light is cast through the dark space onto a screen where lines move and converge to trace the changes in the projection. The combination suggests the beams of heavenly light in centuries-old religious art and the geometric abstractions of modern painting.

Other moving pictures are more overtly dreamlike in presenting the kind of surreal journeys most of us experience while sleeping. Stan Douglas’ sentimental “Overture” combines footage of a train trip through the Canadian Rockies and a recording of Marcel Proust’s writings about the state between dreaming and waking. Darren Almond takes us on a nightmarish ride through an amusement-park fun house. Bruce Connor splices together clips of old trains, farmland, clouds, flooding and other disjointed images to suggest the dreams of a pre-adolescent boy.

As videos, DVDs and Webcasts have proliferated in recent years, artists increasingly have incorporated recognizable cinematic imagery into their work to blur the boundaries between Hollywood and high art. Christoph Girardet lifts a scene from the movie classic “King Kong” to dissect and heighten the sexual gestures of a writhing, screaming Fay Wray. Czech-born Harun Farocki shows footage from documentaries and feature films to compare portrayals of real and imagined factory workers over decades. Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler relate a story about an 8-year-old girl and a backyard birthday party with all the suburban creepiness of a David Lynch movie.

Cartoons, comics and video games coalesce in Chiho Aoshima’s vibrant five-screen “City Glow.” It blends Peter Max’s psychedelic imagery with Disney animation in a blossoming tropical landscape populated by baby-faced skyscrapers, robots and goblins.

Humans get their close-ups, too. Among the more inventive creations are puppetlike video sculptures by Tony Oursler. A filmic ventriloquist, Mr. Oursler projects real talking heads (including musician David Bowie) onto the faces of his rag dolls. These hectoring, grimacing, groaning figures intrude into our space like Chucky from the horror film “Child’s Play.” They, like other works in the show, reveal how snippets of the real world can be amplified, exalted and made strange through cinematic techniques.

WHAT: “Dreams,” part one of “The Cinema Effect: Illusion, Reality, and the Moving Image”

WHERE: Hirshhorn Museum, Independence Avenue and Seventh Street Southwest

WHEN: Through May 11; daily, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

ADMISSION: Free

PHONE: 202/633-1000

WEB SITE: www.hirshhorn. si.edu


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