Tuning in to video as an art medium

ALTHOUGH the Walker Art Center here is featuring 37 television sets, you won't see Bill Cosby, commercials, or MTV. The exhibition - ``Viewpoints,'' the museum's largest video art installation since the mid-1970s - brings together two large-scale works: ``Ohio at Giverny,'' by Mary Lucier, and ``Chartres Bleu,'' by Paul Kos.

In the broadest sense, video art can be defined as art employing television. The TV monitor may serve as an informational or visual medium, or as a sculptural form or source of light. For the most part, video is just coming into its own as an art medium.

``There's a need to bring people into regarding video in the same way they regard art in general, ... something that is pleasurable, engaging; something that will teach you something,'' says Bruce Jenkins, director of the Walker's film and video programs. Mr. Jenkins adds say that this is a difficult task because the video art tradition goes back only two decades, while painting and sculpture traditions go back many centuries.

But what's unusual about ``Viewpoints'' is that artists Lucier and Kos take relatively traditional approaches to presenting art through the video medium.

In 1982, Lucier, who had been working in video art for 10 years, was unexpectedly inspired by ``Monet's Years at Giverny,'' an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. She especially took to his later works, which show an ``evolution of light and color into intense abstraction. ... The thing that interested me most was that he claimed to work outdoors facing the sun,'' says Lucier, who often uses the same technique with video. What resulted was ``Ohio at Giverny,'' completed in 1983 for the Whitney Museum of American Art, which now owns the piece. The installation takes form with seven monitors, graduated in size, recessed into a concave wall and arranged in an arc. Accompanied by synthesized sound effects by Earl Howard (church bells, trains, thunder), the work features two synchronous video channels on alternate screens.

During the 18-minute cycle, the viewer is taken on a journey through landscapes from Lucier's birthplace in rural Ohio to Giverny, where Monet painted his celebrated works.

The installation is largely about modes of analyzing perception, says Lucier. ``What I'm trying to do is to set up an analogy between the making of painting and the making of video, and that the common subject is light. ... I'm investigating that transition from the literal to the abstract....''

At about the same time Lucier was inspired by the Monet exhibit, sculptor Kos was inspired to create ``Chartres Bleu.''

Kos noticed that a lot of video pieces were starting to mimic MTV. ``Instead of artists choreographing the television industry ... the television industry was now choreographing what artists were doing,'' says Kos, who also works in performance art and originally used video for documentary purposes. ``I wanted to do a slow, meditative piece.''

Looking through a book on medieval cathedrals, he became interested in the fact that the proportions of the panes in a stained glass window could be matched by TV monitors. He decided to spend a week photographing panes at the cathedral in Chartres, France. Later Kos transferred his slides onto videotape and simulated the play of light on the window during an entire day.

The result is a life-size representation of the window, a ``sculpture'' composed of 27 monitors turned on their sides stacked 15 feet high. Kos condensed the pattern of light from the 24-hour period into a 12-minute video sequence.

Kos points out that the piece works the same as a medieval window - the light comes from behind and hits the surface of the glass with all the colors right on that surface. ``I'm interested in the same kind of awe that the window has,'' Kos says. ``When something works very very well visually - in an experiential way - it can't be described in words.''

Both ``Ohio to Giverny'' and ``Chartres Blue'' are about art, artmaking, and aesthetic experience, says Jenkins. ``I think both are a direct reaction against the high-tech, music/rock-and-roll motivated, single channel work - the main tendency of most people working with video, not necessarily video-artists. ``Most of the people working with video have gone in this other, very much pop-culture direction. These two artists are saying `no, there's a whole other dimension to video that is much more in keeping with the tradition to the fine arts.'''

``Viewpoints'' continues at the Walker until July 12.

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