An exhibition of videotapes -- some pluses, some minuses

Film has been with us for years, and we're used to its attempts -- from CinemaScope to Sensurround -- to stimulate us in new ways. Video is much newer and less certain of itself. To most people, in fact, "video" is just a fancy word for television. For a growing number of artists, though, videotape is a new and thrilling means of expression -- related to film, obviously, yet endowed with a versatility and intimacy that make it unique.

In recent years the Whitney Museum of American Art has emerged as a major showplace for video work -- a crucial development if, as Calvin Tompkins writes in the New Yorker, the Whitney Biennial Exhibition "is our nearest approach to an official salon." It's encouraging to see some of video's foremost artists finding real success in their latest experiments.

The 1981 biennial included a generous selection of video pieces comprising the best argument I've yet seen for video as a mature artistic medium. Indeed, if things continue in such positive directions, video may finally spill beyond the walls of museums and "access centers" to the home market that is now thriving on Hollywood movies and old TV shows transferred to tape or disc.

My feelings about video have been very mixed. Until recently it was a medium for tinkerers -- half the challenge was figuring out what to dom with that feisty flow of electrons. Some fine independent filmmakers (Ed Emshwiller and Jud Yalkut, for example) switched over to video, and their work promptly plummeted in value and appeal.

For them and others, the problem seems related to the enormous versatility of the medium. It's too easy to accomplish the most complicated effects, so form and discipline suffer. If there's a shred of self-indulgence lurking within a visual artist, video is guaranteed to bring it out.

At the last Whitney Biennial, in 1979, the video selections offered some indication that the medium might be growing up. At this year's exhibition, which recently concluded, those rays of hope brightened considerably. Several wonderful works were on view, and even some of the failures pointed out promising new directions. It's also noteworthy that some of the pieces were not confined to the territory of a single screen, but reached out to envelop the viewer in an environment of their own making.

One such work was "Arkansas" by Frank Gillette. Six videotapes, made in various Arkansas locations, are screened simultaneously on monitors placed around the room. On the wall hang complementary assemblages of delicately hued Polaroid photos. And the spectator is free to wander within this setting. Viewed one way, it's takes a lot of trouble and technology to bring a little ersatz nature into our lives. Seen the other way 'round, however, it's a remarkably gentle and humane way of using the complex mechanisms of video. The artist's sensitive approach to color, and the whole sense of patience that pervades the piece, argue for the most positive attitude toward this winning work.

Less direct is "In Real Time," a "live" work by Buky Schwartz. Video cameras are aimed at museum visitors, who become part of the piece while they watch it on strategically located screens. Time is indeed "real" here, while space is subtly distorted through tricks of perspective and small alterations to the monitors that are part of the environment. It's a clever piece, and a sure hit with audiences, who seem delighted to enter this avantgarde TV show.

The Whitney exhibition also included a series of "single channel" videotapes, seen on individual monitors in the usual fashion. One of the most stunning was "After Montgolfiere" by Davidson Gigliotti, shot from aloft in a hot-air balloon. The beginning is the most exhilarating moment of video I've ever seen -- green shapes cascading across the screen, suddenly revealed as trees when the balloon explosively rushes from the ground toward the open air.

More meditative, and even more lovely, was "Chott el-Djerd," a "study in light and heat" by Bill Viola, shot in locations ranging from the American Midwest to the Sahara and featuring some of the most lyrical mirages ever captured on film or tape.

In "Olympic Fragments" veteran video artists John Sanborn and Kit Fitzgerald create a 10-minute tone poem from athletic events at the 1980 Winter Games. Nam June Paik, inventor of the video synthesizer, makes more frenzied use of similar materials in "Lake Placid 80." Other artists, including Shalom Gorewitz and Barbara Buckner, less effectively bring video trickery to bear on what might have been conventional images.

Meanwhile, Howard Fried -- who likes to document seemingly commonplace events --turns a bourgeois "bull session" into a sociopolitical statement, using subtle shifts in visual approach to underline subtle but revealing changes in the mundane "action" being recorded.

Some works were not so imaginative. "Double Identities," by Taka Iimura, seemed sophomoric with its "reflexive" study of the artist and his TV double image, alternately crooning "I am Taka Iimura" and "I am not Taka Iimura." Some tapes relied on mere flashiness, or on dull juxtapositions of unexpected images. And I'm still brooding over "Zukofsky's Bow," 36 minutes of empty screen interrupted by the tip of a violinist's bow as he saws away at an unseen instrument. We don't even get to hear the music!

In all, though, the Whitney selections gave heartening evidence of a new and adult stage for the art of video. It's also noteworthy that in some experimental areas, video and film seem to be sharing similar concerns these days. Certain of the Whitney film events, for example, showed their own impatience with the confines of a single screen: In "Episodic Generation" the virtuosic Paul Sharits made a huge "movie painting" by aiming four projectors at a wall, and a pair of Benni Efrat works combined film with sculpture by including a p rojected image as part of a three-dimensional construct.

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