Friday, November 22, 2013

The Shimmering Tree at Tacoma Art Museum

The Weekly Volcano, Nov. 21, 2013

Jennifer Steinkamp, Mike Kelley, 2007-12. Digital video projection, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist. 
The show is called Shimmering Tree: A Projection by Jennifer Steinkamp. The single work in the show is a digital projection called “Mike Kelly,” named after Steinkamp’s teacher. It is, indeed, a tree that shimmers — a projected image on the back wall of the largest gallery in Tacoma Art Museum. The bare limbs of the tree are white and brilliant in their intensity. They sway rhythmically side to side and possess an illusion of depth that sucks the viewer in. Sit on the single bench or stand in the open space of the gallery and watch it, and suddenly hot pink buds appear, and then the color of the leaves changes to a glowing chartreuse. Watching it can be a magical experience. You don’t just look at a Steinkamp projection, you let it wash over you and seep into your consciousness as you would with a James Turrell installation or the Rothko Chapel in Houston.

Since about 1989 she has installed (by my count of works on her website at some 25 digital projections in museums and public and private buildings all over the world. That is about one every year. Some are projected on walls, some on ceilings, some indoors and some outdoors. And they are all mystical and breathtaking even though some of them look like high-tech billboards or 1960s psychedelic light shows. Her installation at TAM is simple and beautiful.

Steinkamp says other artists who have influenced her are Turrell, Dutch painters, and Jackson Pollock. She begins planning each piece by visiting the site where it is going to be installed. She researches the context and history of the place and then creates a three-dimensional model to see how the projection will look. She describes the actual creation of the images as a combination of painting, sculpture and photography using computer paint programs and LED lights.

Her earlier works were always abstract. Beginning in 2003 she introduced images of trees and flowers and butterflies. The butterflies seem to flutter and hover in space; the flowers often cascade down walls like waterfalls. Trees shimmer and sway. Her first tree and the piece she says set her on a new course was a projection for the 8th Istanbul Biennial in 2003 in the Basilica Cistern, the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns that lie beneath the city of Istanbul, Turkey. In the space there are two pillars with heads of Medusa on their bases. She researched Medusa and the thought “popped into my mind” that the snakes winding through her hair were like tree limbs.

Similarities between the projection in Istanbul and the one at TAM are striking. The projection will be on view until Jan. 26, 2014.

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