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The Arts
July 5-11, 2006

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'Wreck of the Dumaru'

Wave Action: Jennifer Steinkamp's 'Wreck of the Dumaru'

Lighting Up The Rooms

Jennifer Steinkamp's computer animations fill galleries of San Jose Museum of Art with fields of color

By Michael S. Gant


A VISIT to the rooms of living light that Southern California computer artist Jennifer Steinkamp creates can be deceiving and disorienting. A quick glance at a piece like Rapunzel, and one might mistake it for an especially crystalline flower print blown up to wall size—a page from a modern herbal maybe.

But look longer, and this delicate tangle of straw flowers turns into a flowing, twisting kinetic mass of whipping blossoms. The piece, projected from across the gallery, is a computerized animation running on a brief cycle that refreshes every few minutes, although the motion of the scores of intertwined stems produces such a complex dance that you can't really pinpoint the repetition.

The survey of Steinkamp's remarkable digital-media concoctions now at the San Jose Museum of Art shows how the artist has been using software to breathe life into the pictorial—both abstract and figurative. The two-wall installation The Wreck of the Dumaru heaves and dips with so much visual fury that it might induce a physical reaction. Its perceptual impact is certainly enough to leave the distinct impression that the floors and walls are coming unmoored.

Over a background image that resembles an aviator's view of a trackless midocean expanse, great psychedelically colored waves surge and sink at the bobbing-eye level of a shipwrecked sailor. (The title refers to a sea disaster that took the life of the artist's great-uncle during World War I.) The effect of full immersion is heightened by the low placement of some of the projectors. Each viewer who interrupts the light beams casts a shadow that then becomes a silhouetted figure trapped within the tumbling, tossing waves. It's like being in the theme-park ride for Open Water.

Much more meditative is Jimmy Carter, a huge, double wall of projected botanical images. A variety of flowers undulate ceaselessly, both as individual blossoms and as whole, long vertical stems, as if they were colorful strands of blooming seaweed in a vast aquarium.

Seeing these columns of fruitful, swaying greenery imparts a transcendent sense of scale—the immensity of the universe can be experienced at any level of perspective. At the same time, there is something extremely comforting and domestic about the piece; Steinkamp has taken the idea of pattern painting and pushed it to its logical extreme: living wallpaper.

Nature takes a more severe turn in Eye Catching. A bare ruined choir of a spreading tree writhes and pulsates, its branches and twigs shuddering like an Ent straight out of Tolkien. Eye Catching was originally created for an installation in Istanbul in a cistern next to a pair of sculpted Medusa heads, which suggested a connection between the mythological snake tendrils and the leaf-stripped nerve ends of the tree. The animation replicates what a time-lapse movie of a wind-whipped tree in winter might look like—a creature of endurance and delicacy at the same time.

The TV Room is a comment on abstract painting. In the foreground, three horizontal screens show a continuous motion of colorful stripes heading left and right. The flow of color starts to coagulate into bubbles of pigment as the rivulets reach the limits of the wall. Between the screens, on a distant back wall, vertical cascades of colored light flow downward—the pixilated equivalents of Morris Louis' drip paintings.

Steinkamp's animations are fascinating meta-art exercises. They provide all the sensual delight of paintings combined with the ephemeral frisson of installation art. You can contemplate them for hours, but they aren't commodifiable art objects; they are customized—and infinitely reproducible—software programs. They are the soul in the computer.

The exhibit, which features an excellent catalog by SJMA senior curator JoAnne Northrup covering Steinkamp's extensive career, is one more step toward the August onslaught of the ZeroOne Festival.


Jennifer Steinkamp runs through Oct. 1 at the San Jose Museum of Art, 110 S. Market St., San Jose.


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