Art Review: Artists appeal to the senses through digital works

Saturday, February 07, 2004

By Mary Thomas, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

To allure, according to Webster, is "to tempt with something desirable; attract; entice; fascinate." That's a good description of what the art does in the aptly titled exhibition "Allure Electronica" at Wood Street Galleries.

The digital works by six artists -- all New Yorkers and women -- are classy, smart, creative and provocative. But "unabashed sensibility" is the characteristic that exhibiting artist Claudia Hart would like to emphasize.

Hart noticed that the art being brought to meetings of a "loose amalgamation of women working with technology" was "sensual, beautiful, [addressing] issues about the body, emotion, sexuality. I saw that as consistent." It started her thinking about the influence gender might have upon digital expression.

"Guys are obsessed with hardware. Women are obsessed with the software, meaning the content," Hart says. "You can find men who [employ sensibility], and they get tremendously successful. But the women don't. People like beauty. When guys do it, they become Bill Viola."

Hart, you may recall, was the creator (along with the Swinepearls) of the cheeky gender commentary "Playworld.02," part of the 2001 Wood Street exhibition "Interactive Domains." She discussed her observations with Murray Horne, Wood Street curator, which led to this exhibition.

Andrea Ackerman's "Rose Breathing" exemplifies these aesthetic concerns. This hypnotic vision in saturated rose-flamingo-pink is simultaneously infatuating and confrontational. Ackerman counts on the viewer's preconception of what constitutes a flower, and the intensified scale and color, along with the rhythmic movement of the petals as they spread out and then fold in upon themselves, play against such expectations to create tension.

A symbol of fairy tale and myth, of courtship and funerals, the pulsing bloom, alternately exposing and covering its reproductive center, also calls to mind the erotic interpretations of Georgia O'Keeffe's famed floral paintings, although Ackerman says she didn't have the latter in mind when creating "Rose." Rather, she hopes to discourage the "destructive notion" that other species are less significant than humans.

Ackerman was, until recently, a practicing psychiatrist, with a molecular biophysics degree from Yale and an M.D. from Harvard, and her thinking is often inspired by the likes of chaos and string theories.

There isn't space to do justice to the complexity of structure and association contained within Ackerman's work, or that of any of the other artists in this invigorating presentation. Suffice to say that each piece has a compelling richness that will reveal itself in proportion to the time spent with it.

Julia Heyward's interactive video "Miracles in Reverse: To Tell the Truth" will probably demand the most time, but it's worth it. The viewer confronts metaphysical questions about truth while traveling virtual space with "mother, Jesus or an alien" in a seemingly playful work that takes on a chilling cast after one realizes the dark childhood events that inspired it.

Hart exhibits large, digital prints featuring her virtual character "E" -- "the woman of the future, who can change her face and body to go with her wardrobe" -- wearing courtier clothing (including Andy Warhol paper dresses) and plunked within dreamscapes that critique modernist architecture.

Lillian Ball's combinations of video projection and mirrored glass are blatantly gorgeous, but titles like "Boiling Point" and "Floating Worlds" (a reference to the Japanese domain of courtesans and actors) imply emotional and critical components.

Nancy Dwyer and Kiki Seror use text in ways that are remarkably fresh and thought-provoking. It takes patience to decipher the messages within Seror's kaleidoscopically vivid designs. Dwyer's dramatic "Happy Birthday, Jon" is entrancing, the closest to projected sculpture I've seen, and her "Expect Delays," with its exacting animation and multiple connotation, is memorable.

The show may travel, which it should, as audiences deserve to see work of this quality. And we can hope to see more by these artists in the future.

"Allure" continues through March 6 at 601 Wood St., Downtown, above the T"station. Hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays and 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays. Admission is free. A fine catalog with color illustrations for each artwork, thoughtful essays and brief artist bios is $8. For information, call 412-471-5605.

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