Robert Wilson's still lives in motion (barely)
Theater legend Robert Wilson's new exhibit at the University of Iowa aims to pioneer a new breed of plasma portraiture.
Iowa City, Iowa
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For Robert Wilson, the answer is a fresh way of looking at art, and at the big, busy, brash modern world outside.
The Museum of Art at the University of Iowa has assembled a collection of Wilson's work – likenesses ranging from celebrities to poets, from authors to dancers and ordinary people (and animals). The portraits, shot in high-definition video, mount vertically on large plasma monitors, installed in collaboration with VOOM HD Networks, a corporation based in New York. A few hang in the Legion Arts building up the road, in Cedar Rapids. (Both exhibits run through March 30.)
But these are not your typical Renaissance portraits. They move. Not by much: there are blinking eyes, mouths chewing gum, and wind-blown dresses. The familiar figures become a bit unfamiliar and, in some cases, outright strange.
Stepping away from the paint and canvas of the traditional artist, Wilson uses the high-definition canvas of the 21st century. If the portrait painters of the past invited a quiet gaze to map the intricate detail of such still lifes, Wilson has created a new kind of portraiture.
Museum director Howard Collinson says that Wilson's VOOM work is an "amalgam of theatre and the visual arts, and that's what makes his work unique. Each piece can be seen as a small production."
"It's definitely the art of the next century," says Mimi Getachew, a graduate student at the University of Iowa. "When we think of artists we think of old paintings... . Things that are untouchable. This is art for our time. [Wilson] created it during my generation, and during my generation I got to experience it."
Johnny Depp stands before a bright pink wall, wearing a hat with a fur delicately wrapped around his shoulders and face as he stares back at the viewer, occasionally chewing gum. We simultaneously hear the barking of a dog, a ringing phone, a violin, and Wilson speaking lines from T.S. Elliot.
Brad Pitt, in his underwear, stands in blue light in front of a brick wall as falling rain washes over him. The rain stops, and Pitt slowly raises a water gun, and shoots it toward the camera. We hear his voice chanting, "Ready or not, here I come."
"The reason I work as an artist is to ask questions," Wilson says. "That is to say, What is it? And not to say what something is. For if we know what it is that we're doing there's no reason to do it."